Besides from being next door neighbors, Arina and Frendt are best friends. A lot can be said about friendship, about its fickle nature and the strong bonds that are formed. But in video games, friendship is most often just a bi-product of the story, rather than the focus of the story itself. The Gardens Between changes this, and does so fairly well.
After hanging out for a while in the treehouse in their back yard, our friends are suddenly thrust into a strange world. Gone are the cityscapes and roads, replaced by a more idyllic scenery. Their treehouse is now a raft, and they’re drifting on an ocean littered with islands. Each island consists of two or three smaller parts, each one a garden of sorts and each one filled with its own memories.
In The Gardens Between you do not control the characters as much as you control time itself. You can have Frendt toggle switches, and Arina pick up the orb device used to progress the levels, but other than that you’re manipulating time. Push the stick left and time rewinds, push it to the right and time goes forward. This is the game’s core mechanic as you try to reach the portal on top of each garden. The game eases you into it with a couple of simple puzzles, and progressively increases the difficulty as you move from island to island. As you get deeper into it, smaller details like how different parts of the environment affect each other at a given moment in time plays a bigger role, with puzzles that are never too hard but still feel somewhat fresh. I would have liked to have seen even more creativity and complexity in the puzzles, but you could argue that this would have taken attention away from the story, or even create issues with the pacing. Nonetheless, I still think there’s room for more.
The game looks great, with a painted cartoon look that pops pretty nicely. The character animation is outstanding, with lots of details and mannerisms to appreciate. Placing everyday objects that are completely disproportionate and out of place in their surroundings, creates an atmosphere and mood that fits the theme well. And it looks really cool. The game relies heavily on nostalgia, and nothing points that out better than a gigantic VCR embedded in a rock. A soothing yet stylish soundtrack – and all the noises that come with messing with time or your favorite childhood object – is also present.
While the payoff at the end is solid, The Gardens Between could have done a better job of building up to it. With the lack of any additional storytelling, everything is left to the moment to moment puzzle solving and the objects you observe and interact with. It’s up to the player to project the notion of nostalgia unto the characters and their story – and for me personally that wasn’t enough to make it stick. Still, The Gardens Between is a somber and beautiful game about friendship that plays well, looks good and is bound to tug at an emotion or two while you explore Arina’s and Frendt’s fond memories.
This copy was provided by Stride PR. The game was played through to completion and later replayed parts of it for the platinum