Two childhood friends explore a series of mysterious islands in The Gardens Between, but you won’t be controlling them or even the levels they’re lost in, you’ll be controlling time.
The Gardens Between is predominantly a puzzle game but ingenious time mechanics mean that each pocket-sized world has more to offer than the eye initially sees. The story revolves around two central characters Arina and Frendt, childhood best friends and now explorers lost in a sea peppered with islands formed from some of their fondest childhood memories. The core gameplay mechanic in this charming indie game is the lack of control over our two protagonists but complete control of time.
Moving the analogue stick to the left or right either reverses time or moves it forward, doing so causes the environment to change. To proceed to the next island Arina and Frendt must unlock structures atop these islands by powering them with balls of light which are peppered around each island. Getting this source of energy to the peak of each mountain is not always a simple task however as unformed bridges prevent progress, boxes block paths and purple spheres will extinguish power orbs if you pass underneath them. To counter this each world sports mechanical cubes which leap, jump and move through the level with a curious lifelike nature, these cubes can also collect orbs if they match the mapped out route the orbs rest on. This dynamic adds intrigue into a puzzle game that on the surface only has two possible solutions for every puzzle, either move the time forwards to reverse it. Factors adding to the complexity of this feature means that The Gardens Between remains an engaging and stimulating puzzling adventure, even hours past the first island.
The world may be eye-catching but it’s vital that you pay just as much attention to the two young protagonists as well. Both have contrasting personalities with Arina as the bold leader, confidently exploring each island, leading the way and holding the lantern whereas Frendt lingers behind, taking in the world and often pausing for thought. It’s a perfect contrast between the pair and neatly outlines their friendship, its also heart-warming to see their interactions with each other, if Arina gets too far ahead she will turn and call to her friend, waving him back onto the route. Frendt will often point out key elements in each world to both his friend and you as a player, highlighting both his keen observation and often the key to unlock a puzzle.
At its core The Gardens Between is a puzzler game, and one which tests the genre’s limits to bring an authentic and unique experience to the category. The time mechanic itself isn’t enough to create complicated and challenging puzzles so extra tricks have been added. The Gardens Between integrates taxing puzzles almost immediately in the game, initial islands start of simplistic then face a dramatic difficulty spike where there seems to be no solution to a puzzle. With limitations to the level of interaction this is where players must keenly observe their environment and the two children, remembering that the solution is somewhere there on the island, hidden from view.
As the game progresses a narrative begins to form into childhood novelties, growing up and learning difficult life lessons in a bittersweet adventure. As you delve deeper into this world certain oversized objects will become to gain significance as truths about both parties is revealed. The Gardens Between is a touching tale, one which reminds us to be grateful for our memories and remember the important parts of life and friendship we should tightly keep a hold of, and the factor of time that could potentially change everything.
Graphically the game is a visual masterpiece, the world is situated in a sea populated with islands blooming with life and sporting childhood memorabilia and everyday household clutter which has been re-purposed to form stairways, obstacles and ingenious puzzles. The diversity of objects and the stories they tell simply based on their presence in the game creates a warm atmosphere, one that is continually impressive and beautiful to behold. Each island is bathed in a soft light, colours are blocked out and bright and the impressive three-dimensional world is amplified using shadows, etching out the outlines of each rock or stranded object. As Arina and Frendt ascend to each mountainous peak the camera angle rotates around each miniature world showing the puzzles from all angles. It’s a clever visual feature and creates a sense of depth into these garden islands which are only minute isles in retrospective.
It’s not just visuals and mechanics that impress in The Voxel Agents puzzler, its soundtrack composed by Tim Shiel adds a soft and ambient vibe to the gameplay. Arina and Frendt’s adventures feel more joyful when followed by a mellow and peaceful soundtrack. This paired with the soft graphical visuals means The Gardens Between could not feel more like a relaxing and well-paced. experience.
It’s hard to put into words how beautiful and soothing the story of The Gardens Between is, it’s unique time progression and reversal mechanic leaves an impact on you even long after the credits role.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for a honest review*