The Gardens Between was one of the few indie titles shown off at Paris Games Week 2017 which really stood out for me. It looked simply stunning with it’s bold and beautiful graphics, its interesting take on time manipulation and it’s ability to tell a story without any line of text of spoken dialogue – something which still impresses me when a developer gets it right and pulls it off!
So, after spending about five hours within this surreal puzzle game, I think it’s time to take a look and see if this visually stunning game, from The Voxel Agents, lives up to the hype I acquired whilst watching the trailers.
What’s the one thing that binds everything together in life, the one thing we can’t live without, yet it’s the one thing we have no control over and must watch on as it changes everything around us? Time. As such, The Gardens Between has us not controlling our protagonist duo, nor influencing them as we saw in games such as Punch Line. In The Gardens Between we take control of time itself with one of the simplest set of controls, I’ve ever seen.
Our story follows both Arina and Frendt as they fall into a series of fantastical and mysterious dream-like gardens which are seemingly created out of everyday objects. However, the objects haven’t been placed there out of randomness, they all hold a significance to the duo and their time spent together growing up as neighbours. As they progress through the various levels, which progressively get pretty tricky, we’ll go through an emotional journey with them as we discover what things in life should be let go of, what should be kept and above all, what should never be let go.
Any game without vocals or text is hard to interpret and decipher sometimes, the above is what I got from the game, and from the store pages. However, the main draw of The Gardens Between is its excellent level design and puzzle mechanic. If you have the ‘time’, let’s take a look…
Accessible for all:
The Gardens Between is a very strange yet mesmerising and mechanically intuitive indie game. You can literally play the game with one hand and still experience everything on offer. Actually, forget your hand as you can play this game with your toe (just the one), nose, chin, or even your tongue – should you choose too! As such, I know I made light of it but this is probably one of the most accessible games I’ve ever played and due to it’s relaxing nature and thought-provoking puzzles, I would actually strongly recommend everyone plays it. Even if you have some kind of disability which may stop you from playing certain games, I strongly urge you to pick up The Gardens Between today as you’ll get the full experience by only using three commands…
That’s right, the entire game is played with three buttons in total. You have either Left/Right on the D-Pad, Left/Right stick or L2 and R2 in order to move time back or forward – so take your pick out of all these options! Then, in order to ‘confirm’ actions, you have either Cross, L1 or R1. That’s it, other than ‘Option’ to bring up the menu and a beautiful slow rotation of the level you’re on. You can literally hold your controller in either hand and just control everything without having to put your cup of tea down or stop petting your cat/dog!
Time to talk about the game…
I know what you’re thinking – “but what is the game actually like!” as this was a question I was also asking myself after seeing the trailer last year. As stated above, time manipulation is the core mechanic in this game. You can move it both forward and backwards as you follow our protagonists on their way to the exit. However, it’s not that simple! Arina carries a lantern which must contain a light upon reaching the exit. Frendt is the one who can operate the various switches you’ll find on certain levels. As such, you’ll regularly come across obstacles such as ‘dark light’ which will suck the light out of your lantern – these are sometimes disabled with a switch or avoided by placing your lantern on a platform which jumps around as you progress time. Other such hazards include smoke – this blocks your path if you don’t have a lit lantern, yet it also means you’ll be unable to cross smoke bridges if you have hold of a lit lantern. This process reminded me a lot of the awesome The Spectrum Retreat which I reviewed a few months back.
The Gardens Between is also full of rather ingenious environmental puzzles along the way – I don’t want to give them all away, as it was fun discovering them for myself, but one such mechanic is conducting electricity. You see, even though time stops when you aren’t pressing any of the buttons, technically the time around our protagonists still exists in some form or another. In this instance, if you pause time as a raindrop passes through a couple of open wires, it will conduct a signal and power the item it’s connected to. There are a few rather difficult solutions in the game – namely the final puzzle which had me stumped for a while, but as soon as you have a ‘Eureka’ moment, you’ll get it and it’s very satisfying.
As I touched on above though, time is the one thing we usually don’t have control over, so having the ability to manipulate this leads to seeing all those ‘what if’ moments. In The Gardens Between, you must experiment with moving time to see how that changes your protagonist’s paths – if you take away the ability to cross a bridge, will they find an alternative route instead? It’s not something you’ll see a lot, but everything is connected and making one small change could alter the future as you progress forwards.
I’ve said it previously, but graphically The Gardens Between looks great. I love the artistic design the team have gone for with its fantastical take on everyday items being used in a child’s dream-like fantasy, all whilst referencing their memories together. Sure, some parts of the game are very simplistic and not that detailed, but as a whole, the game looks really nice and everything runs super smooth.
The music is an interesting one though. At first, it appears the music is a small sample repeated over and over. However, the music does gradually change as more instruments are introduced into the mix and the music begins to play out fully. It feels like you’re influencing this as it gradually increases as you move time. However, that’s just a coincidence as it builds up on its own. I never got bored or tired of the music, despite its repetitive nature, it helped keep me relaxed on some of the later puzzles and gave an overall calming atmosphere to the game.
There are a lot of ambient sounds in The Gardens Between – some of which are there is give you a hint towards what you should look at. If you hear something splash in the water, reverse time and see what it was. What’s that? You hear gears spinning around – maybe look at them as they most likely hold the key to a puzzle you unknowingly just passed through! The ambient sounds also help the music sound less repetitive as it introduces new sounds into the mix.
The Gardens Between was one of the highlights of the Paris Games Week 2017 showreel for me, as I mentioned previously. However, going into the game, I didn’t really know what to expect – will this be another Braid, where you reverse time to create clones and solve puzzles? Will this be a puzzle platformer with a small amount of time manipulation? Will the time aspect be there just as a gimmick? I’m so glad it turns out none of those questions was correct (even though Braid is a fun game). The Gardens Between took the time manipulation tool, which a lot of games have used previously, and turned it into something new by offering new mechanics on the back of the core mechanic.
For example, stopping time at the right moment to power things, play with the momentum of something spinning, or even manipulate where a robot platform will move too, is really fun and they are solutions which were really thought out with a lot of care and attention. My first playthrough of the game was about four to five hours, which isn’t bad. I still have a load of trophies I didn’t manage to obtain on my first playthrough as they are all rather cryptic in what you have to do. Trophy hunters out there will be happy to know there is nothing you can miss as you can go back to any level you’ve completed via the level select – and there is a platinum trophy.
I was super excited to play The Gardens Between, after playing it I’m super excited to go back and work out how to get the remaining trophies. It’s such a fun game that anyone can enjoy and the emotional part of the game was really well done in my opinion.
The Gardens Between is, in my opinion, one of the most original and emotional puzzle games to hit the PS4 this year. Each of the puzzles has been carefully planned out and crafted into memorable and fun situations, even the ones which don’t seem like puzzles at first until you look around and work out what you have to do. The music can get a little repetitive in-game (it changes as you move through the chapters), but the ambient sounds and the calmness of the tune really help you think about the solutions. It also allows you to immerse yourself as you sink into the world of Arina and Frendt within the spectacular looking dream-like environments.
I would happily recommend The Gardens Between to anyone who likes puzzle games, casual gaming, or even those with limited capabilities due to an accident or disability, as the game has no language barrier/narrative and is controlled with only three buttons/commands. Whoever you are, go and treat yourself, you won’t regret it.
The Gardens Between
- Visually stunning + accessible by everyone with it's simplistic controls
- The Time-manipulation mechanic works perfectly
- The puzzles are really well thought out and offer a unique experience
- The music is very relaxing and perfectly suited to the puzzle game genre
- The game does get quite emotional and the way all the seemingly random items are actually connected is a nice touch
- Some puzzles may be a bit confusing to those who don't think outside of the box and look around them