Game Over – Strange Horticulture (#PuzzleGameMonth)

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.

Making too many errors will force you into a different type of puzzle. I got two different ones during my playthrough, but it’s entirely possible there are more types I didn’t see.

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.

Game Over – Palindrome Syndrome (#PuzzleGameMonth)

For someone who has literally thousands of unplayed games in her library, I find I still am concerned about the longevity and/or the replay value of games when I’m shopping. So although I enjoy escape-room style puzzle games, I rarely buy them outside of bundles because I feel like more than most genres, these are one-and-done kind of games, and they’re usually fairly short as well. When a triple pack of escape room games from mc2games showed up in Fantatical’s Holiday Diamond pick-your-own bundle alongside a couple of other titles I’d been meaning to pick up, I figured getting three of these games for roughly $5 seemed like a good deal.

I’ve now played one of the three – Palindrome Syndrome – to completion, and although I enjoyed the game for what it was, I would have felt 100% ripped off if I’d bought it at its retail price of $10. I played on the Steam Deck over two sessions, and it took me just under two hours to complete the game. Calling the story of the game mediocre is probably a bit generous, but if you’re playing an escape room style puzzle game, you’re probably not in it for the story.

Full disclosure: I needed to look up hints twice during the game. Once to figure out what the puzzle was asking me to do, and the other because I was totally flummoxed. Both of these were in the last of the six game areas. Up until that point, I made steady, non-frustrating progress through the variety of puzzle types (although most are recycled a time or two throughout the game). The game does give you all the information you need to solve every puzzle it puts in front of you, however, sometimes, doing things out of order will leave you feeling like something was left out – just keep looking. It’s all there.

Instead, any frustration the game might have earned comes from design and user interface decisions. This was maybe made a little worse by playing on the Steam Deck, but it felt like the interactable areas were very small, and oddly placed. More than once, I only discovered something was interactable on my third or fourth lap around the room. I wouldn’t quite call it pixel-hunting, but the experience definitely could have been improved by increasing the size of the interactable areas. There are also a couple places where color is integral to solving a puzzle, and the color choices definitely could have been handled better – in one memorable place, there’s a purple and blue that look very similar, and in another, the clue is yellow, but the choice in the solution is much nearer to a green.

The other gripe I had was with the way notes were handled. Several times, you’ll pick up bits of written information that go into a notebook you can open to refer to them. However, you cannot open the notebook while actively attempting to solve a puzzle, so if you need to refer back to the information that the game has given you, you have to close out of the puzzle, open the notebook, find the correct document, and hope you remember everything when you get back to the solving part.

While I wouldn’t call Palindrome Syndrome a good adventure game, as a pure puzzler with some set decoration, it’s worth a playthrough, but certainly not at full price.

Nerd Girl Goals – January 2023

Finally, not just a new month, but an entire new year! As someone who doesn’t really do New Year’s Resolutions, it probably means even less than it might, but I’m still glad to be putting 2022 behind me. While it’d be more than a bit of hyperbole to say that it was – for me personally – the worst year ever, there was still a lot of things I’ll be glad to be able to say were so last year.


GAMING

World of Warcraft

Now that the new expansion thrill is mostly over, and I’m settling into a more reasonable cadence, I’m not entirely sure what’s next for me in World of Warcraft. My guild will be stepping into normal Vault of the Incarnates in a few days, but with only five hours of scheduled raiding in January, I’m hesitant to set much in the way of goals in relation to raiding. I still have professions – I mean, characters, of course – to level, but we’re probably still about 6 weeks out from any significant new content. On the other hand, I still have enough to poke at that I’m not quite ready to dive back into old content either.

To keep me at least a little on task, I think I’ll set my goals for two more characters to level 70 and Loremaster of the Dragon Isles on a second character.

Community Game-Along 2023

With no big gaming or blogging projects on the horizon, I’ve decided to jump back into the Community Game-Along for 2023, in no small part because there are only a handful of themes all year that take me outside of my comfort zone. The theme for January is #PuzzleGameMonth, and I thought I’d pick out a couple of puzzle games from my library to play around with.

