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Short Game Review: The Herbalist (2014)

I just had to go and not live up to my New Year special post.

Photo courtesy of IGG-games

I really wanted this to be decently epic. Really, I did. But the Zelda post I had originally planned for a few days ago is taking me longer to think about. Besides, I've procrastinated (again) for quite enough since my rants this past week, so instead I'll quickly talk about a game I just finished with to make up for it. Sorry!

But anyway, that little game in question would be Moonworks' The Herbalist. It's sort of like a spinoff to the visual novel Everlasting Summer, except it only features one of the heroines that you actually play as, named Slavya. 

Here, you're figuring out which ingredients can be brewed together to make potions and even meals that you can sell at the market, in order to afford apples and supplies for even more alchemy.

The reason I single out apples is because these are the only food Slayva is allowed to eat in this game, so that she doesn't get tired as easily going about her daily routine. Why? Because her grandmother said so. Who, by the way, is the person Slayva is trying to find upon learning she went missing when she came to visit her for the summer. So Slayva learning to become a herbalist is somehow going to help her discover what happened to her sweet little babushka. Okay. 

Except here's the problem: Slavya never ends up finding her (spoilers), and all her efforts end up...not mattering in the end. She doesn't even so much as mention her. Wow, great storytelling? Yeah, as far as the narrative goes, there may as well have not been one in this case.

But okay, since this isn't technically a visual novel, the story is one thing. How's the gameplay? Thankfully, that's what pulls this charmingly odd little game through for the most part. It's a strategy point-and-click game whereby you harvest herbs, flowers, and berries, as well as obtaining cooking items and ingredients to narrow down which combinations of these things work together and which of them don't. 

It's easily the most engaging part of the game. The edible and poisonous plants are randomized with every new playthrough, which I like, because it adds to the replayability and wonder as to what new concoctions you can come up with next.

Potions themselves have four levels—with there being 27 possibilities in total (regardless of the herbs used)—and Slavya can drink some of the 4th level potions, each one with their own unique effect on her. They're all cool for sure, but I kind of wish that they could all affect the gameplay in some way, and not just be relegated to cutscenes/CGs.

Strategy, however, is everything in The Herbalist. Pretty much anything you do, from conjuring up concoctions to gathering supplies, takes up 5-10 of your stamina. If you have an apple (which Slavya eats one of every morning upon waking up—you don't get to do this yourself), you'll normally start each day with 100 stamina. However, if you consistently buy and eat apples every morning, you'll get the occasional raise to 300 stamina. 

Otherwise, if you starve Slavya, you'll start each day with only 25 stamina. The only activities that won't use stamina are doing business at the marketplace and playing with your cat. In fact, your cat actually helps to raise your stamina. 

The best this little kitty can do is raise it up to 15 at the max. Be sure, however, to pay attention to its behaviour before deciding whether or not to play with it. Beware - it can potentially deplete your stamina too!

It's important to consider where to allocate your labour each day depending on your goals, and there will be times where you'll be forced to starve Slavya in favour of stocking up on other things you immediately need. 

If Slavya goes hungry for too long, she'll get a boost from Cthulhu the first time. I personally haven't died in this game, and I don't even know if you can, but I've gone for many days without feeding her and didn't suffer any consequences. 

I think having that survival aspect would justify your low stats and add to the strategy. This is especially evident in the beginning, as money is somewhat hard to come by until you start making higher level potions and bigger meals. Otherwise, it's just kind of frustrating.

Slavya herself is a very pleasant character. She was actually my second favourite heroine in Everlasting Summer (and I'm not even really a fan of the VN), and she was definitely a good pick for something like this as she's adventurous, persevering and full of curiosity.

The music is lovely; it's got that mystical and medieval vibe to it. I swear I can hear some influence from Harry Potter, too. Much like the game, it's very relaxing and meditative to listen to.

Some of the CGs in the game are suggestive and even feature Slayva in the nude. I've said before that I honestly don't mind stuff like that in games, but it nevertheless has to make sense, right? 

Quite frankly, it doesn't fit the spirit of this cute game, which has absolutely no romance or anything else pertaining to sex in it. There's even a reference to tentacle rape... which is a BIG no-no. Guys, just because you're taking inspiration from Japanese anime, doesn't mean you necessarily have to include ALL its tropes.

Another thing I found kind of odd is that certain events you imagine would activate upon doing something special don't actually occur until later in the game. I think the game runs under the assumption that new players will take more time to unlock everything. In reality, the game shouldn't take that long to complete, even for beginners - some several hours, give or take. It's a reasonable length, I'd say.

I played the game in both English and Russian, but you definitely don't have to play in both languages in order to get the full story or anything like that. Both versions of the game are exactly the same.

Overall, it's a nice little puzzle that's easy to grasp and navigate. It could have benefitted from more depth, considering games like Recettear that expand on this kind of gameplay, but sometimes simplicity is just enough to help you wind down for the day.

You can get it on Steam for CDN$6.49, or on mobile for free. I say try the mobile version first, and if you like it enough, go for the Steam version where they update with mods and events. Have fun!

~

Thank you to everyone who's been reading, sharing and commenting on my content this past month or so. I really appreciate it, and am happy to be a part of this community. Happy New Year, and here's to many more!

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