First-person puzzle games are not a fresh, new concept. The likes of RealMyst, The Talos Principle and Superliminal (amongst many others) represent the genre on Nintendo's venerable hybrid console, and they're a high bar to clear. We don't feel as though Manifold Garden quite reaches those highs, but it's a game with a lot to offer – especially if you appreciate its bizarre, sweeping and somewhat alien perspective tricks.
The visuals are pretty spectacular, in terms of their sheer creativity and the unfolding enormity of its vistas. Moving through its bizarre, M.C. Escher-esque locales never ceases to be interesting; the sense of scale is often daunting, and moving from the game's initially claustrophobic environments to the sudden vastness of its outdoor space inspires genuine awe and more than a little vertigo.
Progressing through the game is easy and intuitive; controls are kept as simple as possible in order to avoid tripping the player up as they navigate the spatial puzzles that make up Manifold Garden's core gameplay. The A button interacts, hitting switches or picking up boxes, while tapping ZR will plant your feet on whichever surface you're aiming at; basically, you're able to re-orient yourself on walls and ceilings in order to get around.
You'll need to, because the puzzles here involve picking up and placing boxes on switches, some of which are found at completely different orientations to the state that you may enter a room in. The catch is that you can't manipulate said boxes without being at the correct orientation, and gravity will only apply to them as long as you remain in such a position. Flicking between walls, ceilings and floors to manipulate multiple elements in order to get a single box where you want it isn't just common – it's pretty much all you do.
Every puzzle is essentially a block puzzle, though the goals aren't always the same. Figuring out how to manipulate gravity in order to "freeze" boxes in mid-air so you can stack further boxes atop them is a headscratcher, and sometimes finding your way through the labyrinthine structures to get where you need to be is a challenge in itself. Thankfully, while difficult, Manifold Garden is rarely frustrating – its rules are extremely clear and it never breaks them in an effort to trick the player. There's also a refreshing lack of hand-holding; it's up to the player to figure out exactly how the game's elements work together, and how to solve the conundrums that arise from its building blocks.
Traversal is both helped and hindered by the fact that the game's world is looped and mirrored – in outdoor spaces, it's easy to accidentally fall into what seems like a never-ending void, only to find yourself landing on the very platform from which you tripped. Given you can't traditionally jump, this is actually the easiest way to cross gaps in the environment, which can lead to a thoroughly exhilarating fall as you wrap around from top to bottom, gradually making your way forwards.
Less impressively, we found that the consistently remarkable spectacle of Manifold Garden is a little at odds with its relatively benign and straightforward puzzle-solving. That's not to say it's bad, or that said puzzles aren't fun to figure out, it just struck us as being a little detached from the presentation. Your goal seems indeterminate – you're effectively opening doors to move forward, yes, but it can be somewhat jarring to move from these outrageous, surrealist landscapes into a smaller room with a bit of glorified Sokoban to play. The gameplay doesn't match the ambition of Manifold Garden's visuals, and with some of the trickier to execute puzzles we found ourselves just wanting to get them over with so we could get back to the cool stuff.
Performance is adequate, running at what feels like a consistent 30fps framerate, though the resolution doesn't hold up so well in handheld mode, leading to some shimmering edges. It's totally playable, though, and the game doesn't chug when you navigate the enormous outdoor spaces. It's responsive to control and generally pretty chill – right down to the ambient soundtrack which makes some of its finickier puzzles less irritating than they could be.
It almost feels like Manifold Garden might have fared better as a "walking simulator" at times; its infinitely-folding environments are works of art from any angle, and it's a little difficult to appreciate them when you're solving yet another samey block puzzle. Still, it'd be churlish to mark it down for being a game when solving its riddles isn't unenjoyable by any stretch of the imagination. We just found ourselves a little impatient to be done with them so we could hurry into the next astonishing panorama of abstract, impossible imagery. Manifold Garden is a lovely game, but sometimes the "game" bit gets a little in the way.