Release Date: September 20th, 2018 (Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4)
Genre: Puzzle, Adventure
Publisher: The Voxel Agents
Developer: The Voxel Agents
The Gardens Between tells the story of Arina and Frendt whom are two childhood friends taking a trip down memory lane. But here is the kicker: there is no dialogue in the game. Instead, visual queues and short scenes that play at the end of every few levels tell a story rich with emotion. The game starts out with Arina and Frendt sitting in a tree house in the middle of a thunderstorm. When a mysterious ball of light suddenly appears, their world becomes warped and they find themselves on one of several islands laden with objects from their childhood. Together, the two of them make their way from island to island, revisiting objects from their past. It is very easy to see the connection these two kids have by the way they interact with each other, from the way they hold hands to the way one of the them will point at an object for the other to examine. At the end of every two or three levels, a short scene will play, showing the two kids playing together, often with many of the objects seen in the preceding levels. It may seem a little confusing at first, but I feel the story is told in a very artistic manner that ends up being quite enjoyable.
The gameplay of this puzzler is interestingly unique. The Gardens Between utilizes a forward-and-reverse mechanic where the environment moves as the characters move. Basically, as the characters move forward, the objects in the level will move along a set pattern. But if the characters back up and retrace their steps, the objects in the level will reverse their pattern and eventually end up where they originated. For example: A level may begin with a water droplet that is about to fall out of a pipe. When the kids move forward, the droplet begins to fall. If they stop moving, the droplet will stay suspended in midair. If the kids move backward, the droplet will move back up toward the pipe. Since most of the moving parts in a given level serve some sort of purpose, the player should be aware of what is happening throughout the island so they can plan their route accordingly. The object of each level is to find and collect an orb of light using a lantern and to get that orb to a portal at the end of the level. Arina always carries the lantern while Frendt is free to interact with various switches. As the game progresses, the levels become more challenging by introducing new mechanics, such as a switch that allows the environment to continue moving while the kids stay still, or black holes that suck the light out of Arina’s lantern, causing the player to rethink his or her strategy. While this game is not too incredibly difficult, there is definitely a lot of trial-and-error involved in getting around each island.
Visually, The Gardens Between is gorgeous, but in a simple way. No detail was spared when it came to creative content in the level design, from the various gameplay elements to the background scenery that enhances the nostalgic nature of the game. There is even a throwback to Super Mario Bros. in the form of a minigame on a TV set that the player actually has to play in order to progress in one of the levels! On top of all that, the graphics have a soft, cel-shaded look that really match the surreal style of the levels. Even though there are only two characters seen in the entire game, the designers did a great job creating them. What Arina and Frendt lack in complex graphics, they more than make up for with their facial expressions and body language. And just like the visual effects, the audio in The Gardens Between matches the game perfectly. Soft, ambient tones are played throughout each of the levels on top of light, delicate melodies. Every sound, from the footsteps, to the birds chirping, to the rainfall, shows how much detail the designers put into this game. The beautiful visual effects, complemented by the harmonious audio effects, make this game a true pleasure to experience.
Despite the creative gameplay and stunning audio and visual effects, I do have one gripe with The Gardens Between: it is too short. I was able to complete the game’s nineteen levels in under two hours, making me question its $20 USD price tag. With that being said, I found myself continuously looking forward to the next level because of how much fun I was having. The puzzles are so intricate and creative, eventually getting difficult to the point of frustration toward the end of the game, but still not too difficult to make me want to quit. While the story is told in pieces, by the time the game is finished, it will all make sense. Be forewarned: this game will hit you right in the feels. I just wish there was more of it. (Justin Singh; Game Reviewer)
Review copy provided by The Voxel Agents.