Video games, especially in the triple A space, have almost always been comfortable with using “bigger” as comparable buzzword for “better.” It’s hard to read about a sequel without also seeing how it dwarfs its predecessor or other games in its genre. This size-measuring competition and race to make the increasingly infinite game has left the door open for indie titles to deliver smaller experiences where quantity is not as much of a concern as quality. THE GARDENS BETWEEN is enigmatic of that philosophy, as its puzzle mechanics and story are as brief as they are beautiful.
The Gardens Between is a puzzle game where you don’t directly control the two main preteen characters, but time itself. This is an innovative way to let you simultaneously move both protagonists, Arina and Frendt, as they try to find the light source and ferry it to the end of the level. Manipulating time is the central mechanic and dictates what path you can take and what you can interact with in order to grab that coveted light source.
Frendt does most of that interacting since he’s responsible for hitting all the right switches. This opens up the path for Arina, who is responsible for keeping the light source required to finish the level inside of her lantern. In essence, he needs to open up the path for her to get the light and she needs to figure how to keep that light in her lantern and get it safely to the end.
The Gardens Between Review – The Guiding Light
Getting the light to the end is an incredibly intuitive and easy to grasp concept, which is due to the level design. The game naturally builds up and gets slightly more complicated over its two-hour runtime with each progressive stage. While it starts with simple tasks like pulling levers, it quickly starts layering on additional twists with each passing world. These twists weave together and complement the central time-bending mechanic without making it too complex. All of this results in a steady difficulty curve and excellent pacing; the key to a great puzzle game.
Stages always pool together enough returning and new mechanics to require enough thought to stay actively engaging while never quite getting to the point to where you’ll need a guide. It even intelligently bars you from backtracking too far after you’ve solved each section, which ensures that you’re almost never looking in the wrong place for an answer that isn’t there.
There are, however, just a couple places where the game is a little vague and makes you linger on a clue for a bit too long, causing you to second guess whether or not you’ve actually solved it. But it’s a relatively minor inconsistency, given how effectively the the rest of the game communicates its mechanics without using text or dialogue.
The Gardens Between Review – Showing, Not Telling
The environmental design also conveys its personality without words just as gracefully and efficiently. The worlds are not just utilitarian playboxes designed only for its puzzles; they’re delicately constructed in tandem with the story the game is silently telling.
They do allow for a constant stream of inventive one-off puzzle mechanics — the video game level is one the standouts — but also a clever way to fuse narrative and gameplay. The huge dinosaur skeleton level is not only there because dinosaurs are rad but it’s showing that one time they sneaked behind the velvet rope to mess with the delicate artifacts in the museum.
Stages are small vignettes that begin to paint a bigger picture. They are charming in their own right but, when taken as a whole, let you figure out why the two kids are reliving these moments together. This method do a great job of telling you the story without telling you the story.
The Gardens Between Review – Friends Until the End
Walking with them during their trip down memory lane is cute but isn’t the only way they share their affection towards one another. They’ll hold hands, wave to each other, and react to one another in ways that speaks far louder than dialogue could. You don’t need to be told that they are close friends; you can see it for yourself. Each stage even ends with a charming, nostalgic moment in the real world between the two that said stage was based upon, which contextualizes the level you just played and is an adorable, appropriate way to send off that memory.
The Garden Between’s whole aesthetic supplements that adorable atmosphere. Its visuals are fittingly clean and colorful, accurately capturing the childlike innocence that is inherent to the game while also being lovely and distinct on its own. The soundtrack matches that joy and beauty, and is full of laidback, excellent ambient tunes that a puzzle game — specifically, this puzzle game — needs. Both pieces of its audiovisual package work with and for each other, resulting in an incredibly cohesive package.
There’s an elusive elegance to The Gardens Between. It’s short, charming, and shows its rewarding puzzle mechanic in just a couple hours without stretching the game to its breaking point. Some people might think it’s too short but it’s a start contrast to a solid chunk of big budget games that boast nebulous amounts of content over shorter, more authored experiences. The Gardens Between uses its brevity to its favor and shows a wordless, thoughtful relationship through some clever, well-paced levels without overstaying its welcome or repeating itself. And that’s value that a “dollars to hours” ratio can’t calculate.
The Gardens Between was reviewed on PS4 via a digital code provided by the publisher.