Mixing time manipulation with puzzles is tricky to figure out, and it has already been done in many ways, but in The Gardens Between, this mechanic helps to narrate a bittersweet tale of friendship between two kids. The time manipulation not only acts as a simple gameplay mechanic but also used to design levels that convey a sense of memories of friendship and tell a story without any words.
The Gardens Between is a short game that won’t take you long to complete, but it manages a lasting impact that will keep you thinking for a long time. There are subtle hints thrown at the relationship between the two kids, and how they think about each other which offers more than enough motivation to continue playing the game, and it all culminates in a final that is emotionally powerful and almost poetic.
The level design focuses on the memories of the two lead kids: Arina and Frendt. You control both of them through using the analog stick, navigating them to their goal which is always a portal that needs a shining magic lantern. It requires a ball of light first before you can activate the portal, and the puzzle design revolves around this concept.
Arina is the only one who can bear this magic lantern and she has to transport it with a light to the portal on top of each level. Frendt follows an alternative approach, and he can manipulate time for specific objects or open and close wind chimes to activate flowers that can light the magic lantern. The controls are simple without being overly complex to figure and primarily use the analog stick to make them walk, which also impacts the time around them.
In The Gardens Between, time will only pass if you move around and walking forward or backward has the same impact on time, so you will go back and forth in this time manipulation to activate a specific object, clear a barricade, or solve a puzzle. It works brilliantly in the game and finding the solution to a particular problem is a cathartic experience.
Lighting the magic lantern might be easy but trying to figure out how it can get to the portal on top is the challenging part. The light used on the lanterns is of a glowing colorful flower, but its opposite is a dark flower that can suck out this light. You will have to figure out how to avoid them and successfully take the magic lantern while making sure it produces the light to power up the portal for the next level.
The short length of the game seems ideal for it. There is a total of 20 levels that are all built on the memories of the two kids. Each level typically consists of two or three sub-levels that are short but together recreate their most memorable experiences. The puzzle difficulty in the start is easy but as you start making progress, they become more complex and will require some serious thinking to resolve them.
There is no written text to explain what is going on, it is merely an abstract journey into the psyche of the young kids who decide to sneak out and get together one rainy night. The ending is worth getting to because it is emotionally powerful and resonates with our own experience as kids. It would be a disservice to spoil this ending so it is best if you play the game to draw to its conclusion.
The bite-sized nature of levels means you can complete each one in a few minutes if you can figure out the puzzles quickly, and there is no more replay value provided unless you want to experience this story again. The presentation is perfect with the non-existent HUD, but subtle visual cues are present to show objects available to interact in the levels. This carries over to the main menu interface where only the game logo is present, so this simplicity is kept for every aspect of the game.
The visuals are absolutely gorgeous and help set up a dreamy atmosphere. The delightful soundtrack sways you in the mood with its calming tone. The way the developers have implemented a sense of dread once you get closer to the end of the journey is sheer genius. You start with simple weather conditions for levels but as you make your way to the end, the weather starts to change into a more overcast or rainy season which lines up with the kids’ experience in the present time.
Taking everything into consideration, The Gardens Between is an excellent indie game based on manipulating time that simplifies storytelling leaving it up to the players and instead focuses on providing a narrative through its level design and meticulously crafted puzzles. It is a short adventure but one that will stay in your memories for a long time.
The Gardens Between Review (PS4)
Game Reviewed on: PS4
Game description: The Gardens Between is a puzzle video game developed by Australian studio The Voxel Agents, released in September 2018 for Microsoft Windows, macOS, Linux, Nintendo Switch, and PlayStation 4.
Final Score - 8/10
A bittersweet tale of friendship that is masterfully presented through carefully designed puzzles revolving around time manipulation.