Do you remember your childhood? Back when you weren't tremendously busy and exhausted. Back when you were able to take life at your own pace? If you can't, that's fine, because Australian developer The Voxel Agents is here to help you with The Gardens Between. A tale of childlike wonder and growing up in a fantasy world that eerily echoes real life, The Gardens Between is a fantastic puzzler as imagined by a child, even though it's far too short for its own good.
Told entirely without words, The Gardens Between is the story of childhood best friends Arina and Frendt. After the energetic Arina moves into the reserved Frendt's neighborhood, the two become fast friends. Spending one particularly heavy rainstorm in their treehouse, the pair transports to strange islands reminiscent of their adventures together. Different sets of levels emerge around different memories. Upon completing a set, you're treated to a brief shot of how the memory played out in real life. There's a natural progression both in the levels and the sets as you adventure through the seasons, with more difficult levels coming as the two got up to more dangerous hijinks.
The dreamscapes within reminded me of the imaginary worlds I dreamt of as a kid, something I'm sure The Voxel Agents is keenly aware of. Chalk drawings come to life in front of your eyes, video game characters escape from the television, and giant pillows fall down from the sky. There's a constant sense of wonder and fascination here, and it makes Arina and Frendt feel like real kids exploring a fantasy world.
Each island features puzzles, strange jumping boxes, and orbs of light and darkness. To complete an island, you collect the light in your lantern and place it on a pedestal at the summit. That may sound simple, but there are plenty of obstacles in your way. Navigating the pathways proves to be a tricky affair, as you don't control Arina and Frendt directly, but time itself. By moving to the right via thumbstick or keyboard, time advances, and by moving left, time reverses. This time manipulation means the islands within are constantly changing due to both your and the characters' actions. While simply moving to the right seems as though it would wear itself out quickly, The Gardens Between does plenty of work to keep it interesting.
In fact, the versatility of the time manipulation is The Gardens Between's biggest strength. For example, you'll encounter patches of purple smoke that dissipate after you shine a light. Such smoke is impenetrable from the sides, but a wall is still solid from above, and you turn previously impassable smoke into bridges as you advance and reverse time. This is just one example, but every single level made use of your powers in a different way. Not only that, but you're also expected to keep a close eye on the islands. You're watching not only the level as it changes and evolves but also Arina and Frendt as they interact with the environments. You'll have to ring bells to open and close light-bearing flowers, chain lightning to exposed wiring, and make use of strange cubes that bound across levels to transport your lantern through the world.
The levels themselves are gorgeously detailed, popping with vibrant colors and rich textures. The world of The Gardens Between has a clear '80s aesthetic. Everything from the boxy screens to the Famicom knockoff complete with a playable retro game is all the way rad. Every hand-crafted level exudes considerable care, not only in the visuals but also the animations. Arina and Frendt grab one another's hand as they walk up a steep slope, while birch trees slowly shed their leaves in the background. Every level looks and feels like a painting. The Voxel Agents should be proud of the visual achievement they've made here.
Complementing the levels is a downtempo soundtrack from Australian producer, DJ, and radio host Tim Shiel. Known for his work touring with indie rock sensation Gotye, he collaborated with pianist Luke Howard to create a calming, contemplative soundtrack. In keeping with the surreal themes, Tim's electronic work features during the island sequences, and Luke's piano takes center stage during the real-life flashbacks. The music also plays into puzzles at times, with music cues indicating when you can interact with the environment. When coupled with the soft color palette, the result means The Gardens Between sounds as good as it looks.
The Gardens Between's biggest failing is its length. While the variety of bite-sized puzzles contained within do wonders to keep you entertained, I still feel that The Gardens Between could have easily been longer. You can blow through the eight sets of levels in a matter of two to three hours. None of the puzzles are dwelled on, and most of the tricks you learn won't get used more than once. Some of this might have been mitigated by introducing more difficult content. From the variety of puzzles already included, The Voxel Agents should have had no difficulty coming up with more material.
The Gardens Between does invite comparisons to Braid, as both are puzzle games centered around time manipulation. These comparisons would be unfair and superficial at best. Where Braid is more concerned with its journey, correcting past mistakes, and packs a surprise stinger at the end, The Gardens Between instead focuses on the shared memories of Arina and Frendt as they navigate the mysterious world together. Both games are mechanically different from one another too, in both the presentation and control of time. While Braid may well have spawned the idea behind The Gardens Between, the latter does enough to separate it from its predecessors.
The Gardens Between's originality sets it apart from other stylish indie competitors such as The King's Bird and Fe. Rarely does a game manage to capture the awe and sense of exploration present in childhood. A game like The Gardens Between does so effortlessly. Even though each level is small on its own, you'll discover hidden secrets. There's a small joy in figuring out each individual trick present in a level. Even with its short runtime, you'll want to play through it all in one sitting, just to see more levels and more of the surreal world. This is what sets The Gardens Between apart from its peers: the joy of discovery and exploration.
Though it may be criminally short, The Gardens Between is a love letter to childhood backed by incredible art design, an emotional story and consistently fresh puzzles. The universal experiences of childhood and childlike wonder translate well. Furthermore, the spirit of imagination from the central pair is on full display in the level design. More levels would have been nice, but what's on display in The Gardens Between is too good to miss.
TechRaptor reviewed The Gardens Between on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer. It is also available on PlayStation 4 and Switch.
- Gorgeous Art Design
- Touching Story
- Constantly Unique Puzzles
- Short Length