Strange Horticulture review: A game about running a plant shop
The plants in strange horticulture do all sorts of things: there’s one that can open anything that’s locked. Others can make someone brave, ease their pain, lure them to death, or protect them from the cold. Fox Button – scientific name Canimum vulpes – is a plant that symbolizes friendship, its fluffy flowers supported by a stem with pairs of shiny leaves. Harlequin blue, on the other hand, is often used as incense – an incense that howls as it burns.
These plants and more line the shelves of a small store tucked away in the dark streets of Undermere, a strange, rainy town on the edge of a forest and lake. In strange horticulture, I play as someone who has just inherited the titular plant shop after a family member dies. In this way, it’s a simulation of life, understanding life as a new trader, learning about plants and the community as the days go by.
Corn strange horticulture offers much more: A mysterious and occult story that unfolds around the very plants you sell, as well as clever puzzles that encompass everything from identifying plants to solving puzzles and reading a map.
strange horticulture unfolds slowly as each new customer is welcomed into the store. At the sound of a bell, a person approaches the counter, where a black cat named Hellebore is lounging. Not all customers are looking for plants; there is a character who simply delivers mail, for example. But when a customer has a request — say, for St. John’s poppy, which will improve their hearing — I have to identify that specific plant on my shelves by flipping through my reference book. Sometimes the customer knows the name of the plant, so I go back to this page to see what it looks like and carefully choose a plant based on the visuals alone. Elsewhere, customers only know the ailment they would like to cure, so I rummage through the pages to find a plant that will cure the ailment.
Everything is done very simply, looking for and throwing plants under a microscope to see them better. If I have identified the right factory, the customer is on his way. Otherwise, I add to a counter called “A Rising Dread”, which requires me to complete a puzzle before returning to my botanical pursuits. There are three-color labels that players can use to keep track of plant names, or use an entirely different method of organization, but it’s not required. My plant store, for example, was a chaotic mess; I ended up only labeling two plants, but organized my shelves in a way that would only make sense to me. The active sense of organization and the tactile sensation of finding and caring for plants can change with each individual actor; the way I played looks “right” to me, but recent live streams and YouTube videos suggest otherwise.
In addition to selling plants, I also work to discover completely new ones, which is where the map comes in. By following clues embedded in various letters (and gathered through conversations with clients), I explore squares on the map. Some clues require mysterious tools to solve, found in stuff lying around my desk whose contextual meaning I haven’t yet discovered.
John Donkin, half of developer Bad Viking, which he co-founded with his brother Ron Donkin, told Polygon he wanted these kinds of articles to give strange horticulture board game feel. John underlined sherlock holmes Detective consultant and dark haven as sources of inspiration.
“It comes from legacy games [like Gloomhaven], where you open the box and there are a lot of little boxes inside the box,” John said. “But you’re not allowed to open the little boxes, so you’re like, ‘What are they doing? ‘What is this envelope for?’
It’s this sense of mystery that kept me hooked throughout my game. These questions encouraged me to experiment with the assorted tools and visit uncharted areas of the map. It made me question some decisions, like if I should side with a clan of witches or a cult, or if I should treat the itchy rash of some asshole client, or make it worse. strange horticulture isn’t open-ended, but small decisions like these impact the story, with different branches to follow.
Gameplay remains largely consistent throughout strange horticulture, which took me about five hours. When it changes, it changes gradually – like when you unlock a lab to brew elixirs from different plants. When the story is over, strange horticulture always kept me coming back: new clues opened up the map, with a bunch of extra plants to find.
strange horticulture is, deservedly, an odd game, one of those simple premises that balances intrigue, sense of place, and puzzles in a satisfyingly tactile way. It’s so easy to immerse yourself in this world, to become obsessed with the litany of beautiful, exotic, and sometimes dangerous plants that line the walls of my shop. And it’s already one of my favorite games this year.
strange horticulture was released on January 28 on Windows PC. The game was reviewed on Windows PC using a download code provided by Iceberg Interactive. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find additional information on Polygon’s ethics policy here.