I’ve played a lot of games in my life and, while I’ve enjoyed a large number of them, it’s a very rare thing to find something that really makes me gasp in wonder. A moment where you have to put down the controller and just marvel at what is happening in the game. Before playing Manifold Garden, the last time that happened to me was the giraffe scene in The Last of Us. It happened to me twice in Manifold Garden.
Before going any further into this review it is important to underline that this is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful games I have ever played. You start off the game in a simple wireframe world of off-whites and greys, with splashes of colour used as a tutorial to guide you through both the mechanics and the rules of the game world. The first thing that strikes you after this is the scope of the arena. Opening a door into the outside unveils geometric structures and patterns disappearing in every direction as far as the eye can see. Looking over the edge of a platform reveals infinite abysses that it is hard to resist the urge to leap into. There are plenty of games these days that have massive open worlds to explore and there is no doubt that they feel massive but it is rare that they look as huge as the world in Manifold Garden does.
In actuality, this is a trick of perspective and the levels of the game are fairly self-contained. When you look out (or down, or up), what you’re seeing is where you already are. All those structures in the distance are the same structure you’re already standing on. This impossibility of viewpoint is not the only physics-defying thing about the game. The first mechanic introduced is the ability to shift gravity. Walk up to a wall and press the right-trigger and gravity will shift to make that wall the floor. This ability to use all three dimensions to restructure and reorientate the levels of the game provides a lot of depth in compact spaces and provides the core of the gameplay.
There are buttons to press, blocks to move and other, more esoteric, puzzle-solving mechanisms but the orientation of the level plays heavily into them. Buttons are only active if you’re in the right orientation relative to them. Blocks will only respond to one direction of gravity. There are many more mechanics than this but, to avoid spoilers, suffice it to say that the levels of the game never stop making the absolute most of these mechanics; even if, at times, it’s just to gaslight and distract from the real way to progress.
None of how to do any of this is spelled out by the game, beyond a very occasional prompt to tell you what the controls are. Manifold Garden is a game of intuition and experimentation. Often it is the case that the solution to a puzzle will only present when you have tried everything you already know how to do in the game and are forced to take a leap of faith in a direction you’ve never been before. Sometimes literally.
All of this can make the game occasionally frustrating. I am about halfway through the game and spent forty minutes yesterday just running around all six dimensions of a level trying to understand what was where and getting nowhere with progressing. In that case, it turned out that applying a mechanism I knew already existed, but that had never done anything before, was the key to moving on. For all the gradually mounting frustration that had preceded it, the discovery of this was a sheer delight that left me grinning.
This, again, is not the only time that Manifold Garden left me with a huge smile on my face. Small actions and discoveries can cause an entire layer of the game to be revealed and it is such a terrific feeling when that happens. William Chyr, Manifold Garden’s designer, has done a wonderful job of teasing and gently guiding the player towards these revelations just enough to help them get there without encroaching on the sense of achievement or discovery of getting to the solution. It is a mightily impressive feat.
Playing Manifold Garden truly feels like an adventure. Delving deeper into the game reveals satisfying and rewarding mechanics and puzzles as well as constantly delighting and amazing with a staggeringly beautiful world. Both the art and the music are top notch; subtle and evocative and always teasing with the promise of more. In William Chyr, video games seem to have a new auteur who should hopefully deliver wonderful experiences for years to come.