It’s a stormy night. Two windows from neighboring houses are open, lights left on in their rooms and makeshift escape routes helplessly dangle in the raging wind. It is hard to deny that the scene that greets you when you start The Gardens Between is evocative, a hint, perhaps, at the adventure that is to come.
This is a game that The Voxel Agents has themed around memories, friendship and time. But, while it excels as a puzzle experience that’s arguably unlike anything that you will have played before, I was, to my own surprise, unmoved by the bittersweet narrative that the developer has looked to thread throughout it.
That story follows Arina and Frendt, two best friends who, after crackling lightning strikes the treehouse that they are sheltering in, discover an orb of light that magically transports them to a dreamlike but waterlogged world. It is here that they have the chance to explore mysterious garden islands – dioramas of sorts that are littered with objects that reflect on memories that they shared together growing up.
These range from an old Famicom-inspired console to a sofa covered with spilled popcorn, a telescope on top a mountain that’s pointed at the stars or a playground where chalk drawings can come to life. Every scene that you navigate has a story to tell, and, given the genre, multiple puzzles to which you are left to decipher the solutions.
The twist to The Gardens Between’s gameplay is that rather than taking direct control of Arina and Frendt you control time. The characters walk along a predetermined path, and, by moving the Left Stick left or right you can progress or rewind their actions. And, of course, leaving it idle means that everything remains frozen in place. This time manipulation is easily what helps the game to stand apart from what has quickly become a crowded genre on the Nintendo eShop.
Your goal is to carry a glowing orb to the highest point in each diorama to stir a memory that the characters share. That’s easier said than done as, aside from menacing vortexes that will swallow that pure light whole, you will need to time jumps to leap across cans drifting in the water, hammer a hidden code into a computer, or use a droplet to spark electricity.
There are fleeting moments of brilliance to the puzzle design in The Gardens Between, but, between them, the pace meanders to the point where my interest started to wane. There can be no doubt that it’s unlike anything else that you will have played before, but, in turn, the wondrous idea that lies at its core never feels like it blossoms into something that manages to enter its stride. The potential and talent is clear, though, and I greatly look forward to seeing what The Voxel Agents create next.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by The Voxel Agents