Review: The Gardens Between (PS4)

Review: The Gardens Between (PS4)

Platforms:

  • PlayStation 4
  • Nintendo Switch
  • PC, Mac

Platform/Hardware Used:

  • PSN Download
  • PS4 Pro
  • 4K HDR

Extras:

  • DualShock 4 Required (1)
  • Move None
Title: The Gardens Between
Format: PSN (3.24 GB)
Release Date: September 20, 2018
Publisher: The Voxel Agents
Developer: The Voxel Agents
Original MSRP: $19.99 (US), £TBD (UK)
ESRB Rating: E
PEGI: 3
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Gameplay:
The Gardens Between is a charming and surprisingly emotional journey through memories shared between two childhood friends. The game begins when the text of the title screen fades away and reveals a dark and stormy scene in a backyard cityscape, with two friends huddled closely together in a treehouse. The friends are Arina and Frendt, and The Gardens Between is the story of their shared childhood memories.

As they sit somberly in the treehouse, a train rushing by in the background suddenly comes to a halt. Time is stopped, and a globe of light appears between the two friends. The gameplay revolves around this notion of manipulating time. This is an adventure puzzle game played on whimsical island gardens.

Arina and Frendt navigate these gardens on defined, though sometimes separate, paths up and around rotating island stages. Action is controlled by moving either forward or backward in time. The player does not control Arina and Frendt so much as they control the flow of time.

If no buttons are pushed then time, along with many objects in the game world, will come to a stop. Switches encountered by Frendt can be used to move objects in the garden through time, while Arina and Frendt remain in their current time.

Very little information is given to the player at the onset of the game regarding navigation through puzzles but is instead taught to the player through increasingly difficult stages. The first two stages are very basic, showcasing the player’s ability to shift time and also to collect a ball of light that can be held in a lantern carried by Arina. This ball of light has a variety of uses in overcoming various obstacles such as building a bridge over a gap, clearing gaseous barriers to clear a path, or to reveal a switch.

The ball of light must be held in Arina’s lantern at the pinnacle of each island for the friends to clear the stage. You can also activate various switches with Frendt or deposit the light from Arina’s lantern to little hopping cubes called Garden Friends. There is no true platforming, combat, or free traversal in The Gardens Between, and this lack of dynamic control occasionally detracts from the game’s overall fun factor.

The puzzles increase in difficulty as the game goes on, but never become so difficult that they are overly frustrating or grind the game to a halt. Most involve moving the ball of light up the island using Arina’s lantern and Garden Friends while avoiding dark orbs that absorb the light.

Other puzzles involve some innovative use of objects in the environment. These objects are often oversized representations of things that played a vital role in memories shared between Arina and Frendt, such as an 8-bit video game console, a telescope, or a VHS tape.

In the case of the 8-bit console, time can be manipulated within the video game itself in order to effectively play through an abbreviated level. This “Super Silly Crow” emulation, along with other similarly creative puzzle devices, are fun diversions from the standard gameplay hook of shifting time to pass the light orb along and unlock the path.

There is no dialogue in the The Gardens Between, leaving it up to the player to interpret the game’s narrative. The dreary overtone of the opening scene makes an impact, adding a sense of mystery and foreboding to the otherwise airy and dream-like gardens.

Once a three-stage island is cleared, a brief scene of a past moment shared between Arina and Frendt plays out. Players can even manipulate time within these memory vignettes. The scene fades and a constellation is lit, which hovers above the island level, signifying its completion. The narrative plays out slowly and appears to meander somewhat, until concluding with a twist that packs an emotional gut-punch.

Visuals:
The warmth and charm of the visuals in The Gardens Between immediately jumps off of the screen. The cartoonish animations appear almost cel-shaded, but the 3D effect of each twisting island garden pops and adds depth to the experience.

Objects encountered in each level are often comically large and add to the overall enchantment of the game. These objects prove to be more than just great form, though, as they occasionally serve a function in solving a puzzle.

With its variable sense of scale, captivating art style, and broad but subdued color palette, The Gardens Between does a fantastic job of making the player feel like they are reliving cherished memories between dear companions.

Audio:
Publisher/Developer The Voxel Agents employed the talents of ambient musician Tim Shiel to create the music, and the result is perhaps the game’s strongest feature. The gentle, synthesized tracks seem to meld perfectly with the themes of each island garden.

When switches are activated by Frendt to manipulate the timelines of objects, the main track pauses and a more dreamlike collection of ambient sounds is brought to the forefront until the player sets the objects to their desired moment in time. Even the music between levels as Arina and Frendt float in their treehouse varies from island to island according to the tone of the past moments they memorialize.

The sound effects of The Gardens Between are exceptional. The player can stop time in the middle of a giant set of wooden blocks toppling over, for instance, and slowly move time forward or backward to hear individual click sounds as blocks collide against each other while they fall or form back into a tower. Whether it’s the sawing of a board or the beeps and boops of an 8-bit video game, the sounds are all accurately portrayed and add to the immersion.

Online/Multiplayer:
This game is one player only with no online component.

Conclusion:
The Gardens Between is short, only three to four hours long, but it’s an impactful experience that combines an emotional narrative with a unique gameplay hook. Although this is not the first game to feature time alteration as a means of solving puzzles, it is well done and provides just enough innovation from level to level to be engaging.

The gameplay seems to be deliberately relaxing and simple, and therefore lacks some of what makes playing other deeper games more satisfying. The audiovisual design exudes an imaginative energy that perfectly suits the game’s subject matter.

While the narrative is well done as a whole, it is at times a bit vague and slow-paced. The game’s ending sequence, though, sets The Gardens Between apart from more shallow experiences and provides a relatable and thought-provoking conclusion that emanates through time.

Score:
7.5

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Written by Brock Arnett

Gamer since the NES days, Boilermaker, Colts and Pacers fan. I can’t wait until my two boys are old enough to play games with me.

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook