The Gardens Between

Spoilers Ahead!

You’ll never guess what I did. I beat a video game that came out in 2018…in less than 5 hours! What’s my secret? Well it’s simple really. The game is short and good. Ta-da.

The Gardens Between has the confidence to never utter a word or write a single line of text on the screen, but it still teaches the player how to manipulate time. Each level is a rotating diorama through which you must guide two friends. Each of them has a unique ability that helps both of them advance. While the levels are scattered with real world objects from these friends' memories of time spent together, they also contain otherworldly doodads that must be satiated with luminous balls. One character holds a lantern that can transport these light orbs, and the other can flip switches to change the state of the level.

Those are pretty much all the mechanics of the game. Move time forward and back, watch the characters move with time, and press a button when they are near something they can change. You know that you can only do a couple of things, and that's how the game fools you into thinking it will be easy. But The Voxel Agents have woven together levels with those mechanics that makes this a challenging and rewarding experience.

Vidya Games

An extra benefit of controlling time and not the protagonists is that it forces you to look at the level as a whole. The environment rotates as you move forward and back (a feature that is key to some of the puzzles) and you can move along at a snail's pace if you choose. It feels a bit like turning a gem to see all its facets in the light. Or like turning your wrist so your watch reflects the sun into your friend’s eye. That's when you really start to notice all the objects that have been dropped in to navigate around. There's general kid stuff like Jenga, dominoes, and couch forts, but also things Only 90s Kids Will Understand™. You've got your SNES analogue, your CRT TVs, your VHS tapes, and a, uh…wave frequency modulator…thing.

It would have been easy to drop these in as set dressing but instead they are key parts of puzzles. Each time I realized this I went from thinking "How clever of them!", to thinking “How clever of me!” immediately after solving it. I think that’s what you want from a puzzle game.

The story told through interdimensional dioramas is a simple one about childhood friendship. In different environments these kids are split up for varying amounts of time, always brought back together at the end of the level. Yet, in the closing scene they are finally split apart by one child’s family moving. You spend the whole game keeping them together and in a few seconds all your work is undone. It's a little frustrating, but it also captures how being a kid is a series of lessons on powerlessness.

Yeesh, getting a bit broody in here huh? Let's forget about that stuff now, I have to call out the animation at the end of each level. While one of the characters is usually following the other, when they reach the end both stand by a portal. Sometimes you have to wait a couple of seconds while one catches up, but they always end up looking at each other, the door to the next world between them. The girl holds the lantern out, the boy grabs it, and they are transported through time and space together, connected.


SteamWorld Dig 2

Like most things, Steamworld Dig 2 can be summarized by a Simpsons clip:

Usually when I play a game with such an unvarnished loop I bounce right off, making the arrogant assumption that my mind can't be manipulated so easily. SteamWorld Dig 2 is one of those rare games that reminds me that I can be fully enthralled by just the right kind of progression system. It says something good about the developers (or something bad about me) that I was hooked by a game that is essentially a labor simulator. That’s not a great pitch, but let me explain.

In SteamWorld Dig 2 there is a small story told about a town and the robot you control as she searches for the player character from the previous game. Most of the time that story is backgrounded so you can get to the real meat of the game, digging down to gather resources and turning them into more efficient digging. This is very similar to the first SteamWorld Dig but there are many small additions and tweaks to the movement, the upgrades, and the world itself. When I first saw a trailer, I’ll admit I was not impressed. It looked like more of the same from the first game and I didn't think "quality of life" improvements and a few new gadgets could hook me.

I was so wrong.

Image & Form have refined the loop in Dig 2 to a razor sharp point, and loops don't even have points! It feels like they calculated the ideal amount of time between upgrades for your pigtailed spelunkatron. They probably have some silly internal acronym for it like TTU: Time To Upgrade. The second I started getting bored of digging, I had enough rocks (sorry, minerals) to sell and then buy the next thing to make digging fun again.

The upgrades themselves mostly follow the path of turning a thing that is a pain early on into a thing you never have to think about. Lantern light depleting, running out of water, returning to town, and even dying are all pretty much non-issues after a few hours. That kind of stuff is welcome but removing things that aren't fun doesn't automatically add fun. Weird how that works. For a good time, you have the gadgets. A grappling hook, a steam grenade launcher, and a much improved steam jetpack make the already satisfying movement even better. More importantly, each one feels powerful. The first time you use a new tool, your mind races with new possibilities. That's the mark of a good upgrade.

Good Grappling Hook I highly recommend grappling away from all your problems.

If you need a little break from the mindless digging, the slightly less mindless puzzle rooms are a welcome respite. Dig 2 never forgets the kind of game it is though, so none of these puzzles are too tough. I usually found myself standing still for a few minutes, having that a-ha moment, and getting right back to the grind. The challenges presented are just hard enough to make you feel good about solving them. Maybe not finishing-a-Rubik’s-Cube good, but at least finding-that-last-word-in-a-word-search good.

