The Gardens Between is a pretty, bittersweet puzzle game that takes a single, simple idea and spins out a half-day’s solid entertainment.
Set on a series of small, themed islands, it’s a game about time-manipulation that also serves as a test of logic and observation. Developed by Australian indie The Voxel Agents, it’s challenging enough to retain interest for just about all ages, while creating a pleasing sense of variety and magic.
I play as two young friends who set out on a journey together to climb to the top of each island, carrying a sacred light. They have a power to stop time or to track back in time, usually for no more than a few seconds. So, I walk along a mountain path and see a ravine blocking my path. Ahead of me, a landslide briefly fills the ravine, before tumbling into the sea. I stop time just at the moment the ravine can be crossed, and I move forward.
But once across, I discover that the landslide has left another gap farther ahead in my path. I rewind time to refill the landslide, once again clearing my way forward.
Just about every puzzle in The Gardens Between works this way, though they are presented with various innovations. The light I carry can be used to clear fog that blocks my way, but that same fog can sometimes create a crossable bridge which shies away from the flame. So I must find another way to transport the light while I cross the bridge, usually with the help of impish jumping lamps.
Apart from a few occasions, I cannot change the direction or the pace of my characters, and so my time manipulations are the only way they can be controlled. If they are crossing a river, I do not control the friends, only the timing of the flotsam that crosses their path. It’s a curiously pleasing take on character agency, placing me in a world of movement, instead of in the actions of individuals.
The islands are themed according to youthful pursuits. So, one island is based on video games, another on card games, another on sports, another on pop music. This focus on childhood binds the story together and presents us with a melancholy theme of memory and loss. Passing from childhood to adulthood is hardly a novel theme in the world of games — frankly, it’s overworked — and there’s a sense of indie-familiarity about this world’s cutesy aura of color, light and music. Yet its use of childhood things also creates specific and delightful puzzles based on the artifacts of youth, creating innovative approaches to time manipulation.
At one point, the friends interact with an old computer, and figure out how to ‘code’ it. On another island, they play with an old Walkman, manipulating music to achieve their goals. One island is built almost entirely of a rickety pile of dinosaur bones, requiring that I make and unmake them, over and over again, in order to ascend its heights. I find myself smiling broadly at these funny, clever puzzles as their secrets are revealed.
The best puzzles require lateral thinking, a to-ing and fro-ing of time that makes use of the object at hand, while playing fast and loose with the laws of chronology. If I use a saw to cut a plank of wood, and then rewind time, the plank of wood is still sawed, for example.
Most of the puzzles require that I simply observe the passing of time and the movement of useful objects. Some can be solved by trial and error. Others take a little thought, but none are particularly fiendish.
By the end of the game, I wished for more: more islands and more challenge. This is a sign of a puzzle game that has largely served its purpose. I was never bored, nor frustrated, not once. And for a retail price of $19.99, this game offers plenty of value.
The Gardens Between successfully weaves its theme of memory with its mechanic of stopping time, presenting a satisfying story that offers challenge, escapism and magic. It’s out on September 20 for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Mac.
The Gardens Between was reviewed using a final “retail” Windows PC download code provided by The Voxel Agents. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.