Of all the things mankind has been blessed with, friendship ranks among the most sacred. It goes without saying that friendship needs no words to describe, yet people far wiser than me have explained it in more beautiful and meaningful ways. If you ask me, having no real friends is one of the most depressing things that can happen to a person. Developer Voxel Agents clearly understands the value of friendships and tries to intertwine one such experience with some light puzzle gameplay in The Gardens Between. Does the game truly succeed in invoking that marvellous feeling of companionship or is it just a gimmick? Let’s take a look.
The Gardens Between is a surreal puzzle adventure developed and published by Voxel Agents for PC, PS4, Nintendo Switch and released on 20 September 2018.
THE GARDENS BETWEEN
Story & Narrative
The story of The Gardens Between follows best friends Arina and Frendt as they enter surrealist, dreamlike islands where time doesn’t flow but waits. Their memories form the backbone of the islands and it’s up to the duo reach the apex of each while manipulating time and cherishing all the precious moments spent together.
The Gardens Between strikes a chord in your heart, a place of forgotten memories of an old life. There are no dialogues or cinematically directed cutscenes. The game tells a compelling and emotional story of loneliness, companionship and adventure which comes to a halt at the bittersweet junction of farewell without even uttering a single line of dialogue. This is where The Gardens Between Us succeeds. It tells a story without trying hard to do so. Each step you take as Arina and Frendt are a story in itself and the environment provides the context.
The duo’s adventure is surreal, yet relatable. Magical, yet grounded. Minimalist, yet deep. By the time the game had come to its end, I was on the brink of tears. I (and a large percentage of you reading) had experienced such a friendship. We all had that one friend who was our solitude in the angst of loneliness. One who knew all our dark secrets and would die before spilling them out. One with whom we had to part our ways at some point in our life. As I said, the story strikes a chord in your heart. Then there are all the metaphors, magical realism and fantasy elements I’d rather not get into right now for the sake of keeping this review spoiler-fee. It’d make for one hell of an editorial one day.
Gameplay & Mechanics
Whereas the story of The Gardens Between is complex and nuanced despite its outer minimalism, the gameplay is very welcoming and easy to pick-up. The game follows the two heroes as they explore the spiralling paths up small islands with the aim of reaching the apex carrying a certain lantern. You don’t really control the heroes in The Gardens Between. In fact, the player controls time itself. Going forward or backwards in time results in the heroes and the interactive elements in the world reacting accordingly- A process similar to forwarding or rewinding a movie in a video player. There are lots of puzzles and obstacles along the way which hinders your progress. Manipulating time is the key to solving the various puzzles littered throughout the game.
While puzzles form the core of the gameplay, they aren’t particularly hard or challenging. Pretty much all of them involve manipulating time and using the interactive items that make up the levels. Look, I’m not the greatest when it comes to puzzles, yet there were only one or two instances within the entire game where I was stuck thinking on how to progress for more than five minutes. So players looking for a challenging puzzler will be disappointed. At the same time, the lightness of the puzzles adds to the player’s enjoyment and interpretation of the subtle narrative elements without constantly scratching their heads every 5 minutes. Even though the puzzles aren’t particularly challenging, there are a lot of creative ones along the way. It is commendable how the developers linked individual elements of the puzzles to objects from heroes’ lives. A personal favourite involves using an old Mac and a dot matrix printer to print a solution to a particular puzzle. There are lots of nostalgia trips like these along the way which I’d rather not spoil for you.
Controls & Game Length
Another positive of The Gardens Between are the controls. Whether you are using the keyboard or the controller, there are only three keys/buttons that need pressing. Two to go forward or backwards and one for contextual interactions. It’s as easy as it gets.
The Gardens Between is a very short game. It took me just near three hours to complete the entire game. Your mileage may vary depending on how good (or bad) you are at solving puzzles. I’d be lying if I say that the game doesn’t leave you wanting more. At the same time, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Still, it’d have been great if there were a few more levels extending the length of the game by a bit.
Visuals, Performance & Sound
While The gardens Between doesn’t break new grounds in terms of sheer graphical prowess, it’s an absolutely gorgeous game, thanks to the slightly cartoonish, surreal and vibrant art style. The objects are nicely detailed and well animated. Important objects and parts of the game pops out without them being specifically highlighted. Absolutely no complaints here.
The game was tested on the following specs and stayed well above 150 fps at maximum settings at 1080p.
- i5 7500 3.40Ghz
- GTX 1070 8 GB
- 8 GB DDR4 2400Mhz Ram
Just like the visuals, the musical score is pure enchanting and surreal. It succeeds in invoking a tranquil and serene environment throughout the adventures of the two best friends. It’s something you want to kick back and relax to.
The Gardens Between is a surreal and magical experience that hits right in the feels. The minimalist, yet moving story, the feeling of camaraderie and adventure and the overall serene atmosphere makes the game worth losing yourself into. Had it been that the puzzles a bit more challenging and the story a few more hours long, The Gardens Between would have definitely ranked well above an 8 out of 10.