For most games, it takes a little while for you potentially discover a moment that makes you exclaim out loud or grin like an idiot from ear to ear. But for The Gardens Between, that first ‘wow’ experience comes in its opening few minutes, and more keep coming thick and fast as you realise just how clever the time-bending nature of its puzzles really is - not bad for a title with only basic controls to its name.
Its nonverbal story begins with two young children - Frendt and Ariana - taking shelter from a storm in the treehouse that connects their two gardens. The bespectacled boy and the red-jacketed girl suddenly see a glowing orb, which instantly whisks them away to a place where time has seemingly fractured. With their treehouse now serving as a makeshift boat, the young duo must now solve a series of environmental puzzles based around the various elements in their homes.
It sounds odd, we know, but this oddity is just one strand to The Gardens Between's charm. Its sense of measured pace is another. Each puzzle works like a small island around which you’ll guide the two young adventurers like a spiral. By moving the left analog stick left or right you’ll move the camera, but what you're actually doing is making time move forwards and backwards as the camera moves around each isle. You’re not actually controlling the duo as they move, but you can help them interact with elements they encounter as you guide the flow of time. Its one-player co-op premise is a little reminiscent of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons as you utilise the position of either character to find the best time-based solution.
Ariana has an incorporeal lamp that can be used to carry balls of light, while Frendt has the power to activate switches found at various points on each island. Ariana's lamp can be used to activate light bridges or banish walls of blue fog, but her power over light can also remove bridges that use that same fog. The boy can activate said switches to open flowers that reveal balls of light or bubbles of time where you can rewind or skip forwards to remove an obstacle, or align the girl’s lamp to catch some light. Since the aim of each island is to reach the top and place your lamp on a mysterious altar, you’re lulled into assuming this will be a simple affair.
But this is the beauty of The Gardens Between's subtly complex and yet perfectly balanced puzzles. These ribbons of time might seem locked as you play and rewind them from A to B, but there are so many ways you can influence each island’s separate reality. It begins with small ripples of influence, such as using a switch to freeze a movable element, but it soon progresses into some of the most creative environmental puzzles we’ve ever played. You’ll need to track blocks that jump around the map, following the splashes of paint so you’ll find the right one when you reach the top, or control an element as it bursts into a Super Mario Bros.-style platforming section on a TV.
Puzzles only get more complex as the game progresses, but considering how you’re often given enough time to digest the principles of the game's myriad adjustable elements, you never feel cheated or out of your depth. It’s more a case of picking out clues in the flow of time, then thinking ahead - or backwards - in order to help your quiet duo reach the top of each mini-mountain of interconnected puzzles.
You’ll often be scratching your head as you attempt to break apart its connected elements and make it flow, but the developers have crafted such a beautiful aesthetic - where the mundane is made fantastical and remarkable - that such frustrations are consistently dampened by the affable charm of its craft. It’s also a game made for quiet and relaxed consumption, with the lack of dialogue and Tim Shiel’s restrained yet emotive soundtrack making for a chilled experience whether played in the comfort of handheld mode or sat back on the sofa in docked mode.
Relaxing as it is taxing, The Gardens Between offers a poignant coalescence of charming visuals, a relaxing soundtrack and a bittersweet story. The simplicity of its control scheme hides an incredibly clever and frighteningly intricate puzzle formula that sees you rewinding and playing time like an omnipresent director. Its unique setup makes it one of the most unusual puzzlers on Nintendo Switch, and we can’t wait to see what Australian indie studio The Voxel Agents does next.