The Gardens Between from Melbourne developer The Voxel Agents is wonderful. It’s the gaming equivalent of a snuggling up under a blanket with a hot drink and a good book on a rainy day. The Gardens Between makes you feel good.
Albeit, the entire experience is tinged with melancholia, overall, it’s a hopeful story about keeping and maintaining connections throughout your life that may otherwise fade away.
At least that’s what I thought. The story is told through the gameplay and it’s all very minimalist in its approach. You could look at The Gardens Between and see it as yet another puzzle game. However, the way in which the puzzles work and the two protagonists need to work together creates some interesting plot nuance.
Then again, I might just be reading too much into it.
The Gardens Between Review
Essentially, The Gardens Between is the story of two adult friends, remembering their adventures as kids, though from two different perspectives. Each puzzle is based on a specific memory from the past that represents how friendship can change everything.
Players control neither Arina or Frendt but instead control the flow of time backwards and forwards by moving the left stick. Both characters will move together, though will do so at their own pace, stopping to investigate items or places of interest.
Arina carries a lantern which collects orbs of light from flowers that are required to open up paths in each level and ultimately complete them. However, collecting the orbs isn’t as simple as picking it up. Other flowers in the levels absorb the orb you’ve collected, leaving you orbless and unable to proceed.
Thankfully, Frendt can manipulate wind chimes in the levels that open and close the flowers so Arina can safely walk past when carrying an orb or can collect an orb while passing. These are the basic mechanics of The Gardens Between and initially it all seems rather simple and run of the mill.
However, things rapidly increase in complexity and difficulty and the puzzles (and attached stories) start to become something else altogether.
Most levels include cubes that bounce forwards and backwards as you manipulate time. These cubes can hold orbs for Arina and transport them to another part of the level to avoid the flowers or other obstacles. However, they too can fall prey to the flowers that steal orbs, so you suddenly go from controlling the flow of time to managing the locations of two, three, four or more characters at once.
Most puzzles have logical solutions too and are a real treat to work out, however, a few puzzles which required you to remember and recognise colours were a real struggle for me as I’m colourblind. It’d be awesome if The Voxel Agents could add a colourblind mode to help reduce the headaches these puzzles caused.
Aside from the puzzle solving, the real meat of The Gardens Between is the story of Arina and Frendt’s friendship. The time manipulation mechanic employed in the game is a way for players to experience a memory from two different perspectives and one that’s being remembered in real-time.
As both Arina and Frendt remember things slightly differently and from their own perspective, they have different experiences. So too do the levels change as you progress as both Arina and Frendt remember more details and flesh out the memory more fully.
It’s a fascinating way to visually demonstrate two friends reminiscing and it’s done in a gorgeous fashion.
Applying a very similar visual design to that of Breath of the Wild, The Gardens Between jumps off the screen. Because the levels are small and contained, the visuals on Switch look absolutely incredible, whether in docked or handheld mode.
Do You Remember the Time?
Every element is given a shiny look, symbolising the sheen good memories have. Everything also has a half-finished, half complete look as if all the elements aren’t there or are only half remembered. Again, it’s a great visual representation of human memory and one so simple it’s amazing no one’s done it before.
Finally, the soothing audio adds to the experience, gently transporting you into the fantasy world of Arina and Frendt’s memories as they remember how they became so close. It’s all very minimalist, but it sets the mood wonderfully.
The Gardens Between is a stunningly beautiful look at friendships through the lens of video games, once again showing that video games are an artform.
The Gardens Between was reviewed using a digital code on Switch provided by the developer.
Game Title: The Gardens Between
A Great Look at friendships and nostalgia - 8.5/10
Simple but effective puzzles - 7.4/10
Great visuals and audio - 8.7/10