I just finished Starfield. Yeah, I know it took me a while, but I was interrupted by other games I had to play like Forza Motorsport (2023), and I simply couldn’t blitz through the main campaign without exploring as much of the side content as I could find. After 130 hours in Bethesda’s magnum opus, though, I wanted to cleanse my gaming palate with a shorter and less intensive gaming experience. Sure enough, the next title up in my far-too-long video games backlog was a unique, indie puzzle game.
Strange Horticulture sees you take over an obscure, specialized horticultural shop after the death of your uncle. You discover, collect, tend to, and identify a diverse array of different plants, flowers, and fungi, and assist various customers with their needs. You may help with rashes, combat memory loss, deal with fatigue, or… become involved in the occult? This game isn’t quite like it seems at first glance, and it’s a strangely alluring puzzle game that had me hooked from beginning to end, to the point that I finished the 6+ hour campaign the day after completing Starfield.
Disclaimer: This article was made possible by a review code provided by Iceberg Interactive. The company did not see the contents of the article before publishing.
Taking over a humble horticultural shop
• Price: $14.99 (Xbox) | $14.99 (PC)
• Release date: Aug. 4, 2023 (Xbox) | Jan. 21, 2023 (PC)
• Developer: Bad Viking Games
• Publisher: Iceberg Interactive
• Genre: Puzzle
• Players: Single-player
• Install size: 1.3GB
• Playtime: ~6 hours
• Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Windows PC, Nintendo Switch
• Xbox Game Pass: No
Strange Horticulture is set in an original universe touched by magic and darkness. In it, your uncle recently passed away and left you with a mysterious shop on the outskirts of a gloomy, rundown town. You start the game with a handful of unidentified plants, a mysterious book filled with illustrations and descriptions, and Hellebore the black cat. Now, you’re an up-and-coming horticulturist, and it’s not long before business begins shuffling in.
Ring the bell, and the next customer files in. Some are random walk-ins, others are recurring patrons that you’ll see repeatedly and come to know intimately. Whatever the case, people will either be requesting a plant, asking you to help solve a problem, or dropping off packages, letters, or information. You’ll have to take it all in stride, learning the ins and outs of Strange Horticulture on your own time as you use the resources available to you to identify plants and help your customers. Slowly, you’ll also accrue clues and info on new plants and locations you can discover across the surprisingly detailed map.
Strange Horticulture is a fairly straightforward game, but it also doesn’t hold your hand. It can be overwhelming at first, especially as you’re tasked with solving puzzles and deciphering enigmatic clues. You always have the information you need to progress, though, making it oh-so-satisfying and impossibly addictive to keep playing, progressing through the days in an ever-expanding quest for more information, more secrets, and more plants. It’s a classic detective-them-up in the guise of a plant shop, and it remains devastatingly interesting throughout the entire play through.
Drawn into occultist conspiracies and murder mysteries
It doesn’t take long before you realize that not everything is as it seems in Strange Horticulture. There’s something terrible going on in the world — grisly murders surround the sudden death of the mysterious leader of the Sisterhood cult. Many of your plants have fantastical and even magical effects that simply shouldn’t be possible. A gruesome and terrifying beast is rumored to be wandering the world in search of victims. At the center of it all is you, with your growing knowledge of horticulture giving many people a reason to visit your shop.
You’re connected to it all even outside that, though. The clues, items, and letters you receive help you uncover the mysteries at the core of Strange Horticulture, laying out a multi-pathed story in which you decide the fate of the people you meet and the wider world. At the end of each day, you draw a card from a deck that has a clue to more plants — and you hear another excerpt from the story of a woman you don’t believe you’ve ever met; all you know is that each part of the story fills in another gap in the mysteries of the outside world, creeping ever closer to the present.
Following the climax of the story, you’ll learn the ending you earned and discover the fates of the people you affected. You’ll have to make several decisions throughout Strange Horticulture that affect this end, so there is room for replayability if you’re interested, especially since not every conspiracy or mystery will be completely resolved in every ending. For example, there’s a shadowy cult attempting to bring about “The Redemption,” but by the end of my play through I had little idea what The Redemption was or why this cult wanted to bring it to fruition.
A simple, addictive puzzle game that draws you in
As a puzzle game, I was engaged and somewhat challenged by Strange Horticulture. This isn’t the most difficult puzzle game I’ve played, but you are required to think outside the box to unravel various riddles, inscrutable clues, and vague letters. You’ll also need to be smart about how you identify which plants to use when, and what purpose the various items in the game serve. One item may reveal hidden information, but only if you pair it with the correct plant. Another may point to secret locations, but only with the right knowledge and codes.
You’ll have ways to manage all of your clues, letters, and items, making it easy to keep track of what you’ve solved and what remains a mystery. Some endings and choices may be restricted by what you’ve already figured out, too, so you need to stay on top of each mystery you’re able to unravel as you play. It’s an enticing blend of gameplay and intrigue that kept me hooked for the entire nearly 7-hour play through, pushing me to finish the game in its entirety in just two sessions.
Strange Horticulture unfortunately isn’t included in Xbox or PC Game Pass, but it is available on Xbox Series X|S, Windows PC via Steam and GOG, and Nintendo Switch for just $14.99. I think the game is 100% worth buying and playing; it’s not the most visually exciting, ambitious, or content-packed game around, but its mixture of addictive puzzle gameplay, interesting character and story writing, and a fascinating dark world make this one of the best Xbox games I’ve played this year. Considering how incredible 2023 has been for video games, that’s saying something.