I picked up Strange Horticulture almost a year ago, on the strength of the demo I played back in October of 2021 during one of many Steam NextFests. Originally, I had planned for it to be one of the last games I covered for the #JustOnePercent project, before I decided to stick to only games that actually released in 2021. So, in reality, I could have played this anytime over the last year! Thankfully, I decided to get back onto the Community Game Along train, and January is #PuzzleGameMonth, so it was a good excuse to stop putting it off and actually play the damn game.
You have inherited a botanist’s shop from your uncle, and the game dumps you right in the middle of a story in progress. Your customers will come to you asking for plants, sure, but they will also be dropping tons of news and gossip over you counter as well. However, none of the specimens in the shop are labeled, so you’ll need to closely examine the plants and compare them to the notations in your herbalism book to figure out how to fill customer requests. You’ll also have ample opportunities to explore the wider world to acquire even more plants for your shop. Some hints will come directly from your clients, but you’ll also get your share of instructions by mail to help you find every strange plant that can be found.
Although the plant-identifying puzzle makes up the meat of the gameplay, it’s not the only kind of puzzle Strange Horticulture has to offer. Make too many mistakes, and you’ll be tasked with a reassembly puzzle or a key matching puzzle. Sometimes, your directions for exploration are straightforward, but many of them require figuring out what that scrap of paper someone pressed into your hand could possibly mean.
In the early days, your book is fairly small. Completing orders or talking to people out in the world will often reward you with new pages. It is possible to – sort of – soft lock your progress if you get stuck on one of the map puzzles; more than once I had a customer come in and ask for a plant I didn’t yet have. Since there’s no way to refuse a customer order that I could find, you may need to either break your mind (which seems to restart the day, and open up the possibility of a different customer order) or water the plants you do have until you get enough Will to Explore to go out and try again. The hint button can be useful if you’re not sure if you already have a plant in your possession, but it certainly isn’t going to figure it out for you.
It took me just over four hours to play through and reach one of the possible endings. A not insignificant portion of that time was spent rearranging my plants in hopes of having a more logical order to things, which would quickly be undone by the discovery of new plants. When you pick up new plants, they’re tossed somewhere on your shelf, and with 77 plants to find, it doesn’t take long for any organizational system to fail. Thankfully, you are given the tools to label each plant as you figure out what it is, or if you prefer, there’s a setting to auto-label any plants you successfully identify. It’s an opt-in system though, which I am happy to report I discovered before I’d manually labeled more than half a dozen plants.
Once you reach an ending and get credits, the game isn’t quite over, however. No, one of your regulars comes in for a post-game opportunity to obtain any remaining plants and identify them all. It gives a nice bit of completion to the game, and I appreciated the opportunity to “officially” identify everything.
The only part of the game that – at least to me – felt a little half baked was the making of elixirs. The ability doesn’t unlock until about halfway through the game, and even once it does, you only have occasion (and the recipes) to do so a few times. It wasn’t that it felt out of place, so much, as sort of unfinished. However, it also really took nothing away from the game play experience to only have it matter a few times, so it’s a small gripe in an otherwise really solid game.
I’ve focused mostly on the game play, because it’s nearly impossible to talk about the story without spoilers. It’s dark, it’s gritty, and at times, it’s delightfully cryptic. Even the dialogue with the less important customers is interesting, and also? You can pet the cat pretty much whenever you like. There are a handful of times where you’re given a choice to make, and those choices do affect the endings you’re eligible to receive on that playthrough. Although there are several different ways for the game to end, I don’t see myself replaying this one anytime soon, but there’s definitely lots more to do if you’re a completionist.
Overall, I enjoyed Strange Horticulture a lot, and played the entire game over a single sitting. This was partially because I was so captivated, but also in part because I was worried that if I didn’t get back to it right away, I would be completely lost. Your mileage may vary on that one, but it was definitely a concern for me. Still, a four hour playtime isn’t unreasonable for a single sitting game, and what a fascinating sitting it turned out to be.