Developer Balloon Studios • Publisher Whitethorn Games • Release 2023 • Platforms Xbox, Switch, PC
Ambling through Botany Manor‘s radiant, immaculately kept gardens, I fight the urge to stop on a bench to watch the soft clouds drift by. In the real world, the clouds are anything but soft. San Francisco is feeling the first assault of GDC week’s forecasted bomb cyclone. But in this flowering virtual realm, it’s easy to forget the onslaught of rain and wind outside.
The game’s atmosphere is gentle but powerful. I can only imagine, if its demo can banish an ongoing storm from my mind, the full release will have no problem dispelling my more mundane day-to-day troubles with its blossoming world of puzzles.
Botany Manor has a story, but, like most demos I played at GDC, this hands-on experience is all about gameplay. The mechanics won’t challenge players, but the botanically themed riddles and impressive design lift it beyond the realm of walking simulator.
I start in an ornate glass greenhouse which lies on the opposite side of the grounds from the house proper. I’ll eventually make my way to the central structure, but my first objective is to explore. Creative director Laure De Mey sits next to me, watching my progress as I ask about the setting’s inspirations.
The unexpected answer is the developer loves the Lara Croft franchise. Specifically, she adores the games that let her roam through the heroine’s ancestral home but always wished more of the gameplay focused on simply touring the premises.
De Mey also recognized that when great country houses feature in games, they tend to be the backdrop for horror. And while she lightheartedly says the team thought about playing around with a more sinister narrative for the upcoming title, she is happy Botany Manor will give players the chance to simply enjoy the magnificent setting.
Before I can get that far, though, I find my first puzzle. Seeds for the aptly named Windmill flower sit near a pot and some soil. Nearby, there’s also a newspaper clipping suggesting the world outside my state home is struggling with air quality — perhaps hinting at my botanist character’s motivation to rediscover the game’s series of forgotten plants.
But encouraging the flower to bloom isn’t quite as easy as throwing seeds into the soil. Exploring the shelves, walls, and floors of the conservatory reveals clues to its nature. Apparently, the unusual plant only thrives on the slopes of active volcanoes. Since those are in short supply in my garden, I find a heater to trick the plant into unfurling its bright, rotating petals. Surprisingly, the mighty little wind generator clears the once-muggy air in the building, opening up my path forward.
A similar mystery awaits me at the main house, which I won’t spoil in this preview. However, I do want to take a moment to dwell on the increasingly important ability to pick up anything and place it anywhere. It may not sound like a mechanic to set the world on fire, but it grants an amazing amount of freedom and verisimilitude to my floral experiments and feels really solid.
I can’t wait to lose myself and forget my worries in a field of unorthodox flowers when Botany Manor launches later this year.
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