The Gardens Between is a story told without words. One night, a tomboyish girl named Arina and a nerdy lad named Frendt are huddled in the treehouse between their two houses as it rains, a distortion of time suddenly pulling them away from the real world and landing them in a strange place made of their memories. Sailing between islands built from the objects of their shared history, the player gradually pieces together the friendship the two share by creating constellations that reveal the time they spent together. From their initial meeting and their more memorable moments of play, we see them grow together in this surreal world they explore.
The Gardens Between doesn’t really go anywhere unexpected with this story, the culmination of learning their history together a bit easy to see coming, but it is a relatable reflection of the friendships one might have had as a child where circumstance can bring unlikely friends together. More interesting than the plot is perhaps how it creates the levels the player explores, the abstract gardens featuring large versions of areas from their memories. Giant video game consoles, huge playgrounds, and the exhibits of a museum will be twisted to match the small islands that are the titular gardens. Drawing on props and locations from the memories also means the gardens can introduce new elements quite easily, but the way you play between levels usually ends up being pretty similar.
In The Gardens Between, you have very little control over the two protagonists as they explore the gardens. Once they enter a level, they have a set path they want to follow, moving through it but not really able to complete the level without some interference from your part. See, in The Gardens Between, you are not Arina or Frendt but some unknown force that can interact with time. Without your influence, the entire game world freezes in place, but by holding onto the triggers, you can either send time forward or reverse it. Many levels begin with you first seeing how far the two characters can get on their own, but soon they’ll face some obstacle that you must help them overcome. Levels feature objects the two can interact with, Arina carrying a lamp with a special light that finds use in both completing the level and overcoming obstacles in it like clearing purple fog or spending its light to build bridges. It can also be a hindrance though, making important objects disappear when it’s too close, so a lot of levels are about managing that light, and you can tell Arina to put it on pedestals or use it in other ways to facilitate this. Many levels have hopping pedestals as well that will carry it around if needed, but these have their own puzzles tied to them, like making sure you pick the right pedestal or making its path work right as you move time back and forth.
Frendt’s contribution to the group comes with special hanging lanterns and hourglasses that only he can activate. Most of these will toggle the state of certain objects, such as opening flowers to reveal the light you need to carry or closing flowers that can suck the light out of your lantern. The hanging lanterns and hourglasses are some of the things that aren’t changed when messing with time which allows you change the path the two take when you start time back up again. Sometimes these Frendt-specific objects will even have their own pocket time puzzles where objects will move independent of the main flow, meaning you can stop them in optimal places where they freeze even when you start up regular time again. Describing time puzzles can be a bit off-putting, but in game they are fairly intuitive, with some expected variations appearing like objects that can’t be affected by your time manipulation or things that break or reassemble depending on when in the timeline you are. A more interesting variation comes in the way that freezing time can let certain objects build up energy, electronics building up electricity if you freeze time while they are plugged in for example.
The Gardens Between does have some fairly creative puzzles like a mural that can influence the state of level geometry and video games within the video game that must be navigated with time powers to save the leaping pedestal within, but for the most part, the game is perhaps a bit too simple with its puzzles. The time flow mechanic is certainly interesting, but having little influence on the actual proceedings means stages can’t push you to interact with them too much. The lanterns get around this a little, but it’s still mostly about rewinding and fast forwarding the gardens, changing the state of an object or two, and then doing that again to move things along. Some levels can be a bit more creative with the way time influences the world, but many levels are slowed down by watching events happen and then watching them again and again, characters dawdling or actions moving slowly even when you’re moving time as quickly as you can. Arina will even put her hands on her hips impatiently waiting for things to get to the point she can act again, as if she knows the actions on screen are going too slowly for little reason. By the time the game is over, the time mechanic has been toyed with but doesn’t feel like it really reached its potential, the game a bit too short to let its gardens grow into complex puzzles with intricate mechanics. What gardens you visit might be decent challenges and are sometimes clever, but the game is a bit hands-off by design, meaning that some levels wrap up before it feels like you really had to do much of anything.
THE VERDICT: The Gardens Between is a wordless reflection on a childhood friendship through small gardens that take the elements of old memories and turn them into time-based puzzles, the player controlling the flow of time to shift the states of the objects and characters until the proper path to the end is made. Visually the gardens are interesting as is the movement of certain objects through time, but the time-based puzzles are a bit slow and simple to accommodate your limited control over the actions you’re watching, and those actions sometimes burn time rather than fill it with something meaningful. Most of the puzzles are good enough challenges and the game can get quite clever with them, but The Gardens Between doesn’t really pack anything too captivating, its plot predictable despite its charm and the time mechanics interesting but limited.
And so, I give The Gardens Between for Xbox One…
An OKAY rating. Besides the moments where the game puts what amounts to filler in a game focused on time, most of what holds The Gardens Between back is that it didn’t embrace its ideas as fully as it could have. Forgoing words in the story makes it universal but also means it can’t grab you too strongly since you’re just seeing the friendship develop in a few snippets of its history, and the time mechanics can lead to a few surreal and complex puzzles but the game mostly sticks to its comfort zone of managing the light in Arina’s lamp. Some levels are memorable for the creative twists they add to the puzzle solving, but mostly its a lot of replaying the same events forward and back and lightly altering them to progress. Some gardens are easy and some might even stump you, but most are simple enough despite the complex mechanic they are tied to.
Perhaps simplicity is what makes The Gardens Between just okay. It’s got the surreal gardens built from memories, puzzles tied to time, and a narrative about a lifetime friendship, but it doesn’t spend the time to really dig deep into any of them. The gardens still are an interesting visit despite this, but a closer connection with the game world could have helped it be a more involved visit.