Are you old enough to have memories of that childhood friend of yours, that you probably don’t talk to or see much of since growing up? Whether it’s moving away, just growing apart as people or one of the many other reasons out there; this is something that happens commonly in life. If you’ve experienced this during your time alive, then The Gardens Between (TGB), brought to us by developer The Voxel Agents, will fill you with reminiscence and nostalgia as you help guide protagonists Arina and Frendt along an abstract journey through their memories of shared experiences. Friendship and the loss of it, along with the power of memory seem to be the key themes of this expressive tale. A tale that manages to get its point across without using a single word.
A clever use of time.
TGB is a puzzle game that uses the passage of time and an extremely simple control scheme as its gameplay hook. Each level is island-like in nature and resembles a tower of sorts that is based around a key memory from our protagonists’ friendship. You must ferry a small ball of light to the top of each tower in order to advance to the next stage. You don’t have direct control over Arina or Frendt. You can tilt either one of the control sticks right to advance time or tilt it left to rewind events. Each stage will present multiple roadblocks along the journey that will require you to manipulate time to solve. Arina carries a lantern that allows her to carry the special orb and Frendt is able to interact with the world in multiple ways. Frendt can sound wind chimes to create flowers that can either eat the orb of light or generate a new one. He can interact with objects in the background such as calculators or radios that hold secrets to getting to the end of each garden. It takes both characters to get over each and every hurdle.
Clever is the best word I can think of to describe every puzzle in TGB. You will have to pay attention to everything that is going on around you in a level as you advance and rewind time. Every minute detail could help you figure things out. The puzzle that stands out in my mind the most involved stopping time just as a drop of rainwater was passing through the gap in a cut wire. You would hold time in place at that moment long enough for lighting to hit and power the way forward. Clever indeed!
TGB is full of ingenious puzzles such as this one. The developers also manage to squeeze a ton of variety into a short span of time. They never rely on one trick for too long, but they will never let you forget any of the tricks either. There are around 20 levels in the game and I was able to get to the credits in about three hours. Almost every puzzle in the second half would put a smile on my face once the solution became clear to me. I wouldn’t consider the game extremely difficult as I’ve certainly encountered much harder games in the genre, but I was scratching my head pretty hard from time to time. The best part of TGB is that the puzzles are always engaging, fun, and full of charm. They were never frustrating; even if I had to rewind and fast forward time over and over again to figure things out.
The graphical style used in The Gardens Between is minimal but just as charming as the puzzles it’s rendering. Each little garden and its tower-like structure is based on the memories of Arina and Frendt. You’ll be sending the pair traversing over boxes from a big move in, through a half-built tree-house, and many other childhood venues. I loved the way the camera would pan around the islands in a circular fashion as it followed the characters to the top. Another nice touch that I enjoyed was how expressive the game’s main characters were without ever uttering a single word. Seeing Arina fold her arms out of impatience as she waited on Frendt to catch up with her or seeing either of the characters stop in their tracks to express surprise at the events unfolding told you just as much as any spoken dialogue could. In fact, if you pay close attention to the pair they will often give you clues to what you should be doing next. Often by pointing or looking at certain parts of the environment. It’s a very subtle yet imaginative way to get the point across.
The soundtrack of TGB mirrored the events on the screen perfectly. It was very calming and serene when coupled with the visuals. I wouldn’t describe the soundtrack as catchy or memorable, but it absolutely fits the mood of the game. I found that the entire visual and auditory experience had a very calming effect on me. Players of Stardew Valley will understand this I think. They are completely different types of games, but they both produce very tranquil experiences.
TGB isn’t perfect, but it is quite enjoyable. I think that it could have used a few more stages or possibly less linear paths. It’s shorter length does ensure that its mechanics don’t overstay their welcome or ever grow repetitive. It will be interesting to see what happens if we ever get a sequel or spiritual successor. This is a gaming experience that made me think of old friends, building pillow forts, and times when watching Saturday morning cartoons was the most important thing in life. It made me think creatively. It also made me laugh and it even made me drop my jaw a few times at the sheer cleverness of it all. I don’t think TGB is a game for everyone, but if you’re a fan of the puzzle genre then this is a must own for you.
Note: A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.
- Extremely clever puzzle design.
- The audio and visuals create a serene experience.
- It is extremely linear.
- It’s a “one time and done” type of game.