The Gardens Between launches on September 20thon Switch, PlayStation, and Steam. It’s a puzzle based title which does a lot with some limited controls, it’s been anticipated for some time. One of the standout features of The Gardens Between is it’s ambient soundtrack. Partially because it’s a great soundtrack, and partially because the gameplay itself could be described as Ambient. Piecing back together memories to reveal the bittersweet story, in a relaxing environment.
You progress through 18 levels of puzzles spread across 7 memories. These puzzles are an exploded view of childhood memories. You use the same basic mechanics and interaction points to solve the increasingly convoluted puzzles. It’s a great example of doing a lot with little, taking a single mechanic and pushing it to all of its logical extremes. It wraps this up with a bittersweet nostalgic tale. While The Gardens Between probably wont leave you crying, it will definitely invoke something. It’s the sort of relaxing experience that can be a welcome break.
The gameplay in The Gardens Between is simple. Holding right progresses through the timespan of the level, and left reverses it. You have no more control over your two protagonists than that. There are interaction points spread across this timeline, which you can use to alter scenery or objects. These allow you to progress through the level om different ways. Each puzzle centres around obtaining a light source or star, then transporting it to the end of the level.
These bright spots come from plants that move around the level. Once you’re in contact with one it travels into your lantern, for you to transport up to the finish line. It’s never that simple though. The lanterns can be placed into obelisks that can transport them in different routes to the protagonists, and this is often where the difficulty starts. Black voids will suck the star out of your lantern, but also form bridges which are the only way to progress.
The other protagonist handles the button pressing. This usually comes in the form of ringing bells to alternate positions of useful objects, but it also includes tuning radios, typing, and all sorts of other things. Some of these points allow you to control the timeline of specific objects in the level, a memorable one is deconstructing a dinosaur’s museum to help you climb up a level.
These puzzles start simple enough but quickly build on these basics. The Gardens Between is a great example of iterating on a simple puzzle mechanic over and over until it becomes complex, forming a simple but incredibly polished game. Most get quite complicated as the game progresses, but they all come from these basics. Only one puzzle suffers for it, a level in which the solution is to use forced perspective of the screen to transport the star. It’s a minor annoyance and the only puzzle solution which doesn’t feel intuitive.
An early level requires a password to be deciphered further ahead in the level, and then typed into a computer. This sounds simple but its done through each characters few steps on the keypad, meaning each button entered is part of their walking sequence. The way to enter the correct password using these movements is a puzzle in itself. Even once you have the code it’ll take a little while to enter it properly.
Does that unlock the end of the level? No. You can now change the item that is printed out of a printer. You’re going to need to get creative to reach end of the level and actually finish the puzzle. Other points of interactions are spots where time can be reversed and applied to specific parts of the environment, these vary and are usually pretty entertaining. One even gives you control over an orbiting star.
There’s been some fantastic creativity in applying these simple mechanics. The levels themselves are all childhood memories and experiences, blown up into pieces and spread around islands for you to traverse. Finishing the level puts the star into it’s place in the constellation. This lets you form the shape of the guiding memory behind that group of levels. Each memory is of time spent with a friend. It all builds towards the bittersweet ending.
The music of the game is a definite highlight. The ambient soundtrackelevates the dreamscape world of the memories. Even when you’ve been staring at the same 15-second-long stretch of gameplay for far too long trying to crack a puzzle, it’s relaxing. It’s perfectly suited to the rest of the game. Without it, the gameplay would probably feel more repetitive quite soon.
Nostalgia filters through the entire game. There’s appearances of old systems and even some Mario Bros-like gameplay placed through forwarding and reversing thrown in for good measure. It extends to other areas too though. A museum visit, playing in the garden, each level is an exploded view of nearly universal childhood memories. This gives the game some emotional heft, and it also builds a quiet sadness. It avoids throwing you an emotional cut punch at the end. Its not worse for it, it makes it a restrained piece but still a powerful one.
- Innovative Puzzles
- Relaxing gameplay
- Calm atmosphere
- Occasionally Repetitive
The Gardens Between hits some buttons you’d thought you’d forgotten about. While the gameplay is simple, the atmosphere makes it an enjoyable and relaxing experience. The soundtrack enhances everything. Simple graphical style and controls make it an entirely ambient experience, but not in a negative way. As a relaxing title, it still accomplishes a lot and is a worthwhile use of downtime. This nostalgic and peaceful title will likely leave you feeling the same way.