Developed and published by The Voxel Agents, The Gardens Between is a beautiful and yet bittersweet tale that is woven together entirely out of surreal imagery. There’s been no shortage of poignant games that eschew dialogue for a more visual storytelling method, but most of these silent, narrative driven games take the route of allowing players the freedom to explore the entirety of the world that they’re set within in order to uncover the story within. The Gardens Between, shirks even that style of storytelling, choosing instead to limit players to tiny island representations of the memories shared between two friends.
Each island is a carefully constructed cluster of rocks and memorabilia that is being visited by Arina and Frendt, but players do not take control of either character specifically. Rather, players control the passing of time on the island, rewinding and fast forwarding to trigger various cause and effect events in order to manipulate the memory so that the pair of friends can reach the memory’s summit. Arina carries a small lantern, and in order to complete each level the player must place the lit lantern in a portal at the top. While there is no combat, each memory island is filled with puzzles and obstacles that the pair must overcome.
The beauty of The Gardens Between is not just limited to its incredibly designed levels but also to its simplicity in gameplay. Players need only to use the left analog stick along with the A button to progress through the entire game. Pushing the left thumbstick left reverses time and moves the characters backward through the level, while pushing the thumbstick to the right progresses them forward. Arina and Frendt’s movements through each level are effectively on the rails, as they never stray from their designated path on the summit. Players can, however, alter the path by interacting with curious objects in their way. Having Frendt push the buttons on a remote control, for example, causes a VCR to eject a tape that serves as a ramp up for the two friends or rewinding and fast forwarding can move them across a calculator to type in a password in another level.
The only real downside to The Gardens Between is that is has a shorter runtime. Without a guide it can take players roughly three hours to solve all of the puzzles, but with a guide you could easily complete the game at the one hour mark. Still, it is one to three hours well spent with a game that controls flawlessly, has a suitable uptick in difficulty as it progresses, and tells a fantastic story that will tug at pretty much anybody’s heart strings. Coupled with the fact that The Gardens Between launched into Xbox Game Pass, it makes it an even easier to recommend title.