Indie developers are some of those most creative in the gaming industry today, with developers hailing from all parts of the world, especially Australia. Earlier this year we’ve reviewed Prideful Sloth‘s game Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles with high praise, but the latest title comes from The Voxel Agents: The Gardens Between. This wholesome, emotive puzzler is exceptional in terms of creativity and striking multiple chords. The good ol’ heart strings are bound to vibrate in a beautiful way.
It’s not too often when a game’s artistic presentation is the forefront of storytelling without dialogue and The Gardens Between is such a game that manages to create feelings of nostalgia and situations where the player might relate. The Gardens Between has players journey along with two friends, Arina and Frendt, reliving their memories with the player having full control of how time passes. This serves as the core element to solving puzzles by rewinding and forwarding through each memory. The mechanic doesn’t evolve throughout the game and is fairly simple to pick up and play, but the puzzle designs are used in clever ways and strictly ties into everything about each memory themselves that it’s simply a joy to play. The initial moment of “Oh, I see. Nice idea” is always a good feeling.
Getting players to have an attachment to characters or story without using any words can be a hard thing to pull off. Luckily, the audio-visuals here succeed in doing so. As it’s centered around time manipulation, how everything flows together can make or break the experience. From the title screen to the actual levels you play there’s hardly a moment of the amount of detail being too bare. Environments contain set pieces from actual memories and play a part of the actual setups the two main characters have gone through. Each level is its own island made up from memories and panning left & right around them also affects certain elements of its construction as well as the two characters. The way pieces form together or fall apart and the way the characters move and react to each other all behave with smooth animation at the control of your fingertips. The sounds of environments related to that memory serve as the ambiance and the actual set pieces, whether a certain material or simply a gadget, sound as they should. All of this is accompanied by Tim Sheil’s music which makes good use of synth beats, piano, strings and emotional ambiance as well.
Players don’t actually control either of the two main characters. It is your duty to manipulate time only and the control scheme is versatile. Players press left & right on the d-pad to move time in reverse or forward. Alternatively, ZL & ZR serve the same purpose. However, to have more control of its speed, both the left and right analog sticks work as well by tilting left & right. Simple mechanics means more usable inputs. The only other ability in the game is to perform an action, or “activate”, by pressing A; both L & R work as well. The goal is to guide Arina and Frendt to the very top of each dreamlike island’s summit, but not empty-handed. Each “world” acts as a memory with each 2 or 3 levels within them having scenarios related to the memory. In the heavens above is a constellation mapped to the memory where every level is its own star. Upon completion, players are rewarded with the actual, non-level memory event of the friendship between the two. Here, players are able to controls its time as well. Each contains a little easter egg pops up if players find the sweet spot.
The elements of light & dark both play a large role in terms of gameplay and possibly interpretation of story to the player. Arina and Frendt also have their particular skills. Arina is the more daring type, brave, playful and quick to jump ahead first. Frendt is the more play-it-safe type, but knows his tinkering. One key element of Arina is that she carries a celestial lamp, one could say is a figment of the memory. The goal is to make sure there is light in her lamp once both Arina and Frendt reach the top, taken from light orbs. However, obstacles may block the path to them and even dark orbs coming in contact with any light source, lamp included, will negate the light entirely. The lamp can be used in various ways. Arina can place the lamp on particular block-like characters that move in both directions of time. For instance, placing the lamp will allow Arina to retrieve it later, and, even earlier, in correct methods to open up paths. Lamps that hold light can form a light bridge to cross a gap removing the light source, for example. However, bridges already made from dark clouds will disappear, then leaving a gap if Arina holds light. Frendt is usually in-charge of activating gadgets and switches that resemble wind chimes, to change the environment completely. Large set pieces can be used to create paths and adjusted in specific ways.
Puzzles become used in smart ways at times. Many times it plays with the principle of perspective using elements in the environment to your advantage and they react accordingly to real life logic. Since you’re in control of time, paying attention to what may look like just natural movement of the environment is actually part of the puzzle. Time always remains still and only moves on your call. The concept of still time is actually used in puzzle-solving as well. Maybe an object needs to remain in a certain spot for a while to react to the environment. Think chemistry and physics for a moment!
There may be times of mind-bending moments, but it never gets too complicated. It’s the perfect sweet spot. You may get accustomed to certain mechanics only to then realize that the same mechanics can be done through other ways in certain levels. Although the main goal is to move forward through the memory, it’s often where you’ll rewind a lot not only because you misjudged part of the puzzle, but because it is the puzzle. As I should explain more of the creative scenarios, I feel it’s best for each player to experience it themselves.
HD rumble has a solid presence, but is used for subtlety. Key moments of impact in the environment, thunder, or activating something will trigger this. It also provides haptic feedback in the menus. There’s just under 20 levels and they’re also so polished in design in creativity. Each one means something. The elements in them all have purpose. The Gardens Between takes a simple mechanic and has its puzzles focus only around that. The sound design and the way things animate sell the undertone of the story. Completion time is a few hours, but it’s the sweetest few hours.