The Gardens Between
PC, PS4, Switch
Developer/publisher The Voxel Agents Format PC, PS4 (tested), Switch Release Out now
At first, the soft-hued, helter-skelter levels of The Gardens Between call to mind those of Monument Valley. But it’s time, rather than space, that’s the subject of this wistful puzzler. The tale revolves around two friends who, across a series of dreamlike islands, work together to alter the flow of time and wander through their memories of playtimes past. Doing so is a delight: The Gardens Between wraps its challenges in playful, yet precise, design.
Puzzles centre around a core mechanic – you can scrub back and forth through time by moving the stick left and right respectively. The two characters move through the twirling level in tandem: confident Arina in front, Frendt bringing up the rear. Arina carries the lantern, which must be lighted and placed at level’s end; Frendt can interact with chimes to control more specific pockets of time and change the environment.
The gorgeous islands are littered with gigantic toys, treasures and mementoes that hide imaginative puzzles (the designers appear to be fans of Jon Blow’s work). Each is a kind of surreal chess challenge, solving them a matter of planning the order and timing of moves. One puzzle requires you to rewind and fast-forward time repeatedly as Arina leaps on to and off a hand saw; another sees working out how to input a passcode on a huge keypad; others still involve VCRs, seesaws, dinosaur bones and popcorn. But a more consistent language of interactive elements helps keep things grounded. These might help or hinder progress depending on their location. Flowers either light the lantern or extinguish it, and are opened and closed by ringing a chime; purple fog can act as a bridge or an obstacle, and shrinks in the presence of light. Charming cube creatures can carry lanterns to places that Arina can’t yet reach, Frendt ringing hourglass-shaped bells to move them through time and around the level.
The Gardens Between is at its best when it marries whimsical design with fresh twists on logic puzzles, each level delicately exploring a new idea before moving on to the next. Perhaps the sole exception is a level built around a disused pipe: its exacting puzzle is surrounded by uncharacteristically plain design that only serves to make it feel even more unwelcoming and obtuse. It’s at sticking points like this, as you run Arina and Frendt back and forth to no avail, you might also wish they jogged a little faster. But then, theirs is a tale about savouring every moment together. As you reach the conclusion, it’s suddenly clear why The Gardens Between is set across a drifting archipelago, its world softly and sadly coming apart – in the end, it is a story about space, after all.
One standout puzzle is a kind of three-cube Monte – you must identify the correct one as they hop into buckets of paint and leap around the rotating island, which hides several switcheroos from view