For a game with no dialogue, The Gardens Between says a lot. Telling the story of two friends, Arina and Frendt, as they explore a surreal landscape of islands, The Voxel Agents have done a fantastic job of creating a smart puzzle game, a striking visual environment, and a human narrative.
I can’t emphasize enough how beautiful The Gardens Between is. Every island is lovingly rendered in a minimalist and colorful style that really pops on screen. The themes of each level make every island unique and different. One in particular, themed around computers, is a fantastic piece of visual design, combining the beauty of nature with the beige and blocky technology of the past. The ambient soundtrack, made by Australian artist Tim Shiel, really adds to the atmosphere. It’s relaxing, but also brings out the game’s more poignant moments when it needs to.
This artistic excellence is also matched by some fantastic gameplay. Though it certainly feels like it, technically you don’t control either character, but rather the flow of time; pushing the left stick right makes time go forward, while pushing it back makes it go into reverse. The ultimate goal in every level is to reach the top of the island with Arina’s lamp lit, allowing you to unlock memories of the two characters’ friendship and then be transported to the next island.
There’s a great balance of simplicity and complex puzzle-solving here. The controls are simple, but some complicating factors are brought in. Arina can light her lamp using flowers that produce light, but she can also lose it from light-absorbing plants. Frendt can ring bells that cause certain flowers to bloom or die in order to let Arina progress, while he can also use other bells to control the flow of time of certain items. In terms of actual gameplay, that’s about it, but the smart way the developer Voxel Agents blends these together never gets old.
The different visual themes of each level tie fantastically into their gameplay mechanics - again, the computer island shines here. One fantastic puzzle requires you to enter a passcode in order to progress. First, you have to find the code on a constantly-rotating device by getting Frendt to stop time in just the right place. Then you have to enter the code on a number pad that the characters jump on at the beginning of the level. Not only is it a great visual puzzle, but it also demands lateral thinking, as you have to work out the pattern in which the two characters jump on the number pad.
Other levels are more memory-based. One in particular utilizes the jumping cubes, which act as places for Arina to store her lamp in order to avoid it being extinguished, to a fantastic degree. You have to keep track of every cube as they jump in and out of paint cans around the level in order to decide the right cube to place your lamp on for it to reach the top of the level. Again, it’s a great combination of beautiful visuals and out-of-the-box thinking.
The only real downside to The Gardens Between is its price. Despite being an innovative and emotional experience, it’s only four hours long at most, and not the most replayable game either.
Still, The Gardens Between remains one of the best puzzle games released this year, a combination of simplicity and lateral thinking, wrapped up in an endearing visual package. The story it tells is impactful, relatable, and human, enhanced by the excellent ambient soundtrack. If only there was more of it.