It’s hard for me to imagine time travel as anything but a harrowing experience. Maybe going into the future wouldn’t be the worst, but the past is terrifying. There’s the constant worry of creating some universe-ending paradox, and the knowledge that even one wrong move could result in you never being born. Conceptually speaking, being the young duo at the center of The Gardens Between would be terrifying. Time is continuously shifting around them while they seem to be none the wiser, meaning the successful linear timeline they experience will be an endless string of paradoxical phenomena. To suddenly be carrying an object they won’t pick up until the future is just such a fact of life to them that they don’t even recoil in shock. They just go on their merry little way, enjoying the time they’re spending together in their surreal surroundings. Breaking the natural laws of the universe shouldn’t be a calming experience, but The Gardens Between makes a strong case that it can be.
Here’s what I liked:
Turn back time – If you didn’t know better, you might think this is any other modern indie sidescroller – A 3D world explored on a linear path, emotional story, environmental puzzles – all the hallmarks are there. Yet, if you try to play it how you’d expect it becomes something very different. Moving the joystick left and right will only move the characters indirectly – they’re acting on their own accord, you’re just providing the flow of time that lets them progress. Played across a series of islands, you must guide the duo safely through to the end of each area by rewinding and fast-forwarding their journey through each level. The goal of each island is to reach the exit at the top, making sure to grab the exit-unlocking orb somewhere along the way. This may sound incredibly simple, but it’s a lot more in-depth than just scrubbing through a Youtube video. There’s always something blocking their progress, leaving it up to you to be the all-knowing guide, finding the problem’s source in the time stream and ironing it out. A tower fell over on the path? Rewind it back to its former glory! Controlling time has the wonderful side-effect of never hitting a fail state and having endless attempts at solving puzzles.
Find a way – Most of your interaction with the game will be through rewinding and fast-forwarding using either the joystick or triggers, but the game continually introduces new ways to use this tool. Each new mechanic adds a new wrinkle to the premise, giving you more agency in each scene for and building on the puzzle complexity. Some objects can have their time altered separately from the whole scene. Others aren’t affected by time at all, remaining unaffected no matter how time flows. While I wouldn’t say this game is hard, the scenarios presented here are incredibly clever and require some brain power to overcome. The game wastes no time, intuitively weaving in new ideas at a steady clip and making sure each new level is an interesting visual experience.
Reach the stars – Not controlling the main characters was a fantastic decision story-wise, as it gives them more room to be actual characters. Through extensive use of animation, these two are full of personality despite never talking. You’ll see them playfully interacting with each other and exploring their surreal world with childlike wonder in ways that would feel intrusive if you had direct control. The game world itself is also full of storytelling, each level a fantastical mishmash of childhood memories. Overall art direction is just flat-out great, crafting scenes with many moving parts that always look stunning in slow-mo or standing still. Sound design is also rather impressive, as it’s able to keep up and match perfectly no matter how badly you’re scrambling the scene.
Here’s what I didn’t like:
The words that hurt you – There’s not a whole lot to dislike about The Gardens Between. It only takes a few hours to complete, but those few hours are well produced, incredibly polished and contain any useless filler. The closest thing I had to a problem with the game were a few sections where I wished time could be moved at a faster pace. The characters reacting to everything is cute and all, but watching them stop and smell the roses as you go back and forth through the same scene diminishes the fun of solving a puzzle.
The Gardens Between is one of those games that’s oddly hard to review, and that’s not just because describing the gameplay may make it sound like it’s played with a TV remote. It’s a fairly simple game, but it does everything so well it almost feels effortless. Controls are easy for anyone to grasp, new concepts and increased difficulty unfold so naturally, you may not even notice. The narrative may be cliché but comes across sincere, brought to life with a charming interpretation of childhood imagination. It’s the gaming equivalent of a warm, cozy blanket – a relaxing and welcoming experience built for anyone to enjoy.
Score: Must Buy
The Gardens Between was developed and published on Xbox One by The Voxel Agents. It was released November 29, 2018, for $19.99. A copy was provided for review purposes.