The plants in Strange Horticulture do all sorts of things: There’s one that can open anything that’s locked. Others can make someone brave, ease their pain, lure them to their death, or protect them from the cold. Fox Button — scientific name Canimum vulpes — is a plant that symbolizes friendship, its fluffy flowers supported by a stem with pairs of shiny leaves. Harlequin Blue, on the other hand, is often used as incense — incense that screams as it burns.
These plants and plenty, plenty more line the shelves of a small shop tucked away in the dark streets of Undermere, a strange, rainy town that sits by a forest and a lake. In Strange Horticulture, I play as a person who’s just inherited the titular plant shop after a family member’s death. In this way, it’s a life simulation, figuring out life as a new shopkeeper, learning about plants and the community as each day passes.
But Strange Horticulture offers plenty more: A mysterious, occult story that unfolds around the very plants you sell, along with clever puzzles that encompass everything from identifying plants to solving riddles and reading a map.
Strange Horticulture unravels slowly, as each new patron is welcomed into the shop. With the ring of a bell, a person approaches the counter, where a black cat named Hellebore lounges. Not all patrons are looking for plants; there’s one character who simply delivers mail, for instance. But when a customer has a request — say, for St. John’s Poppy, which will improve their hearing — I’ve got to identify that specific plant on my shelves by flipping through my reference book. Sometimes the customer knows the name of the plant, so I flip to that page to see what it looks like, and carefully choose a plant based on visuals alone. Elsewhere, customers only know the affliction they’d like to fix, so I rummage through the pages to find a plant that’ll cure the malady.
It all plays out very simply, researching and tossing plants under a microscope for a better look. If I’ve identified the correct plant, the customer moves along. If not, I add to a meter called “A Rising Dread,” which forces me to complete a puzzle before returning to my botanical pursuits. There are labels in three colors that players can use to keep track of plant names, or use some entirely different method of organization, but it’s not required. My plant shop, for instance, was a chaotic mess; I ended up labeling only two plants but organized my shelves in a way that would only make sense to me. The active sense of organization and the tactile feel of research and plant care can shift with each individual player; the way that I’ve played feels like “correct,” but recent livestreams and YouTube videos suggest otherwise.
In addition to selling plants, I also work to discover completely new ones, which is where the map comes in. By following clues embedded in various letters (and garnered from conversations with customers) I explore squares on the map. Some clues require mysterious tools to solve, found in the stuff that’s laying around my desk whose contextual meaning I haven’t yet discovered.
John Donkin, half of developer Bad Viking, which he co-founded with brother Ron Donkin, told Polygon that he wanted these sorts of items to give Strange Horticulture a board game feel. John pointed to Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective and Gloomhaven as inspirations.
“It came from legacy games [like Gloomhaven], where you open the box and there’s a lot of little boxes inside the box,” John said. “But you’re not allowed to open the little boxes, so you’re like, ‘What do they do?’ ‘What does this envelope do?’”
It’s that sense of mystery that kept me hooked through my playthrough. Those questions encouraged me to experiment with the assorted tools, and to visit unexplored areas on the map. It made me question certain decisions, like whether I should side with a coven of witches or a cult, or if I should cure an asshole customer’s itchy rash, or make it worse. Strange Horticulture is not open-ended, but small decisions like these do impact the story, with different branches to follow.
Gameplay largely remains consistent throughout the entirety of Strange Horticulture, which took about five hours for me to complete. When it does change, it changes gradually — like when you unlock a laboratory to brew elixirs from different plants. Once the story was finished, Strange Horticulture still kept me coming back: new clues opened up the map, with a bunch more plants to find.
Strange Horticulture is, appropriately, a strange game, one of those simple premises that balances intrigue, sense of place, and puzzles in a satisfying, tactile way. It’s so easy to become engrossed in this world, to become obsessed with the litany of beautiful, exotic, and sometimes dangerous plants that line the walls of my shop. And it’s already one of my favorite games this year.
Strange Horticulture was released Jan. 28 on Windows PC. The game was reviewed on Windows PC using a download code provided by Iceberg Interactive. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.