"What [Botanicula] lacks in story and characters, it does its best to make up for in scenery and puzzle variety."
I'm always a little excited when I get a chance to play a new point and click adventure. There's something about the genre that not only intrigues me, but always puts a smile on my face too. If only I'd been born in the eighties instead of the nineties, right? Anyway, I digress. Botanicula is Amanita Design's newest entry in the genre, following their last outstanding title, Machinarium. Botanicula has some unique and entertaining delights to offer, but falls far short of its predecessor overall.
Like Machinarium, there is no dialogue at all in Botanicula. The story is told through a brief prologue and then through various interactions throughout the 3-4 hour game. To sum it up, an evil spider-like creature has attacked a massive tree, where all sorts of bizarre insects and animals live, and plans to slowly drain the life from it. The five (unnamed) insect heroes set out together to defeat this monstrosity and save their home. It's a cute little story, but character development is incredibly lacking. The five heroes don't develop at all in the course of their adventure and you won't feel any sort of empathy for them at all. This was a real missed opportunity on Amanita Design's part, and one that will surely disappoint.
To somewhat make up for it, the world of Botanicula is outstanding. The entire game takes place within a large tree (bar the finale), and the beautiful, stylistic design of the leaves, branches and creatures who inhabit it are magical. Those of you who have played Machinarium or Samorost will feel right at home in the beautiful aesthetics presented here. The design of the main five characters is a little bland and they fail to stand out from the other insects, but when you spend most of your time admiring the environment, that matters little.
It's unfortunate that the sound quality doesn't match that of the graphics. Sound effects are generally on the mark (most notably the sounds of buzzing insects), but they do feel a little dull at times. Likewise, the musical score feels significantly underwhelming and never really grabs your attention. There are certainly moments of grandeur, particularly near the end, but this quality isn't showcased throughout.
The game itself is a fairly typical point and click affair with a slight twist. Instead of your characters exploring the environment and interacting with things, you personally take control of the whole process with your mouse. Once the heroes enter a new screen they stay (in most cases) where they started unless you tell them to leave. On each screen it's up to you as the player to mouse over all the objects and determine what you can and cannot interact with. Some objects might need to be pulled, others twisted, and most just need to be clicked on a few times. It's an interesting mechanic, but it can leave you feeling confused. Many areas have dozens of objects to interact with, making it difficult to determine which ones are useful and how exactly to use them.
Once you figure that out, the puzzles are relatively well thought out. There are puzzles that cover nearly everything you can imagine from making strange owl-like bugs sing, uncovering hidden keys and navigating maze-like environments, to shooting circus performers from cannons, engaging in a 2D arcade-style shooting section and finding weird, featherless chicken-things hidden amongst a village. There's both great variety and very clever ideas here. Some items are picked up and added to your inventory for later use, but nowhere near as frequently as most games in the genre. It's generally about interacting with whatever is in your immediate vicinity.
Personally, I had a great time finding those chickens. Late in the game you enter a village that is attempting to escape the spider. To power their flying machine they need thirteen chickens to run on hamster-wheel-like devices. To locate them all you need to scour everyone's homes and steal, negotiate or win the chickens over. There's a Frankenstein-like monster to resurrect, a shaman to satisfy, a room full of clutter to scour and even a tennis game to win. You'll certainly have a smile on your face at the end. Even better, all puzzles are just the right difficulty. You'll undoubtedly be stumped from time to time, but it's never frustrating and there's always a way to work things out in the end.
If anything in the gameplay sphere feels lacking, it comes back to the characters. A few puzzles in the game make use of their unique abilities, but far too few. One character, for example, can fly, while another (a stick insect) can stretch himself to reach objects. When these abilities are taken advantage of in challenges, it's great! Unfortunately, they occur far too infrequently, making for a missed opportunity for additional unique puzzles.
Though Botanicula does feel like a flash game at times, this also works to its advantage. The system requirements are very low, the game starts up instantly, and there are no loading screens to speak of. The game is controlled entirely by the mouse and this generally works incredibly well. If anything, I couldn't help but feel the game would be more at home with the motion-control technology of the Wii. I won't hold that against it, mind you!
All-in-all, Botanicula is a competent adventure game. What it lacks in story and characters, it does its best to make up for in scenery and puzzle variety. It may be rather short, but it's still an enjoyable experience I recommend to adventure gamers looking for something a little different. If point and click adventures are not usually your thing, or you're only interested in this because of your experience with Machinarium, then I'd definitely advise you to at least wait for a Steam sale.