From: Amanita Design
ESRB Rating: Not Rated
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild horror/fear themes, infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Every sight, song and expressive peep is a treat to see, hear, witness and bring to life in “Botanicula,” and for a game that caters to curiosity fulfillment above all else, there’s no higher praise.
Skeletally, “Botanicula” is a point-and-click adventure like any other. Completing each of the six chapters entails a sequence of cause-and-effect puzzle-solving where solving smaller riddles rewards you with the means and access needed to solve the larger surrounding puzzle.
But where most adventure games rely heavily on dialogue, “Botanicula’s” story — in which five tree creature friends venture to save a living seed from their home tree after parasites descend on it — has exactly none. Our band of heroes communicates solely though squeals of delight and yelps of despair, and whenever other characters or the game itself want to illustrate a point, they literally do so with illustrations and symbols.
The spartan (and adorable) method of communication works perfectly in concert with “Botanicula’s” ambient soundtrack and visual design, in which handmade cutout pieces cheerfully animate to life in front of comparably handcrafted backdrops. And when all those elements come together, the world they create is, logically as well as aesthetically, one of a kind.
Though its riddles can be tricky, particularly within the back half’s more elaborate levels, “Botanicula” is designed in such a way that a natural curiosity proves as handy as any strain of problem-solving prowess you might have. Nothing in your life likely has prepared you to beat a smug peanut at a beatle race in order to trick him into giving up his bicycle helmet so you can give it to another creature before launching that creature out of a circus cannon. But if you’re curious enough to explore everything that looks like it might be anything, “Botanicula” eventually reveals the odd but oddly sensible logic needed to get from one side of that problem to the other. The puzzles are bizarre in exactly the right way — strange enough to make you wonder what weird surprise lurks next, abstract enough not to hold your hand through the discovery process, but never nearly so opaque as to frustrate or grind that discovery process to a halt.
And what a process that becomes. Fun though unraveling “Botanicula’s” mysterious logic most definitely is, it’s the moments where one stops, looks and listens that almost certainly will endure. “Botanicula” offers a mostly optional secondary challenge in the form of collectible creature cards, giving players a new card every time they fully explore the ways and means of a creature in the game’s wonderfully imaginative ecosystem. The cards themselves aren’t worth anything unless you’re a completionist and achievement junkie. But the things you’ll see and hear en route to receiving them are every bit as smile-inducing as the surprises you’ll uncover along “Botanicula’s” main road.
The Walking Dead: Episode 1: A New Day
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network), Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade), PC/Mac
From: Telltale Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (strong language, blood and gore, intense violence)
Price: $5 for the first episode, $20-25 for a five-episode season pass (PS3/PC/Mac)
Telltale Games coasted into a rut with “Back to the Future,” and its stab at something different with “Jurassic Park” was the kind of disaster that shakes your faith in a studio. So the arrival of “The Walking Dead’s” first episode — which finds Telltale again breaking away from formula but subsequently breaking ground instead of confidence — couldn’t be timelier. Set concurrently with the events of the “TWD” television show, “A New Day” tells the story of brand-new character Lee Everett, who has a troubling secret to keep as well as a child to protect from the zombie horde. Safeguarding the latter (and yourself) means engaging in brief but tense action sequences where quick reflexes and the ability to make tough decisions quickly will serve you well. But it’s the guarding of that secret that really brings Lee’s story alive. The meat of “Day’s” gameplay consists of dialogue with other survivors, but instead of asking questions and gathering information, you’re holding answers, playing mental chess and deciding — quickly and without do-overs — whom to trust whom to deceive. Your choices in conversation, along with some other decisions you must make with similar haste and confidence, play heavily into how “Day” concludes, and if the teases for the second episode are any indication, the ramifications of this episode will only intensify as the five-episode series marches ahead.