This review is based on the Playstation 4 version of The Gardens Between.
As I get older, I have an increasing appreciation for games that start with a simple premise & gradually ease you into more complex gameplay elements without becoming a stat management exercise. There is a particular type of joy that comes from getting better at key moments where the designer has inserted a carefully crafted scenario to teach you something new, gives you a few chances to figure it out & then continues to layer upon each previous skill with a new addition and/or a different wrinkle to what was shown before.
The Gardens Between is an game that captures this type of experience in a beautiful package. Created by Australian developer The Voxel Agents, it combines the time control hook of Braid with the visual style of Oxenfree for a compelling puzzle solving adventure.
You play as Arina & Frendt, a pair of friends who have different abilities such as carrying a lantern or toggling switches on each level. Their journey takes them through an increasingly elaborate series of levels composed of circular spires, heading up towards a peak that requires a lit lantern to open the gate to advance. Each collection of these levels is succeeded by a brief intermission with our protagonists captured in a memory, highlighted with elements that vibrate slightly to draw your attention to unveil complementary animations. It feels like a classic adventure game on CD-ROM that tells a story through inference rather than interaction, a balance of hands-on with hands-off that doesn’t always work but succeeds here.
Each visual detail has a confidence of design that makes The Gardens Between stand out visually in a memorable way. The levels & characters are rendered in a cell shaded style that also shows deliberate touches with the depth of perception, layered animations & a continually shifting perspective that really stands out. The delicate, soothing soundtrack & gentle sound effects accentuate the beautiful levels as you puzzle out the right combination of lantern placement, light capture & switching to continue the journey.
The Gardens Between is a thoughtful, carefully crafted adventure that ends after a few hours but stays bubbling on the edge of your brain for days to come. It has a confident vision that makes me excited for future projects by The Voxel Agents; its combination of visual style, aural nuance & interactive patterns make it a really fun way to spend moody afternoon or stormy night.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars