The Gardens Between Review
Time travel is as interesting in games as it is in TV and film. Everyone knows that the best episodes of Star Trek were the ones which dealt with time travel, while films like Looper, Primer and Edge of Tomorrow all have entertaining (and in some cases, mind-bending) takes on the genre. Giving a character the power to rewind their actions is a fascinating idea, yet giving a player that same agency on a minute-to-minute level is something that has only really been explored in a few games: notably Braid and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
We can now add The Gardens Between to that list, a delightful indie puzzle game from The Voxel Agents which substitutes violence and despair for a more tender setting — the inevitability of growing up and leaving behind your childhood.
Best friends Arina and Frendt are whisked away from their treehouse to a series of mysterious islands carved from their own recollections. Each one is navigated by simply holding the left or right trigger to move the pair forwards or backwards, and as they progress the oversized items from their history which pepper the island become obstacles or bridges, leaving it up to you to navigate the hazardous land through temporal manipulation. This is done in a number of ways, all executed with a press of the X button. Frendt is the more technical of the two, operating the mechanics which push each area’s timeline forwards and backwards external to the children’s position. Arina is the guide, her lantern powered by a glowing orb which creates light bridges, dispels impeding fog, and ultimately lets you leave each level once you reach the island’s peak.
Locating and transporting that orb to the zenith is the crux of each island’s challenge. The pair circle the island’s path until they can no longer move forward, prompting you to rewind and look at everything that has happened up until that point to pinpoint a way to progress. In most cases it will involve clever interaction with the objects from the pair’s childhood: a stack of Jenga blocks which need rewinding so they can be rebuilt and out of the way; a VCR which needs power to spit out a videotape and form a path; a Mario clone which plays out on a TV screen before breaking the pair’s fourth wall. From beginning to end, the islands never fail to impress and the ingenuity occasionally astounds. Some games revel a little too eagerly in their cleverness, but the rewinding of time is so integral to the puzzles here that it’s easy to forget that you’re actually on a single linear path, just pushing left and right. Objects on the island are often used intricately and in multiple ways: that same Jenga stack can later be toppled by a domino run to unleash an orb.
Orbs are one of the few elements that exist outside of the normal timeline, and can be snatched from you as you move forward by void boxes. In some cases this is needed; while the orb can light a bridge, it can also evaporate a solid fog path and prevent your passage onwards. Thanks to the minimalist controls, learning how The Gardens Between works is intuitive and the game makes it obvious when you cannot progress and need to rewind to solve its puzzles. On only a couple of occasions did the landscape truly perplex to the point where it appeared that the level was broken, but this was a rare misstep in signposting which was instantly forgivable when the correct solution was stumbled upon: not just because the game is easy enough that you will eventually find the next path through perseverance, but because the animation and visuals are so damn charming that it’s hard not to fall in love with it.
The children have distinct personalities: Arina the headstrong, confident one, marches boldly into fog with lantern held high. Frendt is the more introspective half, surveying his surroundings quizzically. Both of them point out features of interest to each other — and as such, the player — giving them a charming independence. You’re not in control of them, only helping them on their journey like an unseen benevolent guide. Each set of levels is bookmarked with a mini vignette, a snapshot from the friends’ past which ties neatly into the objects you just interacted with. Though the ultimate purpose of their journey is a simple one, it makes sense at the game’s conclusion even if it doesn’t pack quite as much of an emotional punch as the likes of Rime or Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. What those games have which this one lacks is a sense of urgency or conflict. The friends’ memories are about how objects make an experience, rather than the joy of the experience itself. At times it feels a little too cutesy for its own good, a rose-tinted filter over a shared childhood, free from the squabbles which all friends go through when growing up.
The Gardens Between is recommended despite an excess of melancholia and brevity. In this last respect it works in the game’s favour, since the puzzles do start to become familiar even if variations involving lightning and water try to shake up the toolbox. Two hours are all you need to work through all of the islands, but you won’t regret the time spent. It may be brief, and opportunities to explore the true poignancy of childhood outside of material objects may have been missed, but it’s nevertheless a touching tale, as timeless as the world you control.
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