The Gardens Between is a rather unique puzzle/adventure game. On one end it’s simple, elegant design makes the game extremely accessible, even for those that might not be a fan of the genre, on the other, it can begin to feel rather monotonous.
The Gardens Between follows two best friends as they explore surreal islands and unlock their secrets. It’s a very relaxed, laid-back style of game, that doesn’t demand anything other than expecting you to use your brain a bit. The game focuses on childhood friendships and growing up. As you progress through the game, the islands become more complex. While the first few might only take a few minutes to breeze through, the latter puzzles begin to require more of your time. This is by no means a bad thing, seeing as how the game is centered around these puzzles, it would have been annoying to continuously do puzzles that don’t require more than a few moves.
Time manipulation is the bread and butter of this title. You move the friends forward and watch as the dioramas come to life. As the friends move along their path, leaves fall, blocks might topple over or stack up; until you realize you missed something and need to backtrack. Backtracking literally rewinds time, and this is the mechanic each scenario revolves around. You can move forward or backward through time as many times as you like. As you do, the camera follows the friends as they spiral up the path towards the shrine-like monument at the top. It isn’t the friends you need to be watching though if you expect to advance through this game.
In The Gardens Between, islands are isolated, abstract collections of organic material and children’s knick-knacks. The two friends climb and jump over and around them as they try to make their way to the top of the island. Along the way, you must manipulate time and the objects around you in order to take the orb of light from the bottom of the island to its peak. You don’t control the friends really, as much as you control the flow of time. As you watch them move along, certain items will become highlighted in white, signaling to you that this item or chime is somehow important to reaching the top. The camera does follow the duo, but it’s the objects moving around them that need special attention.
One of the friends carries a lantern that holds the orbs of light you find along your way. The other, with the glasses, usually is the one that will interact with objects on the island. There are a lot of subtle clues that you must piece together in order to make it to the top. Whether it’s following the trajectory of a falling object or watching the two friends as they stop to examine something on the island, everything you’re watching play out has been put into this puzzle for a reason.
Finding out what goes where or what object activates another led to more “Ah HA!” moments than I care to admit. Yet, this is part of what makes The Gardens Between so enjoyable. The control of being able to scrub through every second of what you’re watching gives you a comforting sense of control. If you can’t figure out how to progress, odds are you weren’t watching carefully enough to catch something that hinted at what you needed to do next.
Each island is part of a group of islands that each share a theme. These might be instantly apparent, or you won’t piece things together until you finish the set. Regardless, after finishing the cluster of islands, you are treated to a small scene that shows how these larger than life objects fit into the relationship between the two friends. One particular favorite of mine involved tools that ended up being used by the two to build a tree house.
The islands involved the tools and one particular island required me to scrub back and forth as I watched one of the friends jump on and off a saw until it completely cut through a piece of wood. This unlocked a ramp that let me continue on my journey. It’s these interesting, subtle inclusions in The Gardens Between that make the time control aspect extremely interesting. At first I didn’t even realize I needed to go back and forth. It wasn’t until my fifth time scrubbing through the scene that I noticed every time he jumped on the saw it cut more of the wood.
The puzzles never get overly frustrating, and honestly, after completing a few of them, you’ll be overcome by this sense of relaxation. That is one of the best things about The Gardens Between, is that it’s almost therapeutic in a way. Of course, this could partially be in response to the wonderful soothing melodies playing in the background as you explore the islands.
The flip side of this is that some people might expect more out of the game or what it should offer. For those expecting a more interactive experience, you may come out disappointed. The Gardens Between is a relaxed, pick up n’ play puzzler that doesn’t require any extra exertion from you, and that, if you let it, can be very refreshing.
There are no explosions, no alien invasions, just a couple of friends exploring some surreal islands and finding the importance of childhood friendships. And that is completely fine by me. The repetitive aspects of scrubbing back and forth through a few dozen dioramas might not be appealing to everyone, but for those looking for a couple minutes respite from reality, The Gardens Between is here to give you that escape.