The Gardens Between is every bit a piece of art as much as it is a game. It is a simple, elegant puzzler packed with so much personality and love that I recommend it to players of all ages and enthusiasts of all genres.
The Gardens Between is about two friends reminiscing one last time before Moving Day. It begins with both of them sitting glumly in their treehouse on a rainy evening. Suddenly, a ball of light whisks them away to an archipelago filled with giant versions of objects from the children’s adventures.
And that’s about it. The Gardens Between doesn’t really have a story. Instead, objects from Arina and Friendt’s memories are scattered throughout each level. Completing several levels unlocks a vignette of a fond memory, which sends the player to a new island. Because of this loose narrative, The Gardens Between is able to allude to common experiences, rather than connect a plot from A to B.
I moved a number of times as a youth, myself, and I found much of my childhood reflected in Arina and Friendt’s shared journey. The game does a great job of subtly bouncing between joy and melancholy, as every kid does.
Graphics, sounds, and music
The graphics are beautifully stylized. Fans of cel-shaded adventure games (Wind Waker, Sea of Thieves, Abzu, etc.) will not be disappointed. The various locales and props are bright and highly detailed. Each island is packed with oversized children’s belongings from moving boxes to TVs and wading pools, and the sights get more impressive as the game progresses.
For a game with so much happening simultaneously, the art keeps it from ever seeming cluttered or distracting. For example, when the “lantern” the player carries is empty, it appears as a white, transparent outline of where a lantern should be – a neat and very readable touch.
The music is magical. It is relaxing but unnatural, and it reinforces the feeling of being outside of time – or, at least, being affected by time in unusual ways. The sound is perfect. Everything from water and weather effects to feet shuffling provides beautiful immersion. Occasionally, the effects subtly hint at puzzle solutions, too.
The control scheme is so simple that, initially, it’s almost jarring. The player has only three buttons at their command: Left, Right, and Interact. Arina and Friendt simultaneously wind their way up a diverse range of islands using only the left and right directional pads. When you press the LEFT or RIGHT buttons, both Arina and Friendt move in that direction. Sometimes it’s simultaneously, sometimes one will stop and wait for some reason, but the game always perfectly aligns their position on the map relative to the time shenanigans the player is working on. It’s a really cool system.
Objects highlight in white to let the player know when the children are close enough to interact with them. This elegance is used to brilliant and inventive effect in nearly every level.
On one island, for example, a garden hose coiled around a rock shoots water into a bucket. As you proceed, the bucket continues to fill with water, which causes the plant inside to grow. If you can get the plant to grow to maturity, you can interact with it further. The Gardens Between is filled with clever, unique puzzles with simple solutions in each of its 20 levels.
These objects are constantly in motion as you travel to the right, toward the top of each island. A giant moving box falls onto the path before you, barring your progress. A bowl of popcorn tips over, scattering its contents everywhere. But if your characters backtrack by moving to the left, these events reverse themselves. The moving box flies back into the air. The popcorn kernels zoom back into the bowl. Timing is key to navigating the changing environments. Fortunately, watching the events on each island unfold and refold is a charming and thought-provoking joy.
I have a few issues with the game, but they are minor. Why does the game pause itself automatically after 45 seconds of inactivity? I timed it. I appreciate the gesture, but there is no need for this feature. If I wanted to pause the game, I would have paused it myself.
Nearly all of the challenges in The Gardens Between are straightforward, but one puzzle toward the end of the game is a little obtuse. Hint: throughout the game, you fill your lantern with stars by getting close to them. But you can achieve the same result by simply moving the camera so that perspective makes the star appear to be in your lantern. This weird solution occurs only once, anyway.
Most puzzle games struggle to offer replayability. The Gardens Between addresses this concern in two ways: beating the game unlocks Speedrunner Mode, which should delight those yearning to achieve the fastest completion times. The other unlockable mode makes a cosmetic adjustment that had me laughing for about five minutes straight.
The Gardens Between is an elegant, relaxing romp that begs to be shared with its friends. The four hours I spent exploring each island was the perfect amount of time. And, once I completed it, I immediately wanted to loan it out so that others could enjoy it as much as I did. It’s every bit as much an art piece as it is a game.
The Gardens Between
- The graphics and set pieces are jam-packed with colorful nostalgia
- The gameplay is simple and elegant
- The music and sound effects perfectly instill thoughtful relaxation
- The achievements and unlockables are adorable
- The game automatically pauses after 45 seconds of inactivity. When I want to pause, I’ll pause.
- One nonsensical puzzle solution
- More of a collection of vignettes than an actual story