Puzzle games are a dime a dozen, so in order to really stand out, the game in question needs to do something special to garner attention. And The Voxel Agents’ time-manipulation puzzle game, The Gardens Between, happens to be one title that achieves this.
The Gardens Between is a puzzler where all of the scenarios you encounter revolve around manipulating time forwards and back to create or destroy certain pathways, while trying to reach a 'portal' to the next level. You control two kids, who appear to be playing make-believe in a tree house up on a hill behind their homes, but honestly, the narrative is mostly irrelevant. The story elements of the title are almost completely non-existent outside of some brief cutscenes that bookend the experience. It comes off as more of an excuse to ground the puzzles in some semblance of reality, rather than existing to say anything meaningful. If you view it as a device to do that instead of to tell an actual story, it works quite well.
The environments are these really great, surreal diorama-esque islands. Each island presents its own puzzle, and by fast-forwarding or rewinding time, the kids make their way around the locales. The puzzles are fairly straightforward in the beginning, as the game perfectly helps you dip your toes in the water. The early puzzles only revolve around manipulating time, but as you progress, collecting light sources and opening pathways are thrown into the mix, requiring a much more involved level of problem-solving. By the late game, you’ll be juggling a whole collection of variables as you look forward to the next puzzle. That is, until the game just stops.
The game’s learning curve is executed flawlessly, incrementally ramping up the challenge as you go along. It even captures the ever-elusive feeling of satisfaction that comes from solving a particularly tricky element of a puzzle. However, the actual amount of content is rather slim. By our count, the game consists of a total of 18 islands, and then one final, larger puzzle that happens in three stages. The actual amount of content ends up feeling like a letdown -- the title can easily be polished off in one sitting. Ultimately, the problem with that doesn’t stem from just the lack of content, but more from the fact that what is here is extraordinary. We were constantly impressed by numerous instances of clever design during the game's short length. Having to forward and reverse time in order to saw through a board to create a bridge, or stop a bolt of lightning at just the right time to power a television are phenomenal little moments. There’s a smattering of nice touches across the islands that are just so deliciously clever, that there’s a constant desire for there to be “just one more puzzle” coming up. That wish stops coming true all too soon.
Not only are the puzzles themselves great, but the rules of the game feel remarkably consistent. A lot of puzzle games fall into the trap of throwing the player a curveball, introducing something obtuse that will leave you scratching your head. There’s no moment like that here, which is refreshing.
The music ebbs and flows along with how you manipulate time, often comfortably sitting in the realm of ethereal ambience, heightening the game’s dreamlike quality. The art too is absolutely wonderful. The items the two kids have littered around their yards and tree house are transplanted into the surreal environments, but on a much grander scale. Things like calculators become large bridges, and TVs loom over you, an imposing wall of static. The collection of lo-fi tech brings a nice retro touch to the game’s fantasy, creating an interesting marriage of old and new that really stands out. It all makes the game really pop visually.
The Gardens Between is almost a truly great puzzle game, but it gets hung up in a couple of small areas. Gorgeous surreal environments pair with a perfect score to create a killer atmosphere for some of the most clever puzzle mechanics - complete with impressively consistent internal logic - that we’ve seen in some time. However, the title’s relative lack of content means it can be polished off quite quickly, even if you’re not in a hurry. The fact that the puzzles are so good left us craving more from the title, and we're looking forward to whatever The Voxel Agents puts its mind to after this, as it's definitely on to something here.