Gardening sim Horticular is an isometric Viva Pinata featuring a dead planet and loads of gnomes

I’m not sure if this applies in other countries, but in England we have this thing where you’ll stroll down some random suburban street without a care in the world, and stumble on a house that has been absolutely overrun by garden gnomes. A house on which garden gnomes have either settled, like the avian hoodlums in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, or from which they have erupted, like the malignant mushrooms of Annihilation.

A hundred clay and plaster eyes catch yours, unblinking; a hundred figures seemingly freeze in the act of pushing a toy wheelbarrow or smoking a pipe. The tune you were whistling dies in your throat as you hurry past into the reassuring shadow of the relatively gnomeless bungalows to either side. Gardening sim Horticular is like that, but with an even greater sense of contrast, because it asks you to resettle a desolate planet. There is no generic urban scenery to hurry onto, here. There is only bare, cracked earth. And the gnomes.

Horticular is the work of developers inDirection Games and publisher Slug Disco, who were kind enough to send over a preview build. (There’s also a less substantial demo on Steam.) I’ve played about 30 minutes, and good news, Xbox-360-loving sickos, this is sort of Rare’s Viva Pinata but with isometric pixelart visuals. And gnomes.

You start with a square patch of arid soil, and must set about converting it into a merry little garden by excavating terrain tiles to make lawns, ponds and flowerbeds, then introducing twee plants and props to attract critters such as bumble bees, goldfish and frogs. The more kempt and bountiful your garden, the more gold you’ll earn to spend on construction together with upgrades, such as a metal detector for your shovel cursor, and new terrain types or plantables, such as fenceposts and flowing water.

The music is affable, plinky-plonky stuff and the gardening elements are both restful and sinister in the context of the surrounding badlands, which are dotted with rocky ground you can’t cultivate without upgrades, and various wizened, ever-so-slightly Lovecraftian curly trees. What do the gnomes want with this place? Apparently it’s a source of magic. Why is it in such a hellish state? Well, the previous gnome overseer, Nightshade, has gone missing, and now there’s some kind of Corruption at work that periodically blackens your plants and renders terrain tiles unusable.

There is ample room here for a Twist of some kind, augured by the ominous hush that descends at night. It Turns Out Your Cuddly Gnome Friends Weren’t So Cuddly Or Friendly After All. Perhaps Nightshade is the secret hero of the piece, a cranky subversive hoping to overturn some interplanetary gnome extraction corporation, rather than the villain he’s obviously framed as.

I personally would never trust a gnome, but again, as a rambling Englisher I have had too many surprise encounters with houses where the lawn ornaments have undergone a viral population explosion. Perhaps you like gnomes! You should probably try that demo, then. Horticular is out less than a week from now on 11th July 2024.

By admin

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