The Gardens Between, developed by The Voxel Agents, places you in the shoes of Arina and Frendt, two neighbors that share a treehouse. Cradled above an old playground, under the rumbling subway tracks, and nestled between their houses, the treehouse takes the two of them through a few of the wonderful memories that they’ve shared throughout their friendship. These memories spring to life through the game’s beautifully vivid colors and textures. Calm, safe greens and light blues fill in the first stages of the game. Hazy, pastel pinks and yellows warm the middle. Deep blues and somber purple hues shade the final stages.
The treehouse’s journey through color is guided by the flow of time. The Gardens’ art direction and narrative are echoed through gameplay where time dictates all. The controls are simple: by holding one direction or the other you can advance time forward or withdraw it backward. The characters’ paths along the level are predetermined and you can either fast forward or rewind time to advance them along their paths. This becomes easy enough to grasp, and after the first level I was left wondering what challenges the game could create on this simple premise. The gameplay evolves and becomes proceedingly more difficult as different aspects of the environment begin to be affected by the passage of time as well. These background objects necessitate a larger scale view of the map, so your focus has to shift from the characters you thought were your avatars to the map as a whole. This includes perspective-based solutions to some of the puzzles which were more difficult to solve without control of the camera.
A third “interact button” occasionally turns trekking through time into a bit of a chore but leads to increasingly complex puzzles. Arina and Frendt both have designated types of objects that they can interact with, and this turns more advanced levels into a long series of rewinding, pressing a button to see if it removed the obstacle ahead, moving forward again, and rewinding if it didn’t quite work. If a puzzle is solved correctly on the first go-around, this rewinding time is diminished significantly, but being stuck in a time loop can be frustrating. Without the ability to interact with any objects or the world other than specifically designated points along the linear paths, there is very little to experiment with or try differently.
This frustration is compounded by the speed at which you can control time. Several stages require careful tracking of small figures or objects moving in the background, or pieces of terrain shuffling around, but if you miss the key point that you’re tracking you may have to rewind all the back to the beginning of the stage. Unfortunately, the game rewinds so slowly that even having to do this once or twice can feel as if it takes an eternity.
On one hand, this feels intentional: the slow pacing paired with the meditative score make each memory feel intangible and magical. There is a nostalgic reverence to not sprinting through fond, childhood memories. On the other hand, from a gameplay perspective, rewinding and fast-forwarding one segment for ten minutes because the puzzle pieces aren’t quite lining up creates a sharp contrast between the characters’ youthful joy and the player’s frustration.
Outside of some minor problems with the limitations on how quickly you can manipulate the flow of time itself, The Gardens Between offers a brief but sufficiently challenging and beautiful experience. While each of the design elements are wonderful in their own right, they are ultimately carried by the subtle and emotional story woven through each late afternoon video game session and backyard archeological dig. Each stage turns a fond memory into an abstract, physical space, warping an imagined adventure through another lens of children’s creativity. The worlds of The Gardens Between create something that feels truly personal, intimate spaces that can be explored alongside Arina and Frendt.
The story unfolds, becoming more layered and emotional as the puzzling memories require more attentiveness and creativity to maneuver through, and by the end of it I was left wanting more. But much like afternoons imagining dragons flying around my backyard with my best friend, it had to end eventually.
The Gardens Between lands in a neighborhood near you on September 20th for PC, PS4, and Nintendo Switch.
+ Unique puzzle mechanics using simple controls
+ Vibrant color work
+ Wonderful art direction that perfectly accompanies both the tone and gameplay
+ Subtly told and heartfelt story
+ Serene and thoughtful score
– Mechanically slow, which can be frustrating when backtracking comes into play
– Some hidden collectibles exist in the game, but they do not earn you anything and are not tracked anywhere
The Gardens Between is available for purchase in the Humble Store.
Note: Game key for Nintendo Switch was provided by the developer. This had no bearing on our review.