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
This review is based on the iOS and Playstation 4 versions of Donut County.
The best things in life are generally simple: taking a walk in nice weather, enjoying your lunch or sleeping in on a long weekend. For casual games, the same principle applies as titles like the Katamari series, Tetris & Puyo Puyo have become staples of accessible gaming for all ages.
Donut County excels at delivering quick hits of fun with a really simple premise: you have a hole on the ground: the more that falls in, the larger it gets & the more items you can drop in. Not since Katamari has a game captured the visual delight of snatching up increasingly large items from a stray brick to an enormous house in the span of a few minutes while bouncing around cheerfully bright worlds.
Building on a concept that came up during a game jam, developer Ben Esposito has created an easy to grasp & not that much harder to master game: the difficulty curve doesn’t scale up as it does with other puzzle games. Officially described as “A story-filled physics puzzle game where you play as a hole in the ground”, Donut County is a linear experience that pair small game worlds with rapidly changing environments to tell the tale of a town under siege by a raccoon squad bent on collecting the world’s trash. The occasional cameo of high powered drones or urban gridlock pop up in & around an Animal Crossing-esque town that you’re tasked with saving using the power of gravity + an increasingly active hole…!
The audio has a fun mix of smacking, plopping & whooshing sounds that fit tightly with the visual style. Background tracks are soothing melody loops while the character dialogue is full on Charlie Brown parental squawking that comes across as thematically appropriate.
The iOS version is as equally enjoyable as the PlayStation 4 version, the cartoon graphics still pop out of the screen & the quirky animations still engaging across different screen sizes. The only minor frustration on mobile is obscuring part of the screen as the hole is clicked & dragged around with my finger, but it’s a common challenge with mobile games; having a dedicated navigation point at a corner lacks the precision that some of the trickier puzzles require.
Donut County is a fun & distinctly styled game that deserves a place on everyone’s digital library. The complete experience is fairly short (I finished it on a short plane flight) but the levels are fun to revisit & filling out the complete Trashopedia provides a rich stack of quirky, pun filled descriptions to giggle over. The experience is equally fun in full HD on a console or the confines of a mobile screen, it’s worth checking out for gamers of all types.
Have a Garbage Day!
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of Super Mario Odyssey.
Until last fall, the core Mario franchise was in danger of becoming the video game version of Mickey Mouse: an iconic legend with a lack of current relevance. After a string of disappointing entries such as New Super Mario Brothers U & Super Mario 3D Land on the low selling Wii U, the mustachioed man of mushrooms was at the nadir of his illustrious career.
Super Mario Odyssey blows away that disappointing recent history with an experience that is profoundly ambitious & creatively inspired. The latest Mario adventure combines the best elements of Super Mario 64’s platforming with the bright visuals of Super Mario Sunshine & a deep collection of fresh, vibrant new worlds to explore. The unique mechanic in Odyssey is Cappy, a sentient ghost that perches itself on Mario’s head as a cap that can be thrown onto creatures, objects & even people to interact with them. This manifests itself in a variety of fun results from flicking Mario around a dense urban landscape to controlling classic foes, gigantic animals & even bewildered humans (!) to collect moons, a collectible that powers your vessel that traverses from kingdom to kingdom in pursuit of the kidnapped Princess once again.
The quality that makes Odyssey truly special is its focus on the freedom to explore. Gone is the 1-up, replaced by a symbolic penalty of 10 coins for each death which is often replenished in seconds after respawning. The power moons required to progress from world to world can be earned in a wide variety of ways, allowing the player to skip almost any challenges that are too difficult or less appealing to hit each power moon tier before flying to another kingdom. The different levels range from the expected snow, water & sand levels to entirely new creations such as New Donk City, a brilliant take on Manhattan that stands out among a deep collection of wonderful worlds. Without spoiling any particular moments, there are some optional set pieces & retro throwback sequences that are joyous tributes to earlier games which made me exclaim in delight.
It looks brilliant on the Switch’s display, filling the screen with worlds dense with detail & hidden treasures that become progressively more nuanced as they are explored. The focus on design through placement, creature behaviour & modifiers such as shimmering on interactive elements are combined with the extensive use of procedural vector elements over rasterized assets (the entire game is a remarkably small 5.7 GB in size), resulting in worlds with far reaching draw distances as well as nearly instant load times. The cheerful bobble of friendly characters, staccato hopping of Goombas, tenacious pursuit by Bullet Bills, loopy swim patterns of aquatic creatures & much more imbue the world with an energy that never fades.
The melody focused music blends remixes of classic themes with springy, toe tapping new tunes to accompany each adventure. The new tracks aren’t as iconic or immediately etched into memory as the theme songs from the 2D era games, but they inspire the same sense of upbeat fun when exploring each kingdom: from the light percussive tones of the Sand Kingdom to the wind swept harmonies of the Snow Kingdom, each world has a distinctive aural composition. Bouncing off of enemies, flinging Cappy, snaring a Power Moon & every other action has a quick, bright audio accompaniment that is the unmistakeable signature of Nintendo: composers Shiho Fujii, Naoto Kubo & the legendary Koji Kondo deserve special recognition for their work.
The game is so rich with options that many of them can be missed during a completed story experience. I managed to finish the core story mode without using the Cappy sustained throw & jump that creates a temporary landing pad for Mario, missed a lot of the optional moon side quests & barely scratched the surface of repeated missions like the riddles or time attack races that populate each world. I kept both Joy-Con controllers firmly affixed to the Switch while I played exclusively in portable mode, navigating each world without using the variety of motion sensitive controls for spin attacks or specialized throws. For players with a completionist approach, this game can devour well over a hundred hours with carefully crafted puzzles, hidden areas & increasingly difficult challenges to gather a fortune in addictive collectible moons.
Super Mario Odyssey is a remarkable achievement for the adventure franchise. By offering the most powerful combination of old & new since the Nintendo 64 launched with a similarly revolutionary platforming experience in Super Mario 64, it serves as the capstone of an incredible 2017 for the Nintendo Switch & redefines the Mario franchise for the current generation of Nintendo hardware.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars