Whimsical and charming are terms we don’t often hear in the gaming medium, but the film industry seems to be the mecca of providing surreal experiences on a more regular basis. The best comparison I can make for the beauty that is The Gardens Between, is with the Pixar movie offerings, especially heartfelt ones like Up or Inside Out. Developer The Voxel Agents attempt to create a unique time shifting mechanic as beautiful to look at as it is simple to control and I was immediately intrigued with the concept.
The Gardens Between features several dreamlike scenarios which once completed offers snippets of a forgotten childhood of growing up and friendship. Each one seemed to strike a chord with me as if the story being told was actually my own. From adventures setting up our first fort with a pool or having water fights with a hose; every memory is designed to evoke a sense of childhood awe and wonder. Even the backdrop of the stars and constellations created with the memories you unlock are mesmerizing.
Although not a traditional story in the sense of a grounded narrative, the way your characters journeys unfold with each island offering anther dreamlike glimpse of the inevitable path of adulthood was completely captivating. I couldn’t help but keep thinking to myself about how just lovely The Gardens Between actually is and that’s the most eloquent way I could describe it. From the moment you start the journey, you can tell this game is different from many others on the market and even special and while the story isn’t going to be perfectly told for everyone, it’s still captivating enough to see through to the end.
Gameplay and controlling your characters in The Gardens Between was meant to be as simple as possible. With the analog stick, you can control the flow of time; right to go forward in time and left to go backwards. The characters move autonomously, but you can grab objects as you pass by them. Lanterns can be picked up by the girl and you will need to light them in order to achieve various goals and the by can interact with a few different items. These allow time to be moved while you remain stationary and this is where The Gardens Between begins to get much deeper than I thought possible with just three buttons used.
Initially, the puzzled are easy and you simply move forward and backwards in time enough to get your lit lantern to the top of the island where you end the level. When you advance to the later stages however, simplicity is underpinned by a complexity that could only be delivered in a world so detailed and beautiful. There is one brilliant instance where you must manipulate a 2D retro game to have your lamp lit and then retrieve it in 3D. Fortunately, moments like these aren’t fleeting either, every single level very detailed and lovingly crafted as to immerse you completely from beginning to end.
I found it strange to be enjoying the controls so much in a game that essentially offers you no real control over the movement of the characters directly. The Gardens Between is the type of title to unwind with and the systems in place offer enough challenge for even veteran puzzle enthusiasts. My only real complaint was that when rewinding the speed can be too slow at times. This is especially cumbersome since you will be rewinding an awful lot, although at least it looks beautiful to see in action.
Visually, The Gardens Between looks absolutely beautiful and has some very complex physical systems in place behind it. This is a very clever technical achievement with how the environment moves and forms around you with the forward and rewinding motions. Many of the puzzles just feel so great to pull off from a physics standpoint. The aesthetic is entirely clutter-free with text, speech, and a complex UI not being found here. Instead, all the superfluous nonsense is stripped away leaving a vibrant world to explore.
The soundtrack by Tim Sheol is equally as captivating with a delicate and emotive feel that punctuates the experience in a subtle way. Nothing about The Gardens Between is heavy-handed and the same goes for audio and sound. It can best described as delicate with punctuated sound effects and a great use of HD rumble which ties in so well with all the audio cues happening in the universe.
Overall, The Gardens Between is a fantastic, albeit brief, experience with a clever time manipulation mechanic that doesn’t feel like a gimmick. Although simple, it allows for some truly ingenious puzzles that make you feel accomplished when you complete them. The Gardens Between is one of the most captivating experiences I’ve had in 2018 and comes highly recommended.