In a garden between two suburban houses two best friends are hanging out in their treehouse fortress when a storm hits, catapulting them into a dimension curated by their shared memories. Stranded on micro islands constructed from giant versions of their favourite things, Arina and Frendt must manipulate time with a magical lamp to find their way home.
The Gardens Between is a relaxing physics puzzler that gives you control over the flow of time. Rewind, pause and fast-forward time to help Arina and Frendt carry their lit lamp to the pedestal at the top of the island. There are a few things that act independently from the flow of time, so it is up to you to find out how to carry their affects and consequences over into Arina and Frendt’s timeline.
The level design in The Gardens Between is nothing short of impressive. As the kids ascend each island the camera tightly pivots around it, and it twists and bends your depth of perception; items that seem to be randomly floating in space will miraculously connect at just the right angle, and it usually results in a satisfying moment of clarity. I haven’t seen a game manipulate your sense of perception so successfully since Fez.
There’s also a massive emphasis on scale that allows for some fascinating opportunities that either serve the gameplay, such as playing on a retro console on a giant CRT TV, or for superficial satisfaction; there’s something mesmerising about watching two kids interact with preposterously large hosepipes and giant paper aeroplanes.
The controls are some of the simplest I have ever come across; use the thumbstick or shoulder buttons to control the flow of time and use ‘X’ to interact with objects that shimmer with a curious blue light when you stand next to them. The Gardens Between is the perfect game to introduce non-gamers or new gamers to because it’s easy to pick up, easy to understand, and it does a wonderful job of teaching you how to solve puzzles in a fun, creative and imaginative way.
And like its level design, the puzzles are nothing short of incredible. However, they are introduced and then criminally underused, dropped into the sea and unlikely to be seen from again. The benefit of locking particular puzzles to a single level is that it creates these unique, unforgettable moments but it would have been much more rewarding if, by the end of the game, some of the puzzles were combined to create a more challenging and rewarding pay-off. Because The Gardens Between has been designed as a relaxation game it’s not overly difficult and can be completed in a matter of hours and this has left me with the unshakeable feeling of wanting more from The Voxel Agents.
The ending will leave a lump in your throat so big you won’t be able to swallow right for a whole week. The Gardens Between will stick with you after you’ve finished, and it has a way of transporting you back in time to reflect on your own friendships you had growing up. Being the Tin Man that I am, games don’t often tug at my heartstrings but The Gardens Between had me sinking into the back of my sofa reminiscing about my summer holidays in Skegness as a child. The memories Arina and Frendt form together are unique to them and although the cogs of time are constantly turning their memories will forever remain unchanged, and this is echoed by the fact that throughout the whole game your path has already been determined for you.
Should you play it? Yes
Why… The Gardens Between is delightful and satisfying. It’s simplicity is inviting, and its visual style is astoundingly beautiful. With interesting, imaginative puzzles it’s the perfect game for newcomers while gaming veterans can put their feet up and appreciate how relaxing it is to play. Its themes also have the potential to make you ball like a baby.
But… If you’re looking for more complexity and expecting a difficulty curve that challenges what you have learned you will be sourly disappointed.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4. Review code supplied by The Voxel Agents.