Puzzle video game The Gardens Between, from developer The Voxel Agents, has just released for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Windows PC. The game follows best friends Arina and Frendt on a rather surreal adventure. Journeying across small events, the friends have to manipulate time in order to progress. However, is this an experience worth your time? Let’s find out!
The Gardens Between sees players controlling the two friends on micro-islands, each forming a puzzle, or as the story goes a step in their life. Arina and Frendt move together, via one single analog stick, though their paths are somewhat different – a necessity for the puzzles. Movement, in a way reminiscent of Superhot, sees time move too. The twist is if you make the friendly duo move backwards, time starts to rewind. This’ll see elements fall over or stack back up, move in and out of place and much more.
The aim isn’t quite as simple as get to the top but it is close, effectively having to trigger things along the way. The island worlds comes to life as you move through them, and you’ll have to watch when things happen to determine how to effectively interact with them. This is often done by one of the characters interacting with items in the level, such as a orbs of light that you’ll need, via a simple button press. These often trigger events or swap nullifying fields that if used at the right time allow level progression.
While one word, surreal, jumps to mind about the look of the locations that Arina and Frendt venture through, each harps back to a real world event in their lives. What would have been small details are exaggerated and form parts of the puzzles. In one an old school video tape player will open to drop an overly large VHS to the floor, providing a walkable slope, while a college, jock-like, jacket appears draped over part of another island.
Alas, despite these details, over the journey across the 20 plus islands, I didn’t feel fully attached to the characters. At least, not enough to get fully hooked by the emotions the story was trying to resonate with. Perhaps this is due to the way the puzzles distance the player, solving what is around the characters, rather than focusing on them. Being so vibrant and dream-like it is easy to allow the soft touch story elements to fade away and simply enjoy the visually pleasing but abstract puzzles.
The sizing of the puzzle locations makes each seem small enough to be possible, whilst packing in a lot of content – via forcing backtracking and the puzzles themselves. While none will need Sherlock Holmes style detective work, a number will cause players to try a few things out in an attempt to determine the correct order to do things. This allows the game, along with its artistic style, to be suitable for a family audience. Even if some of the subtle tones of the story will go over the heads of younger players.
One aspect in which The Gardens Between excels at is keeping the puzzle and only the puzzle in front of players. The control scheme is left simple, with only a few buttons used – with each additional thing slowly introduced to players. This in turn allows for the user interface to be almost absent. In a game with complexity this could be seen as problematic. Yet, in The Gardens Between this keeps unnecessary content off the screen, filling it with the wonderful island worlds.
Keeping the game text and speech free, while not helping to grow the bond players feel with the characters, creates an accessibility. The game is open for anyone to play, be it by no having language issues or the low stress approach to the puzzles. Manipulation of time may be the main mechanic of the title, yet the pressure of time ticking away is not something put onto players. You are free to try to complete the level as quickly as possible, though the relaxed attitude to puzzle solving is a welcome change. Something only improved by the rather chilled background music.
Full of wonderful dream like miniature island locations and some slightly head scratching puzzles, The Gardens Between is exactly what I wanted from the title. It offers a laid back approach to puzzle games, which doesn’t artificially slap on time based goals. Given the time manipulation theme it is almost awkward to say that time can slip away from you when playing, trying to complete just that one more island. Overall, this is a stunning little puzzle title that deserves some love!
[Editor’s Note: The Gardens Between was reviewed on Nintendo Switch. A review code was provided to us by the publisher.]