Is it possible to craft a perfect visualisation of friendship? To capture an interpretation of the highs and lows of companionship and the memories that you and another person share?
This is the fundamental question that lies at the heart of developer Voxel Agents beautiful new time-warping puzzle platformer, The Gardens Between. Centred around two best friends warping to a mysterious realm built from their most treasured memories, this foray into the world of youthful companionship is a whimsical and nostalgic delight. Although it’s at times a little too simple for its own good, it’s clear that The Gardens Between is designed with passion and care, the creative level design and artistic visuals making this a concise experience with as much charm as it has brains.
Beginning in a dainty tree-house occupied by close friends Arina and Frendt, the game soon shifts from the familiar interiors of the duo’s wooden den and into an endless ocean populated by small islands. Each of these surreal plots of land is built from the pairing’s most memorable adventures together; some feature colossal NES controllers, others see bridges made of cola cans and in one scenario you even navigate across a giant whale spring rocker.
From these descriptions alone, it’s clear that The Gardens Between’s strongest asset is its phenomenal level design. Each island tells its own story without the need for dialogue, the placement of certain items in the duo’s path or the scenery that surrounds them conveying their emotional state at any given moment. Whether it’s searching through a nightmarish sewer amidst a violent storm or playing a retro video game on an old TV set, the prevalent themes and bittersweet story of The Gardens Between is spoken entirely through its detailed worlds and is all the better for it.
There’s one more prevalent feature of Voxel Agent’s surreal story, however. Awakening in this bizarre world, Arina and Frendt soon learn they can control the flow of time, moving forward causing them to accelerate time normally and travelling backwards causing the opposite.
This is the crux of The Gardens Between’s gameplay, the player combining time mechanics and the protagonist’s individual skills to carry Arina’s lantern to the top of the level and progress to the next island. This also entails manipulating the environment itself, with Friendt able to summon robots that move your lantern, lower hard to reach platforms and open flowers that both ignite and extinguish Arina’s light. It’s a system that leads to some creative and fun puzzles, the solutions often combining with the interesting environments to make problem-solving entertaining throughout.
This does, however, come with issues. Whilst it makes for enjoyable puzzles, they’re distinctly lacking in challenge, most feeling solvable without the need for much contemplation. This is fine for some of the earlier sections, but as the game progresses it does begin to feel short on satisfaction, the problems coming thick and fast but never forcing you to stop and consider a solution for more than a few minutes.
This is often down to the game’s simplistic range of mechanics. Whilst time manipulation does make for some really fun challenges, the majority of Friendt’s gameplay features are as simple as pressing a button or navigating the joystick in a certain direction. It leads to an unfortunate sense of repetition in the game’s last few chapters and a notable absence of complexity, while the short runtime means that you reach the credits hastily and without much resistance.
Yet, it’s easy to distract yourself from the game’s issues when you’re so absorbed in the beautiful visuals. Adopting a mesmerising cel-shaded aesthetic, Voxel Agents have created a world that looks adorable, stylish and charming whilst still retaining the ingrained nostalgia that sits at the core of the story. Everything from facial animations to stunning weather effects rings with attention to detail; the development team have clearly invested the time to make this a game that not only looks beautiful but also graphically aligns with the tone and themes of the underlying narrative.
What’s even more impressive is that the Nintendo Switch version of the game still looks phenomenal when undocked, the cel-shaded visuals not losing any potency on the smaller screen.
This is not the only area where The Garden Between shines on a technical front either. The music similarly compliments the game perfectly, subtly sitting in the back of each level and carefully crafting a dreamlike experience. It’s always present but noticeably reserved, never pulling you out of gameplay but always supporting the tone.
The sound design is no slouch either. The rumble of storms and the slight echo of distant memories does a superb job of making you feel engrossed in a world of pure nostalgia, its presence combining with the level design to make worlds that feel erected by the nostalgic minds of two childhood friends.
The Gardens Between is a fun puzzle game, but it’s what lies beneath that makes it such an interesting experience to indulge in. It’s a surreal ode to friendship; a cherished journey that explores the nostalgia of youth and what you sacrifice growing up. It lacks some much-needed challenge and can become repetitive as it reaches its final chapters, but the beautifully bittersweet finale comes just soon enough that it remains a touching adventure that never wears out its welcome.