At first glance puzzle games are just that, interactive experiences with conundrums for the player to scratch their heads over, but actually a lot of puzzle games interweave narrative into their fabric, meaning that it's not just about solving one brain teaser after another, it's also about experiencing a journey at the same time. The narrative is the thread, and the puzzles unlock the doors to your progress, if you will.
This is exactly the case with The Voxel Agents' new game, The Gardens Between, as you progress through a set of levels that blend faraway island adventures with domestic familiarity, rewarding you with more nuggets of story each time you successfully complete a puzzle. The story in question isn't always clear since we're given no dialogue and only vignettes of the two characters, but that's the beauty of it - things aren't spelled out for us, but instead we're encouraged to just take in the childlike joy of fantasy and adventure.
Each 'level' of The Gardens Between takes place on an island with a path that the two characters follow to the top. It's far simpler in practice than it is to explain on paper, but essentially you use either of the analog sticks to make them walk back and forth - in turn reversing and progressing time respectively - and you use one button to interact with things. The goal is always to get the lamp you hold, fill it with light, then activate a shrine at the top of the island that lets you progress.
With us so far? Good, because here's where the complications come in. You're not just pressing forward until you win, but you do use this movement of time to solve puzzles. For instance, there's one section that requires you to enter a code on a telephone, but the only way you can do that is by rewinding and forwarding time as your characters jump across a set of keys on the floor. There's another example where you need to stop time as a droplet of water freezes between two wires, which in turn completes a circuit.
But wait! There's more, as while one character holds the aforementioned lamp, the other can use mechanisms in the world to shift it around, such as moving robots that can carry the lamp to different points, or reversing a particular chain of events like a giant Jenga tower toppling over. It's only by using them in conjunction that you can progress through The Gardens Between, and something so simple in essence eventually requires a bit of deeper thought.
The beauty comes from how creative The Voxel Agents gets with all the puzzles, as the examples we've highlighted demonstrate. This isn't just a case of seeing a door and finding a key, but about thinking how these moving parts in the world can be used in inventive ways to solve the conundrum at hand, which never becomes too frustrating as it requires you to simply observe and analyse a predetermined timeline that you're playing backward and forwards.
There are also plenty of other cogs in this machine that can work as a help or hindrance, like particular flowers that give light to your lamp and others that take it away, providing new elements to work with. None of this ever keeps you stuck for long, but it does keep you guessing and trying new and exciting approaches in each level.
Each of these levels is also constructed around elements drawn from the real world, like paddling pools and televisions, all of which is meant to be a representation of an episode in the life of these two friends. What's more is that when you complete a selection of levels, you get to see a short vignette about what they were doing using pieces from the levels, showing their adventures as BFFs, which is really sweet.
In fact, the whole design of the game is wonderful, as not only do we get elements from the real world interwoven into these fantastical islands, but all of what we see is bursting with vibrant colour and personality, even down to the delicate animations we see as the two characters navigate the world. You can even tell their personalities in their movements despite the total absence of dialogue, as the girl is impatient and often hurries ahead of the boy, who is a little more reserved. Even the soundtrack is delightful and it really heightens the poignant emotional moments that we're treated to.
Speaking of emotions, this is a game that really does make you feel something; the story is a very human one as we witness two friends go on adventures that many of us will relate to, probably in places they shouldn't be, but hey, that's the joy of youth. All of this leads up to a really moving finale which we won't spoil, but we will commend The Voxel Agents for being able to deliver something so touching by using so little.
The one slight qualm we'd have with The Gardens Between is that some of the later levels, due to the situation they're trying to convey, are rather grey and lifeless, which isn't helped by the fact that they follow really sparkling levels packed with colour and light. It's nothing that brings down the experience, but we feel it might have been better to lead with these slightly darker colours.
If it wasn't clear enough, we'd thoroughly recommend The Gardens Between not only to puzzle fans but to all gamers looking for something a little different. It didn't stay with us for too long, but in the short time we had with it we discovered so much emotion and personality, and it's all wrapped up with a simple but effective design. The challenges themselves are inventive and the design is charming, which makes this one of the standout puzzle games of the year, perhaps even of the last few years.
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