The three games I was most drawn to on a first pass were Gorogoa, Palindrome Syndrome: Escape Room, and Strange Horticulture. Although I’m not 100% committed to these particular titles, I’d like to play at least two puzzle games during January as part of the Community Game-Along.

Other Gaming

I think January will probably be a little bit about figuring out how much I want to pre-plan, and how much space I need to leave myself to spend time doing whatever catches my fancy. Goal-setting helps me to keep from getting overwhelmed by decision paralysis, but setting too many goals just turns me into a rebellious teenager who will do just about anything to avoid working on the list I made for myself. It’s a balancing act, and I’ve found that treating my line items as suggestions rather than must-dos helps quite a bit.

That said, I prefer to have something on my content planning calendar, but without tying myself to a single game or group of games that I feel like I must play. So, to keep it sort of flexible without being too flexible (I swear, I’m impossible to please!), I think I’ll try out some repeatable categories.

For example, I’d like to continue participating in UnwiseOwl’s group review of the Humble Choice, as well as sitting down to play and write about something I purchased during the prior month. I have a terrible habit of getting spendy and then forgetting I own something right up until the point I try to to buy it again. I also would really like to start making a point to write about what I’m playing on co-op game night, although we don’t always change games frequently enough for this to be an every month sort of thing.

Otherwise, I’m sticking to a play-what-I-want, write-what-I-want policy for the time being.


OTHER NERDSTUFF

Reading

I’m fairly sure I want to repeat my goal from 2022 and go for 48 books again this year, in some combination of print & audio. That averages out to four books a month, which feels doable even when I’m not reading a whole lot, and then I get on a kick and I either get way ahead, or totally caught up in a week or two. It’s not enough to stress me out, but it’s highly unlikely I’ll be done by March. It just feels right. Which makes my shorter-term goal four books during January.

In the shortest term, I want to get back into the reading before bed habit, because I have gotten outrageously sloppy with my sleep hygiene over the past couple weeks.

Watching

This past year, I was super inconsistent with my media consumption when it comes to television and movies. Either the TV doesn’t even go on for weeks at a time, or I slip into the familiar comfort of perpetual re-watching. Doing Discord movies nights has helped somewhat, but I still find myself gravitating to old favorites and not trying anything new.

Although it’s not really my focus here, my goals are mostly for me anyway. So I’d like to get into the habit of one new-to-me movie and one new-to-me season, series or mini-series each month. I won’t force myself to sit through something I’m not enjoying, but like you do with small children and food, I at least have to try a couple bites.

Stitchcraft

I am 100% absolutely not ready to start the giant project I’ve been looking forward to for what feels like forever now, and it wouldn’t be terribly satisfying on a “couple hundred stitches every other week” schedule that I’ve been doing for awhile now. I’m in the middle of reworking my crafting desk, and once I’ve finished that, I want to figure out a schedule and / or a goal around number of stitches or completion percentage or something that will motivate me. I have no idea yet what that’s going to look like, but the unfinished projects are just making me feel awful, especially since they were all intended to be gifts for dates that have long since passed.

In fact, I think it’s not a problem so much with the hobby itself, but with larger struggles I’m having around time management in general lately. Unfortunately, I’m never sure which of my polar opposite approaches to this problem is going to be more effective. Sometimes it’s more rigid scheduling and goal-setting. Sometimes, it’s going completely hands off for a few weeks, doing whatever strikes my fancy until I get annoyed with that level of freedom. All I do know is that this tends to happen almost every year around the holidays, and I should have most of the kinks worked out of it all by the middle of the month. I hope.


IN SUMMARY

  • Make at least 10 blog posts during January.
  • Play and write about two games for #PuzzleGameMonth.
  • Get at least two more characters to level 70 in World of Warcraft.
  • Get the Loremaster of the Dragon Isles on at least one of my alts in World of Warcraft.
  • Participate in the group Humble Choice review.
  • Play and write about at least one game I bought during December.
  • Make a post about co-op game night.
  • Read at least four books.
  • Watch at least one new-to-me movie.
  • Watch at least one new-to-me season, series or mini-series.
  • Finish reorganizing my crafting area.
  • Do at least 2500 stitches on any current project or combination of current projects.