Developer: The Voxel Agents Publisher: The Voxel Agents Platform(s): PC, PS4, Switch Review code provided
Time control mechanics are nothing new in the gaming world: we’ve been slowing down time since the Max Payne days, and rewinding it since Prince of Persia. Something like Spider-Man makes time fly, while No Man’s Sky grinds it to a halt, and Fortnite kills it. My point, equal parts historical and snarky as it may be, is that it takes a lot to make time control mechanics feel fresh in this day and age. Enter The Gardens Between, a time-manipulating puzzler which does just that.
The player takes control of Arina and Frendt, two best friends standing on the brink of adulthood and whose memories form the backdrop for the levels. Each level is visually themed to reflect various aspects of childhood, from playing videos games sat right up against the television, to watching films in a blanket fort while surrounded by junk food.
The goal of each stage is to guide the two friends to the top of the island while safely transporting a ball of light in a special lantern. This is where the time manipulation mechanic comes in. See, you don’t actually control the two friends directly, but rather you control the flow of time around them. You can move time forward and back using the analog stick and the stage will move and change around the protagonists, offering solutions to some problems while causing others. The game also employs certain fixed environmental hazards, such as voids that consume your secret light, which must also be effectively navigated in order to progress. It all works very well, with the simple control scheme juxtaposing nicely with the multi-layered gameplay challenge you encounter in each stage.
There is a decent amount of variety in each stage when it comes to the puzzles. The game could have easily relied too heavily on using the time powers to stop falling blocks at the right moment and other puzzle tropes we’ve all seen before, so it is impressive that it doesn’t. There are some uniquely charming set pieces on display, from navigating your sacred light through a retro platformer with the help of an 8-bit chicken, to using a giant saw to cut a piece of wood by repeatedly rewinding and replaying your jump. That each level and each puzzle are nicely varied does wonders for creating an engaging experience, and one which you’ll want to keep playing just to see what the game throws at you next.
The Gardens Between is a beautifully polished game. Visually, it’s gorgeous. The game’s art style, a cross between cel-shading and watercolour painting, is a joy to behold, and the colour palette on display is vibrant while retaining the dream-like quality which is so important to the theme. The music is delightful, with a host of tunes so relaxed that they’re almost closer to lullabies than traditional gaming scores. All of this goes together to make The Gardens Between a wonderfully zen experience, allowing you to relax after a stressful day while still offering an engaging puzzle experience. It’s rather commendable how good a job the developers have done of providing us with such a complete package, presenting a world and characters that we as players would actually want to invest in.
While I’ll admit that I did indeed have to look their names up for the purposes of this review, Arina and Frendt make for an appealing partnership. The game eschews dialogue based character building, and instead the pair’s likeability factor derives from some strikingly charming visual personality coupled with some delightful interpersonal quirks as the two navigate each stage, and further compounded by the glimpses of their memories that we’re given between the levels. As the game progresses, we gain an increasingly clear picture of the lives the two characters have shared together, and their desire to preserve these memories in the face of the looming future resonates even further. Convincing the player to care about a character who never speaks is a tough task, but the developers absolute nail it, twice.
I would very much recommend The Gardens Between. The story, while minimal, is touching in an incredibly bittersweet way and will resonate with anyone who has ever had to grow up. The puzzles are inventive and often carry a decent bit of challenge, while never approaching the sort of devilish difficulty seen in other puzzle games. The game is incredibly well polished, with sumptuous visuals and relaxing music both doing their best to help immerse the player in the game world. Arina and Frendt are an endearing double act, and the glimpses of their pasts that the game affords us do a lot to flesh out the characters and give the player something that they can relate to.
I must admit, this review has made me a little introspective. As an actual adult with a mortgage, insurance, work commitments, deadlines, a laundry basket that no longer empties itself, and a whole host of other concerns that would have been equally alien to me ten years ago, it’s easy to forget about how magical childhood could be. If the point of The Gardens Between is that we could perhaps all do well to take a break from our current responsibility-laden selves and cast our minds back to a more innocent time where jumpers were goalposts and Freddo bars cost ten pence, then I think that’s worth the recommendation in itself. Indeed, I have to say that there’s something reassuring in remembering a simpler time of blanket forts, rebelliously late bedtimes, and video games. Well, maybe the video games haven’t gone anywhere.
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The Gardens Between is a charming, engaging, and inventive puzzler with the potential to really draw you into its world of bittersweet nostalgia. While the puzzles may lack some teeth for the brain game veteran, there’s plenty of fun to be had here. Microtransactions: none
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