I’m ready to give up the trappings of modern life and set up a plant shop in some dark corner of rural England. Sure, I might have to deal with the odd cult, mushroom poisoning, or witch, but that all feels quite serene and manageable compared to the real world. You don’t even need to worry about balancing the books or aphids, you just collect and identify plants by their appearance and smell, help customers, pet your cat and solve the odd mystery.
Like Papers, Please you do it all from the comfort of a little desk, where you have a guide to plants to help with identification, labels so you don’t forget, and where your mail can be opened and scanned for important information. If you’re feeling adventurous there’s a map so you can go exploring to find new plants or meet someone with a shared love of leaves and information to impart. As the game goes on your might find a few other pieces of equipment too, like a small lab for creating elixirs, or a code wheel to make sense of strange clues that come your way.
There are no time limits or screaming customers if you make a mistake either. If you choose the wrong plant more than three times, you have a small mental breakdown which is – let’s face it – incredibly relatable. Instead of Xanax, you use mini-games – piecing together smashed pieces of a symbol or matching keys to locks – to restore yourself to relative stability. It’s one of the more satisfying ways a game can have to punish you for failure.
Of course, as British murder mysteries and fairytales have taught us, anyone who sets up shop in small-town is absolutely guaranteed to end up involved in a terrible crime and/or occult happenings, and the setting of Undermere is no different. Your customers soon start coming in with requests that go beyond flowers for a wedding or a cure for a stomach ache and instead start talking about a dark ritual, a strange creature called the Servant, a group called the Seeds of Redemption, and a coven called the Sisters. As the story unfolds you can start making choices about which plants to supply to particular customers. Give the woman plagued by visions something to enhance them, or to protect her from “afflictions of the mind?” Deal with that nasty customer with a plant that causes amnesia, or one that will drive him mad and then kill him? It turns out that there are perks to every career.
Leaf of faith
Between these choices and the strange clues you can follow to find more plants and information, Strange Horticulture starts to feel more like a detective game than another simple sim. Even if the plants are all fictional (or at least I think so, I can murder a house plant with a glace so I’m not exactly an expert) it’s amazing how researching and comparing and checking slowly turns you into a serious botanist. Clients might start to come in with only the vaguest information about the plant they need or call it by its Latin name, or just get it completely wrong. Even so, you’ll stare at the ever busier shelves of your shop, have a quick flick through your plant guide, and suddenly you know exactly what they need. Who knew staring at mushrooms could be so satisfying?
The biggest compliment I can pay the game is that even after I had “finished” the story, I kept playing to find more plants, and then started over fresh to see what would happen if I chose the cult over the coven. I still murdered that nasty customer though.
Strange Horticulture is out now on PC.