Strange Horticulture review
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Strange Horticulture review

Our Review by Campbell Bird on May 9th, 2024
Rating: starstarstarstarblankstar :: PAGE TURNER
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This game pulls out all the stops to make a game that is essentially about research and plant identification a compelling adventure.

Developer: Bad Viking

Price: $4.99
Version: 1.0.13
App Reviewed on: iPad Pro

Graphics/Sound Rating: starstarstarstarblankstar
User Interface Rating: starstarstarhalfstarblankstar
Gameplay Rating: starstarstarstarhalfstar
Replay Value Rating: starstarstarhalfstarblankstar

Overall Rating: starstarstarstarblankstar

Even though I don't love the term I'm about to use all that much, Strange Horticulture is most easily described as a "cozy game," albeit with some eldritch horror vibes. You play as the proprietor of a rare plant store, and much of your inventory has special properties that your clientele seeks out to achieve their own ends. But Strange Horticulture declines to simply be a management game about collecting and identifying plants, which adds to its allure and makes it a compelling experience.

Sifting through secrets

The structure of Strange Horticulture is fairly predictable. Each day, a procession of clients enter your store and you learn about their lives and what they are seeking and use that to try and provide a plant that will aid them. With a setup like this, you might expect a game where you're balancing expenses, buying upgrades, etc. to grow your business, but none of that is in this game.

Instead, you go on foraging adventures directed by cryptic clues, page through manuscripts to identify your inventory, and brew elixirs based on half-remembered recipes, among other things, all in an effort to advance and direct a story caught up in ancient rituals and otherworldly evil. This all takes place within the confines of your shop and your interactions are tied to shuffling through papers on your desk as rain patters against the window and the shop cat rests on your counter.

Patient puzzling

Though it's not entirely clear when the game starts, all of your interactions in Strange Horticulture are connected and lead to a larger overall story. To advance some parts of this story in specific ways, you may need to have successfully used clues to gather the right plants when the time comes or have opted to give people plants they may not have actually been asking for. At times, the excercise of solving these clues can be tedious and involve some amount of trial and error, but thankfully none of it is so obtuse that you won't be able to recognize that something needs to be done.

It's also an incredibly smart move by the developers of the game to make its clue-solving and foraging gameplay untethered from the days that the game is broken up into. On any given day in the shop, you can opt to explore the map to look for plants as many times as you want, with the only barrier being a sort of travel meter that takes time to refill and can be replenished more quickly by serving customers or watering your plants.

Digging up dirt

Strange Horticulture has multiple endings and--upon reaching one of them--has some more game to offer around identifying plants that went unidentified in your playthrough. It's a nice addition, especially since additional new playthroughs will likely remove a lot of mystery around the plants and clue-solving, but removed from the context of the larger story it isn't nearly as satisfying.

The only real sore spot of Strange Horticulture is some of its user interface. I appreciate the game's commitment to having players organize actual pieces of paper, but in doing so you can come across readability issues that work much better in theory than in practice. For instance, there's a zoom feature that is very flexible and lets you read even the smallest text rather easily, but it doesn't always play that nice when certain objects are stacked on top of each other or if it doesn't get fully zoomed out.

The bottom line

There are a lot of novel and extremely clever ideas in Strange Horticulture, but by the time I finished with the game I was truly tired of its gameplay. I'm sure the issues with the game's UI had a lot to do with this, but even when things are working as they should, there's just a lot of procedural referencing and looking up that can get sloggy after a while. I'm sure another game like this could come around and find some success, but I don't think I'd be ready to play a game like Strange Horticulture again for a good long time.

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