System: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch | Released: Sept 2018
Developer: The Voxel Agents | Reviewed On: PC (Xbox Game Pass)
This game has been glaring at me for a while now on Xbox Game Pass & has intrigued me at each passing glance. I eventually thought, what the hell, it will only be a short game and will sit nicely alongside whatever else I'm playing. After completing it, I was left with a swell of emotion that made me grateful to have experienced it.
The Gardens Between is a puzzle platformer with an interesting 'twist' (you'll see what I did there, later) in which you play as two teenagers (Arina & Frendt) traversing weird, wonderful, and abstract levels of mesmerizing design, in order to deliver a light orb to a portal - marking the end of each level. What's interesting in this game is how the puzzles are built into time. The player has to move back and forth through time in order to solve the puzzles as opposed to controlling the character avatars, which manifests an individuality I've not yet seen until now, and that in itself drives a new way of thinking about problem-solving that is remarkably gratifying and refreshing.
Imagine a room in your house has exploded and has then been frozen in time mid-explosion. Yeah. That's basically what each level is, but with elements of the outdoors. This unusual mash-up of everyday items strewn over islands of rock and flora is what gives this game its dream-like semblance and with each passing turn, as you spiral upwards through the islands, you are met with new things that are clever in both design and mechanics.
The full game is built up of around 20 levels of this style of design although the environments change slightly. As does the overall ambiance through elements and transitions in the weather and music. The controls are as simple as they come; just two controls to get to grips with - interact & each direction (forwards & backward through time) contributing to the incredibly relaxing experience.
The puzzles are unbelievably clever, increasing in difficulty as you progress, and require the player to employ an 'outside-the-box' logic to the solutions in most cases. I found myself stumped at a few points but I guess I'm just old now? Either way, it challenged me a lot more than I expected it would. Each level injects new elements into the weave, too, and inspires learning on all fronts. For example, later on in the game, you are suddenly required to ring these odd oriental bells that allow you to manipulate singular objects in an isolated time-arc in order for you to meet your objective or multiple objectives. I think this was a nice touch of variety that keeps you engaged in the game.
It was only after the completion of the first few levels that I realized what the premise of the game was. When you reach the portal of each island to mark that level complete, you are presented with an actual scene in which Arina & Frendt are interacting with the items seen on the island, but in their ordinary environment, as a memory. So, these levels are memories of their childhood playtimes, which is lovely, and this all plays into the emotional swell at the end - more on this later.
The way I saw it at the time of playing was that these teenagers are trying to recall their childhood times together and the levels are their way of recalling it as accurately as possible.
What's entirely evident is that no expense has been spared with the high-definition graphics, that are built around this very unique style & concept. This is what I love about these indie-type games. The developers aren't constrained by the mainstream and are able to imbue their games with genuine creativity, and more often than not, more soul. It all makes for a more human experience filled with more substance/essence, in my opinion, and that's where my heart's at.
What The Voxel Agents has been able to do in this game is create levels that feel considerably spacious and full of assets whilst keeping them isolated to a tiered system in which you move upwards instead of the usual platform-style left to right, and despite not presenting vast landscapes in the distance. This is something I always look for, as I'm a sucker for landscapes and the scrutiny of skill involved in blending the boundaries. With The Gardens Between it felt like there was no need for it and it took nothing away from the experience. You know where your boundaries are and that's all there is to it.
The art style is attractive and suits the style of the game, with enough complimenting colors to draw your eye to all assets of the levels. I couldn't take my eyes off the screen, it's been done so well.
Here, we embark on another work of brilliance within the realms of soundtrack music. Tim Shiel, the composer, has produced some of the most beautiful game music I've heard, for The Gardens Between, and has fused many a texture and instrument medium into the OST.
His soundtrack album Glowing Pains, which you should check out here, paints this abstract world in the most perfect of lights. Its lighthearted and astral tones are all-encompassing and incredibly calming, taking the immersion of this game to a new level. It really feeds you gently into the world you are playing and makes you feel things that shouldn't be possible in a puzzle platformer. It certainly did me anyway. The album is so well-rounded with moments of almost stoical ascendance, blended with melancholic fractals and tranquil segments. It's a journey of self-reflection and carries the theme throughout. I've listened to the album start to finish around 6 times already and it has not lost one iota of effect on me.
Highly recommended by me, and it accompanies studying or writing exquisitely. In fact, I'm listening to it right now as I write this.
The Voxel Agents has really excelled with their production of The Gardens Between and has done something right with their branding too as it has always caught my eye. After diving in and experiencing the thing in its entirety, a realization hit me that this is one for the books; a game that has induced an emotional response through its ensemble of theme, gameplay, and music.
Reaching the end and concluding the story with Arina and Frendt parting ways after being party to them recalling their childhood memories is more of a saddening gut punch than anything but crafted in an extremely heartfelt way that leaves you so emotionally bonded to the experience you just had. I wish more games were built by writers that had this in mind when creating. Maybe then we would experience more works of art like this one.
Combining the whole premise with the unique gameplay and abstract art and level design, I would seriously consider this a must-play for those wishing to break up back-to-back intense gaming with a short, relaxing interval. I felt like I'd just taken a meditative HEADSPACE course in game-form. Absolutely wonderful.
Here are some more screenshots from my playthrough: