It always makes me happy when you crack open a new game and the first thing you see is, “Best with headphones.” What it tells me is that the experience I’m about to have comes from people who love their product enough to bring you the finer details. And that is precisely how I would describe The Gardens Between by the Voxel Agents.
In this surreal puzzle adventure, two friends fall into a dreamlike world of islands. Manipulate time to solve the puzzles and get from one island to the next. As you do, you unlock memories from Arina and Frendts’ past and dive deeper into a story that slowly unfolds.
The beauty of this game is in the simplicity of everything. The gameplay is so intuitive that it hardly needs a tutorial to know what to do. I played the recently-released version for iOS and found that I could have a satisfyingly immersive experience with the magic of just with one finger. Drag right to go forward in time, drag left to reverse, tap to interact. It never felt awkward. The only thing I would have liked to have seen was a more responsive option for fast-forwarding/reversing if you dragged further in either direction.
The puzzles were never hard enough for me to want a walkthrough. There were a few moments of, “What in the world am I missing here”, but usually paying attention to the details would give me just enough clues to solve the puzzle. Something I really enjoyed was finding out new ways that manipulating time would introduce other mechanics that I hadn’t encountered before. Because of this, each puzzle felt fresh and I found myself looking forward to each new island. Having said this, the final level felt a little too easy compared to the complexities of the previous levels, but I guess at that point, the game might have been more focused on the storytelling rather than the puzzling.
Speaking of which, the story, while pretty straightforward, is utterly beautiful. It recalls the simple pleasures of childhood, including some items that a few of us 80’s/90’s kids would regard with nostalgia. This journey through a surreal landscape is backed up by a mesmerizing soundtrack from ambient musician Tim Shiel. I can personally guarantee that it makes for a perfect just-before-bedtime experience if you’re trying to unwind.
The Gardens Between is stamped with the seal of approval from quite a few awards: “Best Mac Game” (Apple 2018), “Game of the Year” (AGDA 2018) and “Best Puzzles” (Webby Awards ’19) just to name a few. And in my opinion, these are well-justified. I am particularly sensitive to games looking like trash and I am proud to say that this one is in no danger of that at all. It’s aesthetically pleasing in so many ways and you may even find yourself spinning the islands just so you can take in the beauty of it all. The Gardens Between won’t take long to clock, but it’s the kind of thing that will leave you feeling like you just had an epiphany rather than merely played a game.