Hands On: Botanicula
Gargles and mouth trumpets
I've had my hands on a preview build of Amanita Design's Botanicula, a return to their origins of organic exploration, rather than Machinarium's more rigid adventure style. And I'm pleased to say it seems to be working so far.
A broad, beaming smile is not a facial expression games frequently paint over my face. Botanicula's endless inventiveness, delight in intricate throwaway details, and ludicrous levels of joie de vivre, make it impossible not to sit staring at the screen grinning like a loon.
Here you are in control of five little botanical creatures, who are wandering the branches of a large tree in an effort to thwart some extremely sinister shadowy spider-beasts, who are draining the life from everything they encounter. But because this is Amanita, it's not an arcade race to stop them, but rather a sedate and ridiculously gorgeous exploration, solving puzzles, rescuing other life, and listening to the organic music that bursts from every branch.
If you've played Samorost, you'll be familiar with Amanita's themes - organic design combined with organic exploration. If you haven't played Samorost, then what on EARTH is wrong with you. Go play it right now! But Samorost represents the Amanita of many years ago, and things have advanced a great deal. As an artist's work matures over time, so has the design and nature of this tiny Czech developer, with Machinarium perhaps representing a massive advance in confidence and a greater reliance on their own creations than resampling photography. Botanicula, the project of Jaromír Plachý, is so far presenting that confidence recombined with the earlier sensibilities, hand-drawn but much more fluid, more reliant on your delight in clicking all over the screen than by flagging the path.
The version I've played is only two-thirds of the main game, and I'm informed missing lots of "easter eggs" - the feature that so made Botanicula stand out for me at this stage. More of them! Okay! Because they are gorgeous. If your cursor turns into a hand, you click. You don't know if you're clicking to encourage the world to provide you a new clue or item to collect, or just to make something pretty happen, and it never matters. A tiny green insect comes to life after a click, and then with another gobbles up a nearby leaf, which causes him to become too fat to maintain his grip on the branch and he tumbles from view. Nearby twigs grow with each click until they bud into flowers, which attracts bee-likes, who musically "do do do" as they collect pollen, harmonising with each other. A group of frog-likes, when clicked upon, might burst into wonderfully animated song. And this is all enhanced by the reactions of your gang of five, who scuttle nervously, leaping in fear at any surprise.
The five come into play at various points, with tasks completed by only one of them - it's in your interests to guess the wrong ones first, so you can see the hilarity of their failures - giving purpose to controlling a collective rather than just a single character. As you progress you're tasked with gathering collections of objects, first feathers to help a vast insect fly away, second keys to unlock a peapod, and so on. These instructions are all wordlessly voiced (something that was problematic the first time, as it wasn't clear that the whited out shapes meant the objects were actually missing from your inventory, rather than just represented as being there), the closest the game gets to speech being the nonsense twitterings of various characters as they emphatically implore the severity of their need. Think Woodstock. And the whole environment is alive with chirping, buzzing and music.
A great deal of the game's sound effects are provided by human voices. Hums and las, gulps and growls, the creatures of the tree grumble and chirrup with musical voices. Gargles and mouth trumpets provide a great deal of the soundtrack, accompanied by guitars, percussion and all manner of strange noises, music that's a deviation from Amanita's usual scores by Tomáš Dvořák. This time it's Jan Kratochvíl and Bára Kratochílová, whose work strongly reminds me of one of my favourite bands, The Books.
So let's abandon any preview-based decorum here. It's a stunning game, even in its incomplete form I'd be happy to recommend everyone sell their grandmothers to play it. Another third longer and with many more things to click on - I might burst with happy.