Looking back into my childhood, I remember how often I played in my grandmother’s backyard. Living next door was a girl my age, Julia. We both spent a lot of time together every day, from having tea parties, to crafting flower crowns for each other. Playing The Gardens Between reminded me of her and I thought back a lot because both Arina and Ferndt triggered those memories. It all starts in the treehouse that is located between their parents’ houses as they meet up in an evening of pouring rainfall. A light orb appears in the night and as the brave Arina touches it out of curiosity, they both get to start their journey as they are sucked into it.
This surreal adventure puzzle game takes place in the past of both children. Portrayed by a huge sea of memories spent together, the treehouse actually functions as the boat. It takes both protagonists to different beautiful islands that are filled with objects from their daily life. Once arrived there, it is upon you to clear their way to the top through all sorts of obstacles and solve puzzles along the way.
Every level starts with both Arina and Ferndt waiting for you to lead their path to the top. The unique thing in The Garden Between is that you are able to control both girl and boy, but you are not able to freely tell them where to go. By pressing either the shoulder buttons (ZL and ZR), using the D-pad or both left and right analog sticks, you tell the characters to move. You can interact with certain objects with A, but that is it. You are in control and you slowly learn that you are not at the same time.
Arina is always carrying a lantern with her in which she can store light. Light sources are flowers with bright yellow petals. You automatically pick up light when you are near those and store it in the lamp. Wait, but why do you need light? You can perfectly see everything during the stages… Well, light is the solution to some puzzles. Arina and Ferndt need to restore bridges with it. Sometimes, they also need it to clear out a path that is blocked by a purple cloud. Have light in your hands, the cloud disappears and if you haven’t, the cloud remains. From time to time, you actually need them to stay, so plan wisely.
Now, you gonna ask yourself: “Once I had picked up some light, how do I get rid of it if I don’t need it anymore?” Just as in real life, the flower variation is rich but it’s the purple that is counterpart to the yellow one. Instead of spending some drops of illumination, it takes them away from you. Comes in handy when you need light to disappear and pass over some clouds for example. What happens, though, if you have to pass by a blossom and do not want to pick up anything or not give up your yield?
There are actually two answers to that question. The first option are little squares. They can pick up the lamp for Arina and transport it for her. Like both children, these little robot boxes are not freely controllable. That would be too easy and not much of a challenge.
No friendly box in sight though? Well, Ferndt’s friend certainly is a bit braver than himself, but his time to shine starts when the pair encounters switches. These come in different forms. One of them is a sort of wind chime. And this device, in fact, answers the question from before as well. The sound of the bell makes both purple and yellow petals want to open or close. Once closed, no light will be stolen from or be handed out to you.
The other switch you often cross paths with lets you manipulate time without you having to move. Objects move and react in a way that makes you be able to go forward to the top of the island. There awaits some sort of shrine, where both Ariana and Ferndt place down the lantern and trigger the end of the stage. Completing the puzzles of the islands shows you a corresponding short memory of both children and let’s you be a part of it. Let me give you an example. Arina and Ferndt play video games together so you can see them actually playing with each other in the flashbacks too! Everything plays hand in hand with the objects you see along on the dreamy gardens you have completed.
So far, so good! The Gardens Between excites you with gorgeous graphics. Does it only entice you with a beautiful facade though? No. It does not. The music is nice, the gameplay is simple and the way of playing is fresh, unique even. The gameplay almost feels like a VHS tape that you can rewind or fast forward.
So… It feels like a VHS tape, but it feels kind of fresh too? Yes! Yes, because this puzzle game is unique and challenging with so many new things added to them. The way you solve puzzles is outstanding! You interact with your environment in many clever moves, such as manipulating water, a seesaw on a playing ground, lightning, music, and many more. Sometimes, you often have other things to do like to hold time to make objects react or make the protagonists walk back and forth on something. A brilliant idea to combine physics and a surreal world into one!
Oh my, it is hard to balance out this genre. I had games that frustrated me a lot before. It is hard for the developers as well since we all think differently and approach a problem in various ways. You constantly have to be careful not give away too much but to not discourage your audience too.
Fortunately, The Gardens Between left me hooked and I had to restrain myself to play further, even though I was stuck. And like everything in life, it is sometimes good to step away for a moment, just to return and try again. Patience is the key, in puzzle games, as well as in a friendship both Arina and Ferndt share.
The only honest thing I would consider as a con is the lack of content. I know that The Voxel Agents put a lot of effort into their game. I mean, just look at screen captions, images and the trailer and nobody can deny it looks absolutely delightful. So much love to details is poured into this game, making it a masterpiece and absolute joy to play. So, I was bummed out as the game came to an end. I did not care about the ending too much at one point during my playing. I just wanted to see what both main characters experienced in their friendship.
The Gardens Between can be played through an entire evening if you do not get stuck badly. I often hold myself back to continue playing since I did not want that experience to end. With no New Game+ mode, you might not have any reason to revisit this game again, like an old friend.
Some might find it bothersome to see the boy and the girl walk backwards and forwards after solving a puzzle, but I absolutely loved it…! It did not ask a lot of patience from me to watch them and I would suggest you do that as well. Both of them interact with the world and each other, telling more about themselves and about themselves in their reactions. It was also just so cute when they sometimes both held hands… It just showed that the developer wanted the children authentic and believable. Voxel Agents cared a lot when creating the game and you cannot only see it by the precise timing between both characters, but also the obstacles when fast forwarding or rewinding. Oh, look at me, rambling about good things again in the section that is supposed to pick up the cons…!
Anyone talking about a game they love can be blinded by the excitement they share for it and not pick up any flaws. To be honest, it was more than hard for me to nitpick on the game. I normally can attack the audio, but the beautifully crafted songs by Tim Sheil added depth and the use of sound in a level makes it so much fun.
I cannot really say anything except it is a bit short of content. Again, a New Game+ mode with a bit more challenging and new ways to approach things would be nice. Or maybe new monthly puzzle additions to return to that amazing title. Like the Professor Layton series did! Although, with the long time in development, the bar is set high for that, so I can understand that it would be highly not possible to make that reality.
Now to my personal conclusion. The Gardens Between touched me on a deeper level and gave me joy like few titles did. I could not stop thinking about my friends when I played this game, wanting them to see it so bad and play it with me. My best friend, a graphic designer, would love the visuals and fully approve. Another friend of mine would love the puzzle solving in this game.
The Voxel Agents can be proud of this Switch port. It includes all things that younger and grown-up kids would enjoy: video games, music, a playing ground with a giant whale seesaw, and the colours. The time in development was well spent and left me kind of sad when it came to an end. Everything has to come to an end though so another great experience like this can wait around the corner for you.
The game became my personal treehouse to return to after the review if I ever want to forget what thunderstorm might have happened. The Gardens Between is like a warm hug from a person that encountered your life. Yet still, you have the impression you have known that feeling before. It is like the returning of a long-gone friend you are happy to see again. You almost forget what it feels like to be with him and maybe we can experience it one day as Arina and Ferndt.