Game Pass Roulette: The Gardens Between – Nostalgic Emotional Journey

Welcome to Game Pass Roulette, a weekly series where I hit the “Surprise Me” button on Xbox Game Pass for PC and play whatever game the random gods give me. Don’t think of it as a game review, think of it as me exploring different experiences that I would otherwise never have tried and sharing my impressions. Maybe we’ll stumble on something incredible, maybe it’ll be something intriguing or maybe it’ll be a great big dumpster fire. It’s all down to where the Roulette takes me.

“Hold on Mr Swanepoel,” I hear you ask, “Wasn’t the next game in the Game Pass Roulette supposed to be Valkyria Chronicles?” Yes, my dear observant reader, it was supposed to be Valkyria Chronicles, but the gods of PC gaming were cross with me for some reason and I just could not get the game to run correctly on my PC. I tried everything, but it just didn’t want to play along, so I decided to heck with it and spun the Roulette again. Valkyria Chronicles left Game Pass anyway and I did actually watch the whole game being played in a stream once upon a time, so it’s not a massive tragedy.

The game that was chosen instead was The Gardens Between, a game I’ve seen pop up in the Game Pass list and was always curious about because of its beautiful looking art. It’s a puzzle game which is yet another genre that I haven’t extensively explored and I was positively titillated to jump into this little indie adventure.

From the first cutscene, I knew that this was a journey to Misty Eye Town since the game follows two best friends named Arina and Frendt who were just chilling in their clubhouse during a rainy night when a ball of materialised time exploded in front of their faces and sent them careening into another dimension. I knew I was going to shed a tear because childhood friendship stories are always so touching and by George, I was 100% positively correct.

The Mystery Time Ball whisked our two friends to a place filled with islands that seem to correspond to their childhood memories and sailing in their clubhouse ship, their journey begins. When they get on an island, time started to behave erratically. The main reason is that I could control it using the triggers on my controller and that’s where the central mechanic for the game makes itself known.

Arina and Frendt are not controllable at all and they move ahead regardless of your protests. Inevitably they run into obstacles and the only thing you can do is go backwards and forwards in time as well as interact with some objects as Frendt. But with just these two simple mechanics, the potential for puzzles is vast. The ultimate goal is to light a shrine using a lantern carried by Arina and lots of the puzzles revolve around getting the lantern lit and getting through obstacles.

I was pleasantly surprised by how clever some of the puzzles were, especially given the limited capabilities. They weren’t altogether difficult and I think I can count on my one hand how many times I was a bit stuck, but they were in that sweet spot of being difficult enough to make you feel like you accomplished something while not frustrating you if you’re a bit of a dum-dum, like I am prone to be in puzzle games.

But the main pull of the game was just how gorgeous it was. Each island is decorated with some theme and most of the time it’s pure chaos of over-sized objects and wacky decor. But each island had its own little brand of nostalgia going for it, be it playing games inside a pillow fort, exploring the local sewer (very relatable for me) or just hanging out outside and having fun.

It took me back to those simpler times even if my memories might be different. You could feel the comfy reminders of the nice times these two friends spent with each other and the events that shaped them as they grew together. The game has no dialogue at all and it’s all told with small vignettes and visuals. The stunning soundtrack also captures this feeling of nostalgia extremely well and I loved the relaxing atmosphere that it developed.

It’s not a particularly long game and I did this in the few hours I spent with it:

And yes, it was the game that broke the 200,000 GamerScore mark, so it now has some renown in my gaming history. One would usually criticise a game for being short, but The Gardens Between told its wonderful story and packed itself with as many clever puzzles as it could to make for a game that didn’t overstay its welcome.

I loved it from top to bottom. Gentle music, lovely puzzles, clever designs, beautiful visuals and a poignant story about childhood. How much better can you get? It’s available literally on all platforms, so if you see it around, definitely give it a shot.

Alright, let’s see what’s next on the Game Pass Roulette. Let the bones fall where they may:

Ah, Artyom! Fun fact, I did play Metro 2033 back when it released, but a game breaking bug caused me to abandon it halfway through. This should be fun and finally, I get to shoot things.

I am way too tall, played way too many games and I love to write about what we love about games. In the end, I'm just being #Thabolicious

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