I think we can all agree that puzzle games are hardly few and far between. Hell, there’s practically one new puzzle game, or a game with puzzle elements within it, thrown out each and every week. With that in mind, it takes something truly unique and distinct to stand out. The Voxel Agents’ The Gardens Between certainly understands this, but where it excels with its innovation, it falls somewhat short with its diversity. Don’t get me wrong, this is one puzzle game that effortlessly stands out, but some more depth wouldn’t have gone amiss.
The story centers around both Arina and Frendt, two best friends that find themselves whisked into a mysterious world in which the manipulation of time is the only way to overcome the obstacles that lay in their path. That said, it’s fair to assess this game as an experience that’s charted by memory, driven by time, and bound by friendship. On that score alone, the game’s structure is endearing in such a way that simply cannot be described. It’s really, as cliche as it sounds, something that you need to play yourself to grasp its beauty.
The world that Arina and Frendt fall into is compiled of a series of gardens, all of which are distinctly designed and themed around their friendship and memories. The crux of play sees you making your way from one end of each garden to the other, withdrawing the relevance of the duo’s friendship through tidbits of drip fed story and environmental detail. The Gardens Between lasts for roughly ninety minutes in total, though, when we take its relatively cheap asking price into account, this is fairly easy to overlook. Still, some padding would have been nice.
Nevertheless, and back on track. The game doesn’t give you any direct control over either character, instead, you’ll guide them through their set-pathways via forwarding or rewinding time. Arina and Frendt will always follow a specific route, but it falls to you to correctly manipulate how they get from A to B. Each island, or shared memory to be more accurate, presents you with a puzzle that’s usually tied to the time manipulation mechanic. The game does a pretty good job at feeding you into the journey without holding your hand too much.
Though, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that most of the puzzles within the game are fairly easy to solve. In fact, I was more taken aback by the structure of each puzzle and how each puzzle fits into the world, than I was with the actual problem solving. Granted, later on in the game, the difficulty takes it up a notch by implementing fresh ideas, but even then, I cant say that I struggled that much at all throughout my time with the game. The initial puzzles tend to rely on forwarding or rewinding time, giving you the concept’s bare basics.
You’ll play with time by using the left stick; pushing left to rewind time and pushing right to forward it. Early on, this is all that you need to keep on track of, with a few interactive elements thrown in to break up the pace. Later on, however, you’ll be tasked with using a light source that largely requires engagement with its immediate surroundings. For instance, you’ll need to use this source of light to construct magical bridges on some levels that enable you to cross over large drops, ultimately allowing you to travel further through the garden.
The kicker, however, is that oftentimes, there are dark voids that will swallow your light source if you get too close. This is where the puzzle elements feed fluidly into the game’s time manipulation, and to great effect, I might add. You see, certain events will unfold as you make your way across the gardens. This can be anything from a gigantic falling Jenga stack, to a picnic blanket collapsing and covering vital spots. The aim of the game here is to toy with time and work out exactly how these events feed into the puzzles that each garden relays.
There’s only one way to overcome each puzzle, which does indeed remove the bulk of the game’s replay value. Nevertheless, I found the core design here to be outstanding. I was in constant awe as I played through each garden, simply due to how stunning and fluid the game’s transitions work. That path-blocking Jenga stack, for example, took little more than rewinding time to see the stack neatly being compiled on a nearby table, allowing me to proceed further through the garden. That may sound simple, but the execution is stellar.
The dark voids mentioned above can typically be overcome by situating your light source on a lamp, and manipulating time to have that lamp taken to another section of the garden. The game’s complexity begins to shine later in, placing several deviously placed voids throughout each garden. Here, you’ll need to put your brain into action and suss out when you should manually carry your light source, and when you should have it transported by a lamp. I’m purposely trying to be vague here so that I don’t ruin any threads or reveal any secrets.
The game does get more difficult and complex than that, but I wont to go into too much detail, given its short length. I do want to commend the game for its ingenuity especially, which as aforementioned, is what impressed me the most. One specific level had me powering up an 8-bit games console and then playing with it through time manipulation to extract a source of light. It’s grand moments like this that sees The Gardens Between truly standing out, and these moments are frequent and as equally as impressive as one another.
Speaking more specifically about the gameplay, it’s not just the manipulation of time that you’ll need to be mindful of. Both Arina and Frendt can interact with the objects that are placed in each garden. Arina can interact with the aforementioned lamps and bridges, whereas Frendt can use switches that will activate or deactivate certain event-lamps. Once again, this feeds into the solid level design and the overall structure magnificently well, and although I’ve pointed out that the puzzles are not taxing, they are gorgeously designed.
The game’s hub is a served as a collection of locations that encompass the gardens, with two to three gardens per-location. Any given garden takes little more than a few minutes to complete, and all of them have their own rules and requirements. Once you’ve successfully completed a location, you’ll witness a short cutscene that helps to add a bit of weight to the story at hand. Despite the predictable ending and my reservations regarding the game’s difficulty and length, I cant say that I didn’t have a lot of fun. I just wish there was more of it.
The audio and visual design gets a thumbs up from me too. Speaking first about the game’s visuals, The Gardens Between sports a look that’s not too unlike RiME. The dreamlike setting sits perfectly with that art choice, giving you a healthy serving of uniquely themed gardens to move through. The game’s audio is equally as engaging, throwing out a mellow, soothing track that goes hand in glove with the journey. The bottom line in all of this? If you’re in the market for something bite-sized and endearing, this game will do the trick nicely.
The only issues with The Gardens Between is its short length and its utter lack of replay value. If you enjoy heart warming bite-sized puzzle games, the journey found here is as stunning, as unique, and as clever as they come. The game’s core time manipulation concept works sensationally well with its few mechanics, serving up puzzles that, although quite simple, remain thoughtful and captivating throughout.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.