Sophisticated puzzles truly satisfying

There is a great balance and consideration to the space: it doesn’t want to confuse the player,...
There is a great balance and consideration to the space: it doesn’t want to confuse the player, but it doesn’t want to hand them easy solutions, either. Photo: supplied
Balloon Studios/Whitethorn Games
PC, Xbox, Nintendo Switch

From the gatehouse, through the bright gardens and terrace, the winding orchard, the smoggy greenhouse, the warmth of the kitchen and smokehouse and beyond, Botany Manor unfolds like a labyrinth. This is our protagonist’s family home. She is the highly travelled and skilled botanist Arabella Greene, and we walk in her footsteps around the great house and grounds.

We know she is older — her walking sticks stand upright in the corners of rooms, there are plenty of chairs to rest on. We stumble upon letters from friends that drip with nostalgia for their shared youth, long gone. We never get too close to Arabella, but the game isn’t really about her: it is about the plants that she loves so much, and the manor itself.

Arabella’s quest is simple, but fulfilling it is a delightful challenge. She must complete a compendium of the rare and unusual specimens she has discovered during her adventures, intended for publication. The game is set in the stark patriarchal culture of 1890 against which backdrop Arabella’s success in her field holds great meaning — we are immediately rooting for her. (At one point we find a rejection letter from a university, on the grounds that Arabella is a woman whose place is in the home.) Filling this book with the details of rare and beautiful plants is the thin narrative thread that holds together the great set of puzzles that comprise the real makings of the game. The question players must answer is always: how do I make this weird plant grow?

As we lead Arabella through interconnected set pieces, we discover how to bring the plants to life. They need humidity, heat, cold, wind, bursts of light, sound and smoke. The soil needs to be treated. Each location in the manor offers a veiled solution to bringing each plant up out of their pot, but getting to that moment of bloom is quite challenging. We collect clues — sometimes scientific charts, sometimes nursery rhymes about the kind of trees that grow in a specific forest, sometimes in cookbooks or on the backs of postcards — that lead us to the correct formula.

There is much cross-referencing to be done, double checking posters on walls and notes sitting on tables — which means a great deal of traipsing back and forth across the manor in order to avoid mistakes. This never feels tiring though. The landscape of the game is colourful and well-lit. It is easy to feel a little lost, but never disoriented. There is nothing lurking in the shadows; Arabella is strangely alone, even as the fires roar and the kitchen burbles away. The manor isn’t cluttered or overdecorated, as it easily could have been. There is a great balance and consideration to the space: it doesn’t want to confuse the player, but it doesn’t want to hand them easy solutions, either. The atmosphere is bright and hopeful.

Botany Manor isn’t a long game, but it is immersive and relaxing. There are fantastic, upfront accessibility options for players who struggle with the motion sickness that can often come with first-person gameplay. There’s a classic feel to it: it has touches of Myst and The Witness, but none of their heaviness. The challenges are never too frustrating. It is a perfect two-night experience, a trip into a surprisingly sunny past, a story sprinkled with secrets that gently connect us to Arabella, but never weigh the player down. Though the story never lets us get too close to her, helping her to complete these measured, sophisticated puzzles is truly satisfying and restful.

- By Sarah Maria Griffin of The Guardian 

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