The Gardens Between tells the story of two kids exploring their friendship and a series of surreal landscapes, through which you travel by the grace of a benevolent god (the player) controlling time and space. The mechanics of these godly powers are introduced slowly but steadily, and in my brief time with the demo I didn’t find any puzzles too difficult for a child to complete; but that’s okay. This is a game designed to be accessible to all, with no text, complicated controls, or even a distracting UI to muck up the experience.
The first thing that stands out about the experience is the art style, which rightfully won an award at the Annual Independent Games Festival. The visuals are quirky and cute, the framerate never made me want to recoil in pain, and most importantly, the animations were well done. Because rewinding time is such an important part of the game, making the characters move in a visually appealing way as they travel both forwards and backwards is vital…and they did it! Well done, The Voxel Agents!
For the island puzzles, the gameplay consists of guiding your kids forward until a problem is encountered. Don’t worry, the little spuds find a path by themselves, but problems arise in the form of untraversable terrain, which is always solved by the mysterious purple orb that must eventually be carried to the peak of the island and shoved into a stone altar by your new wards (the kids). Strange flowers grow on the islands, both giving and taking away these orbs, and using your powers, you can affect an item, rewind time, and then be able to use the item. Temporally, it makes no sense, but it’s a nifty mechanic nonetheless.
During my playtime I had access to four islands to walk through, after which the game ended with what I presumed was a flashback to a point in the kids’ friendship. I could rewind or progress the flashback, and I ran through the game twice to make sure that a different choice didn’t trigger more content. Sadly, that wasn’t the case, but I was left wondering if the choice to go forward or backward in time would affect the story in the full version. I was disappointed by how quickly I went through what was given to me (two playthroughs only amounted to roughly 23 minutes) and I have no idea if the puzzles become longer the further you progress in the game.
I could only sense the story at the fringes of the gameplay – the children hold hands once, at the fourth garden a giant window in the background helped question the reality of the islands you walk through, and even during the starting screen it shows two houses next to each other, one with a sheet rope hanging out the window. But over all there wasn’t much to see. I suspect it builds as the game continues, and hopefully that’s the case.
The Gardens Between has serious potential that I wasn’t able to fully experience at the time of this review, but I’m looking forward to experiencing more once it’s been fully released. Its accessibility to people of all abilities is attractive, as are the wonderful visuals – I’d love to watch a cartoon or show in the same style. I only wish I could say more about the gameplay and variance in puzzles and mysteries, as few were present during my short playtime. I know I want to play more – if only to see what else lay in store for me.