A heartfelt journey through time.
We’ve enjoyed a decade-long golden era of indie games. Without a doubt, a game that was pivotal in this renaissance was Braid. Braid made waves not only with its painterly aesthetic and classical soundtrack, but a remarkably innovative time manipulation mechanic. The ability to rewind time upended traditional platforming and elevated it to a puzzle platforming masterpiece.
Ten years later, The Gardens Between gives a respectful nod to Braid as it too harnesses time as an integral mechanic. But rather than ape previous successes, it manipulates time in another brilliantly unique manner all its own. This effortlessly polished puzzle game may not prove to be as genre-defining as Braid, but it’s every bit as triumphant.
The premise of The Gardens Between is simple. Arina and Frendt, two best friends, fall into a magical world of surreal dreamscapes. This world is composed of garden islands, upon which the two have to make it to the summit and light a lamp using Arina’s lantern. But the path to the top isn’t straightforward. Every level is adorned with larger-than-life toys from their childhood, from beach balls to tyre swings and playing cards. Whilst some of these will aid you in your journey, others are obstacles to overcome. And lighting your lantern – and keeping it lit until you reach the top – is easier said than done.
The manner in which you traverse these levels blew away my initial expectations. Rather than directly controlling Arina and Frendt, you literally command the passage of time. Push forward and they ascend the island until meeting an obstacle. Hold back and their actions rewind in meticulous detail.
This process is uplifted by the most delightful animation. Elements of the level swing and fall and roll as you walk forwards. Yellowed autumnal leaves flutter to the ground. Flower heads tumble down waterfalls. Believe me, you’ll often just walk backwards and forwards continuously to marvel at the intricacy of something like a Jenga tower falling and rebuilding itself in slow motion.
It’s a remarkably simple conceit, with only three buttons and no time limit. You could be forgiven for thinking there wouldn’t be much of a challenge involved – after all, you’re only fast-forwarding and rewinding time. But the brilliance lies in how some objects break the rules of chronology. Lanterns can stay lit, switches can stay activated. Sometimes, stopping time for a few seconds in certain places can even trigger actions itself.
The puzzles will challenge your reasoning, demanding that you think creatively and keep track of multiple threads at any one time. But their impeccable design avoids you having to backtrack too far. It’s also impossible to break a puzzle halfway through so that you’d have to restart a level – and believe me, I tried.
I found only one or two problematic puzzles which were a leap in logic too far. One in particular near the end is a real stretch. I’d have given it the benefit of the doubt but I verified this with another player who was also stumped. Other than these rare missteps, The Gardens Between balances its difficulty perfectly.
The presentation is also a real achievement. Levels are achingly beautiful, the pastel-coloured environments elaborately composed into exquisite little dioramas. It’s compellingly screenshottable, though you can only truly appreciate its beauty in motion. With an atmospheric soundtrack of layered soft piano and super-chilled, ambient electronica, The Gardens Between is a wonderfully contemplative experience overall.
There’s a beautiful symbolism to everything too, palpable below its surface. If I was a bit cleverer I could perhaps work it all out. Maybe there isn’t one definitive meaning. But I couldn’t help but see each garden as a pure sanctuary, and the carrying of the torch within them as a symbol of hope for the future. Not to mention the poetic nature in which Arina and Frendt can control time and reflect on their memories to their heart’s content.
In more straightforward terms, there is a pure beauty in its representation of a deep, platonic intimacy between a boy and girl. With no dialogue their friendship is implicit but unmistakably worn on their sleeves. Though the two may separate for a time as the climb an island, they’ll turn and wave as soon as they catch sight of each other coming upon the horizon. And if Arina reaches the summit before Frendt, she’ll pause to wait for him to catch up so that they can hold hands and light the lamp together.
The Gardens Between only took me a few hours to complete but stayed with me for a while afterwards. Steeped in nostalgia and sentiment, it’s a whimsical trip which explores time in a whole new way. With near-perfect puzzle execution and stunning animation, this is an experience you should make time for.
James loves a deep action-adventure game, RPG or Metroidvania. He can often be found in The Indie Game Website’s review section casting his critical eye over the latest indie games.