I immediately fell in love with Strange Horticulture when I played the demo, and now I've had a few hours with a longer, more polished preview build I am even more in loverer. I do not understand why this is not everyone's most anticipated game ever. Imagine if all the horrible shouting griefers playing war games put down their weapons and picked up a strange plant and a taxonomic tome. What a world that would be! Certainly a world with more plant shops, anyway, though probably not (m)any as strange as Strange Horticulture.
You inherit this shop, along with its secrets, a folding map of the area to go exploring, and shelves of odd plant specimins. Sometimes it is raining. It is a real October vibe. There is a strange mystery, involving cultist and murder - a stranger in a beautiful jade mask comes to the shop, sometimes, as well as the detective struggling to solve a number of troubling murders in the area. But what care I for that? I am deep role-playing as a horticulturist.
The preview build itself has had some improvements compared to the demo. Your hidden draw of knick-knacks is a little easier to organise, your tools for examining plants a little slicker and quicker to use. There's an option to automatically label plants once you've identified them. But it still rains, and your cat still looks up with annoyance when you ding the bell to call in the next customer.
In real life, I am not good at plants, which is why the ones I have include traits like "handles neglect well". But in this game, I am the expert that people come to for help. And it is so deliciously methodical, running Strange Horticulture. Someone will come forward and describe a problem. Then ask for a plant they've heard will help. You open your big book o' plants to find a description and sketch of it, and then peruse the rustling fellows on your shelf.
The longer I played, the deeper I sank into the role. I ran my mouse down the list of plant names in my book, as if carefully running my finger along the thick paper, to give the customer a show. "Mmm. Yes. I'm sure we can help you with that," I'd murmur, before turning to my shelves. At first I had my plants organised by colour, which I thought looked very nice:
But then, as I got a couple of requests for something I'd already identified, I changed to an alphabetical system for labelled plants:
"Ah yes, the Wandering Blue. That's a mushroom, of course. Mmyeees, the Ws are just this way..." Though of course, my customer would be afraid to follow, given how deeply odd both I and my shop are. And in time, and as I arranged and rearranged my colourful specimens, I got to recognise old friends like Lemon Dandy, Fox Button and St. John's Poppy just by sight.
Later, as you receive strange clues in dreams and follow them to find new and exciting plants in strange swampy locations in the area, I became increasingly suspicious. In between customers I would pore over the map with these clues - one that I enjoyed in particular was just a torn card with a pencilled X, as well as another that asked me to find the intersecting point between four locations - and would quickly return my papers and letters to my desk drawer as a new customer approached. I didn't want them to see what I had discovered, or the strange contraptions I was working on...
The ongoing mystery is intriguing, and near the end of the preview build it included a strange plant-based apocalytpic cult who solicited me to join them. But I am most in love with being a strange plant shopkeeper. Sometimes you must find a plant by comparing it to one you already know. Sometimes you must look carefully at the sketches and eliminate the wrong answer by comparing the waxiness of leaves or counting the number of petals. Sometimes you won't have found that particular plant yet, so you must explore! Running Strange Horticulture is a mystery in and of itself.
No auto-labelling for me, no: I will carefully catalogue all the plants you bring me. I will move pots around on shelves and inhale different scents. I will know which of these flowers is poisonous and which is the antidote. I want an endless shop mode where I sit in the shop, listening to the rain outside, and sell someone a Sunset Mountcap, explaining that it is sometimes called Stinking Mountcap, and pointing out the telltale flies that circle it. I never thought I'd say this, but: murder mystery be damned. The plants are fine, so what do I care?