I enjoy surreal puzzle games. I also enjoy games that take a more “minimalist” approach to storytelling. Sometimes, games manage to accomplish both of those things, and sometimes they flop. The Gardens Between is a puzzle adventure that intends to tell a complex story of friendship but only manages to provide 2-3 hours of brain-teasing fun.
The “story” of The Gardens Between is largely told through each of the game’s levels, islands that have multiple puzzles inside of them. You play as two characters, Arina and Frendt (you only learn their names through items in the levels) who go through each level, bringing an orb of light to the exit monolith.
It is important to note that the game itself tells you very little. In fact, all it tells you is how to control time, and interact with things. You don’t ACTUALLY control the two characters, instead, you manipulate time forward and backward, while having Frendt or Arina interact with certain objects to accomplish puzzles and get to the exit.
The minimalist approach is also to the detriment of the game. Not only does the game tell you very little, introducing mechanics without telling you so you have to fumble through things to figure out how to progress, but you also are told nothing about the characters themselves. It is obvious that they spend a lot of time together, and from the beginning, you understand that they live in close proximity, but their direct relation is not explicitly told to you.
This becomes a problem as you progress through the game because it becomes difficult to find an emotional connection to what you are doing. Since this review is spoiler-free I can only go into so much detail, but believe me when I say that I had no clue what was going on for the first hour I played until I read the Steam page for the game and figured out the overarching premise.
If the game began with a short block of text, telling you that Arina and Frendt were best friends, that is the start of an emotional bond with the player. Instead, the game throws you in with nothing, and you are expected to grow attached to them for practically no reason.
With that being said, the puzzles are very fun. They aren’t too difficult, and the time-manipulation mechanic is very well executed. On top of that, the overall atmosphere of the game is beautiful, with serene music playing alongside gorgeous, colorful levels. I found myself absorbed in the atmosphere, figuring out aspects to the puzzles just through visuals alone. A bare-bones story is told through the environment as well. Various pieces of Arina and Frendt’s childhood are strewn about the levels, usually pertaining to a specific sort of theme.
This is where The Gardens Between excels. In a way, the lack of dialogue and tutorials adds to the game, giving you an incentive to pay attention to everything, so you can figure out what makes the game tick. However, I would suggest playing this with a partner, the way I did with my fellow editor Lisa Aplin. The reason is, I missed certain aspects of the environment and the puzzles, only for Lisa to pick up on it easily. Likewise, there were things she missed while playing, that I was able to coax her through, making things go more smoothly.
In that realm of things, it is actually quite a fun little game, though it is LARGELY dampened by its under-sold storyline. I have played many games that told a narrative through puzzles and exploration instead of dialogue, and this one ranks very low on that list. There is a disconnect between the brain-tickling puzzles and the lackluster delivery of the narrative.
Because of that, I would say that as an overall experience, The Gardens Between is below average. Not by much, but for a game trying to sell a profound bond, it misses its mark. The puzzles are solid, the controls are simple and easy to understand, and the game itself is a feast for the eyes. The problem is, the story itself (and the game overall) is a bit too brief. For a game that clocks in at 2-3 hours at most, it lacks any replay value at all in my opinion.
Normally I wouldn’t mention the price of a game because, for the most part, I don’t think it really should matter in how a game is scored. Yet I find myself having the need to give a buyer beware sort of warning on this one. You will most definitely enjoy The Gardens Between if you like surreal puzzle experiences. However, I do not think the amount of enjoyment you will get, equals the 20 dollar price tag of the game on either Nintendo Switch or PC.
Overall, The Gardens Between is a solid gameplay experience, marred by a lack of character and plot development. If the game was longer, with more puzzles and depth thrown in, I think I would give this a higher score. However, I found myself left wanting more at the end, disappointed that I couldn’t quite connect with the underlying meaning and emotional connection that was intended to be sold.
A Nintendo Switch review copy of The Gardens Between was provided by The Voxel Agents for the purpose of this review.