Something Strange is Afoot in Undermere
There’s been a murder. Something as malicious as it is ancient has awoken in the town of Undermere. With it, a shroud of dread and fear has slowly cast itself over the people of the town and it’s neighbouring villages, and castles. However, not everyone is shaking in their boots. To some, this presents an opportunity.
Eventually the investigators and sisterhood of witches need help. Skilled, knowledgeable, and resourceful, you are just the person for the job. Your area of expertise? Plants.
A Plant For Any Occasion
Strange Horticulture is a puzzle/mystery game from Bad Viking Games. In it you are the horticulturalist, previous heir, and current owner of the titular shop in Undermere. The townspeople have always come to Strange Horticulture for all their needs and ailments, from the mundane to the occult. Upset tummy? Come to SH for some Gandyroot. Need help with your satanic ritual? Solomon’s Sceptre should do the trick. Almost any and every problem can be solved here.
Thus, a big chunk of your day to day life is serving the needs of your customers. Even when you begin working alongside those investigating the deaths. Your help comes in the form of plants. Help a detective see better in the dark, or shield someone’s mind from psychic dangers. Your ever-growing collection becomes the town’s and its people’s most valuable asset.
A Day In The Life of a Horticulturist
Strange Horticulture hits the ground running. It drops you in after a short summary of the location, and the nature of the store you now find yourself the proprietor of. Save for that you’ve got little explanation of what you ought to be doing. You look around to see a neat desk in front of you. On it lies a couple of notes and letters cluing you in to some locations of interest you’ll want to check out. Pulling a handle to your right reveals a drawer holding a number of items you’ll find invaluable. From labels for your plants, to a map of Undermere and its surrounding areas.
A customer window nearby houses a cat named Hellebore (who you can pet as much as you like) and a bell. Your first customer tells you that she hears faint whispers at night, and needs to make out what she’s hearing. Consult your strange book of plants and find the one that will improve hearing (St. John’s Poppy in this case). Match its description/illustration to the actual plant, and send your customer on their merry way.
Already the darker nature of Undermere, the presence of the occult, and plants that grant some outlandish abilities become apparent. It’s a great way to set the tone of the game and give you your first taste of the gameplay loop. It’s a simple formula that’s done exceptionally well. Honestly, until you’ve identified and cataloged your final plant it remains a satisfying and engaging experience. I’ve personally never been so pleasantly surprised at enjoying something so seemingly mundane. However, by the end of your tenure as horticulturist, mundane is the last thing you’d describe the job as.
Speaking of which, I was surprised at how much I loved organizing the plants. I’d group them by visual characteristics, as if every group called the same biome their home. The practice was strangely satisfying, and helped me settle into my role as head honcho of SH. My one gripe though, was the lack of space. Sure, you could fit every plant on your shelves. However, things got cluttered a little too fast, blurring the lines between groups. This could make finding the plant I was looking for take just a little longer each time.
Gotta Find ’em All
Even though the loop of helping customers by identifying the appropriate plant can be satisfying in its own right. Strange Horticulture does make efforts to break up this loop, while still feeding into it. Which leads us to collecting plants. The primary way this is done is by exploring the lands that surround Undermere.
Each day David, the best mailman in town, comes around to deliver letters that serve the plot and lead you to the location of plants and other points of interest. Similarly, every night’s dreams (presumably) presents a slice of an allegory relating to the main plot, as well as a card that gives you a clue to find another plant. Neither Card, nor letter makes it overtly clear where the plants are. You often need to work it out through clues, following directions using the map, or make use of a decoder to help you uncover rare and unique flora.
Puzzles ‘n Lore
The puzzles struck the perfect balance of being vague enough for you to give it some thought, while being easy enough you wouldn’t need to spend hours meditating on the answer. Some may take a little longer than others, but figuring out the clues was a great time. You consult notes, your book of plants, and the map, sometimes using a magnifying glass. You could really imagine yourself hunched over a desk uncovering mysteries by candlelight, while occasionally petting your cat.
Every letter, tool, and customer adds to the lore of the world. It helps you uncover the mysteries of Undermere and the evil that threatens it, and there’s a great amount to discover. The fact that it all comes in bits and pieces with each interaction, dream, or delivery from David makes it so that lore is never overwhelming, or a slog to get through. It’s easily digestible and adds some variety and intrigue to the formula of: receive a customer, help a customer. Important customers also have bios for some extra lore and background of both themselves and the town. It’s also a friendly reminder of who’s who as the story develops and more people come for your help.
The Sights & Sounds of Undermere
One one hand, Strange Horticulture is nothing special, visually speaking. People, illustrations and items are forgettable in that regard. On the other hand, However, a good amount of effort and care has gone into the design of all 77 plants. There’s a great amount of visual variety and an apparent distinctness between them all. Thankfully this is where it shines, considering the importance of the greenery.
Something that may work on people’s nerves is the repetition of music. You’ll be hearing the same song for the entire duration. You’ll have a couple of sound effects to mix things up. But the same somber piano arrangement will be firing on all cylinders relentlessly. However, you’ll be happy to hear that it’s a pretty good piece of music. It fits the tone of the game perfectly and while it was a constant, I never really got tired of it. The sparse notes save it from being overbearing and, that’s really it’s saving grace.
By the end of it all. I was pleasantly surprised by Strange Horticulture. It sports an extremely satisfying loop of collecting, cataloging, and solving puzzles. I really think anyone would love this title.