The Voxel Agents is best known for mobile games like Puzzle Retreat and the Train Conductor series. For their latest title, the team is diving into more artistic waters, presenting a story about childhood friendship which defines youth as the fleeting fight against the inevitable passage of time. Growing up is bittersweet, since people move forward, but cannot go back.
The Gardens Between is an intimate puzzle game with unique mechanics, a touching story, and a charming personality. It's like nothing else on the market, but is that enough to make it worth a purchase?
The player takes charge of two young friends in The Gardens Between, Arina and Frendt, but doesn't control them directly. Rather, they control time itself. Using either the analog sticks or the DualShock 4's pressure-sensitive shoulder buttons, players move time forward or backwards, propelling Arina and Frendt to venture back and forth along a fixed course. The goal of each stage is to bring the two friends to the end of the path with a lit torch. The torches need to be lit by these adorable little critters, dubbed "friends," who don't always play by the same rules of time as the two main characters and their environs. Arina carries the torch, and Frendt can ring bells which can manipulate the temporal position of some objects and have other distinct effects on the play field.
The levels are never too terribly complex, though there are some puzzles which can be real head-scratchers for a few minutes. Since there's no exploration apart from moving back and forth, the solution to a problem is always at hand; it just needs to be discovered. The process of swiping back and forth looking for that one elusive clue calls to mind the crime scene reconstruction mode in the Batman: Arkham games, except The Gardens Between makes clever use of its time manipulation mechanic; for instance, a drop of water may fall through a gap of exposed wiring, but if the player stops time so that the droplet lingers at the point of contact, the water will close the circuit and open a new way forward. There are a ton of interactions like this, many of which are required to progress, leading to more interactivity than one might expect. There's a lot more here than holding down a button to progress.
Visually, The Gardens Between doesn't seem to demand much from the PS4 hardware – or that of the Nintendo Switch, for that matter – but it has a lovely art style which is positively dripping with character. The levels themselves look like dioramas comprised of artifacts from Arina and Frendt's shared adventures, and the time warping effects strike just the right balance of science fiction and psychedelia. There's no spoken dialogue, so all the storytelling is conveyed visually, often through animation flourishes on the characters, as well as the snapshots of friendship that accompany the successful completion of each chapter.
The Gardens Between isn't a long game; an initial playthrough takes around two hours, but it certainly has replay value, since there are so many storytelling details which can be easily overlooked the first time around. Still, the story's brevity, linear design, and minimalist gameplay can be off-putting to some. It can't be helped, since if the game were padded out with side quests, optional paths, or more complex mechanics, it would lose the very charm which makes it so special in the first place.
Some games are mechanic-driven, like many open world titles and big-budget adventures. Some are like movies, with a story to tell and a direct method of relaying that information. The Gardens Between is like a painting; it's simple enough to view it, experience it, "beat" it, and move on. On the other hand, its subtle imagery, relatable moments, and youthful point of view ensure it will stick with those who choose to place value in what this game has to say.
The Gardens Between is currently available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC for $19.99. Screen Rant was provided a PlayStation 4 copy for review.