The Gardens Between has been dazzling audiences with its preview content, showcasing its gorgeous artwork and simple, fluid mechanics through both websites and conventions alike. With the help of a review key, I was able to put the rest of the game to the test, and suffice to say, it didn’t disappoint.
The Gardens Between doesn’t waste your time with exposition — it gets right to the point. You’re introduced to two kids who suddenly go on a very unusual trip down memory lane. The game’s setting is a series of nebulous dreamscapes, each of which hold some sort of significance to the two protagonists. Your role, as the player, is a bit unusual. Instead of taking control of one or both of the protagonists, you control the passage of time in each level. This is not to say that you can’t influence the characters at all, however. There are certain objects that you can interact with only when one of the two kids is standing near it, and these objects allow you to alter the environment.
The puzzles are straightforward in their goal. In order to complete a level, the kids must carry a shining lantern from point A to point B. You must manipulate time and the environment to allow them to do so. Each level confronts you with a variety of barriers which you must overcome in creative ways. This is hardly a new concept in puzzle games, but it is executed remarkably well in The Gardens Between. Fans of Monument Valley will find familiar content here, but the levels are fresh enough to not feel repetitive or contrived.
Another striking aspect of the game is the art style. Plenty of indie games lean into surreal, dream-like aesthetics, but few are as successful at it as The Gardens Between. The game takes classic childhood settings like treehouses and playgrounds and turns them into foggy, mystical garden islands. This results in settings that are simultaneously nostalgic and surreal, much like our own memories of childhood. However, while the two protagonists look like they could be from any era, there is some specificity in the childhood being explored. Context clues like old computers, pixelated video game screens and cassette tapes sprinkled throughout the gardens clue you into the fact that these childhood memories are from the 80s or 90s at the latest. These retro aesthetic references should resonate with most of the game’s audience, and it’s charming much in the same way that Stranger Things is (minus the spooky monsters).
The lovely visuals are accompanied by a soundtrack that is pleasant enough, but it’s nothing to write home about. It doesn’t grate, but it also doesn’t greatly enhance your experience. At the end of each level, there’s a short sequence that could certainly have been more satisfying if the soundtrack intensified a bit more. That said, the ambient music generally fits the mood of the game, and certainly doesn’t detract from your experience.
In terms of narrative, The Gardens Between is sweet but not so special. Throughout the levels, you get several glimpses into evocative memories, but no cohesive story. It’s a game that leaves you wanting a bit more in terms of plot, characterization and tension. Despite this, the two protagonists do still reveal certain character traits to you throughout the game. One often taps her foot a bit impatiently, and they are both eager to point out remarkable parts of the environment to each other (and by extension, to you as well). The Gardens Between is a game with minimal narrative, but the developers’ attention to detail ensures that it’s still full of charm.
Ultimately, The Gardens Between knows what it aims to do, and it does it well. The puzzles are satisfying to complete and vary in theme, mechanics and complexity. Each of the environments are beautifully crafted dreamscapes that stick with you well after you complete the game. The nostalgia in the gardens is palpable, and sentimental lovers of environmental puzzle games will be thrilled with what they find there.