Every bit of SteamWorld Dig 2 is crafted to be satisfying. Despite being a “make the numbers go up” kind of game, it never disrespects your time. Earning or finding a new way to move around is rewarding, and by the end you feel like you’ve mastered the mine. Games with this kind of loot loop almost always make me feel a little dirty when I play them, like I’ve let my mind quit working and just hooked it to a dopamine IV. Dig 2 avoids this with a little challenge, a little choice, and by not sticking around too long. It’s well worth the handful of hours it asks for, and makes me keep my fingers crossed for a trilogy.

The Perfect Information of Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun

It seems that modern stealth games are sacrificing more and more of the satisfaction that comes from never getting caught. They trade this away so that when your cover is blown, you can take down enemies in a flurry of bullets or blades. Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is not interested in giving you a "go loud" fallback. It makes you earn everything.

Shadow Tactics is the only game I've played in the genre it is attempting to revive: real time tactical stealth. It controls like a MOBA, and has the same perspective, but you are moving multiple characters through each level. It may be winning extra points for freshness since it's a completely new-to-me genre, so I want to mention that first.

The game is laid out in traditional levels, with no choices to make in between. There is no RPG-style progression or loadouts to manage. Instead, you are given different combinations of the five characters to control in each mission. They might gain or lose a move depending on the context, but that's about it. I found this refreshing since I never doubted that I had the right tools for the job.

Slice and Dice I appreciate something nice to look at when I'm bifurcating people.

The missions themselves are a series of connected puzzle rooms. Your objectives usually amount to getting somewhere on the map, doing something there, then getting out. When you spend long enough in one level, you start to see the solutions that the designers set up. But because you have control of multiple characters with their own items and abilities, it never seems like there is one true way to complete an objective. In most areas you have the option to take out enemies one by one, then simply waltz past the bodies. Or, you can create a series of distractions and slip from cover to cover. Both are satisfying thanks to the freedom and precision the game affords. The fact that all this plays out in real time heightens the tension without the game having to resort to stressful timers. You can observe patrol routes and make note of hiding places. Take all the time you want to plan your next move, but when it's time to execute, you must do so flawlessly.

Each character has a way to distract enemies plus some sort of special move. Different enemy types are explained well and you always know how they will react to what you do. Some are immune to certain weapons, while others won't react to your distractions. Almost every level introduces a twist like snow that reveals footprints or night missions with reduced enemy visibility. All this keeps you from falling into a rut of distract, sneak up, assassinate. Like the old saying goes: variety is the spice of murder.

What really sets Shadow Tactics apart is its UI. In a stealth game, there is nothing more frustrating than not knowing why your cover was blown. It's clear that the designers at Mimimi Productions agree. A huge amount of attention was paid to NPC vision, which is represented by a complex but highly readable cone. It's green when an NPC sees nothing of interest, filling with yellow if you cross into the cone. If the yellow reaches you the cone turns fully red, meaning you are seen and pursued. However, if you can remain crouching in the striped part of the cone, you stay invisible. When planning your next move, select any enemy in the level and see their field of vision. If all that's not enough, you can select any area on the map and a line will be drawn to all enemies watching that location.

Beware the cone In the sneaking stoplight, red means GO.

I'll let Mimimi Lead Designer Moritz Wagner tell you why all that UI stuff is so great:

"Shadow Tactics is a game of almost perfect information. There is no fog of war, enemies don’t randomly spawn and their behavior is always predictable (as long as they aren’t actively searching for the player). Players can analyze a situation completely if they take the time to do so."

Having this "perfect information" allows for a cool thing like Shadow Mode to exist. This is a system allowing you to queue up one move for multiple characters and execute all of them with a single key press. Using Shadow Mode made me feel like a tactical stealth mastermind in ways that other games don't even really attempt. I found myself seeking out scenarios where it would be all but required.

Of course, if the player knows everything then the game can be much tougher. Enemy vision and patrols are often calibrated so that you have to patiently observe and go through quite a bit of trial and error. This doesn't feel punishing because the quicksave and quick load live up to their names. I was never more than 5 seconds away from retrying a maneuver. I found myself experimenting much more than I would in a game where failure means a 30 second load to a checkpoint I reached 5 minutes ago.

Now, about that difficulty. It almost never felt like my skills weren't keeping up with what the game threw at me. I was failing just the right number of times before I had a breakthrough. However, at some point one of your assassins just straight up hands out guns to the rest of the team. At first this seems like a sort of Get Out of Jail Free card, especially since the guns have a limited number of shots. But then I encountered an area that was jam packed with enemies watching not only every route to the level exit but also each other. As hard as I tried, I could not find the right combination of stealthy maneuvers to take them out. So, I resorted to shooting one and hiding until the remaining bad guys stopped looking for us. I rinsed and repeated this until the herd was sufficiently thinned. It was a situation where I was glad to have the guns, but disappointed that I had to rely on them so much.

Playing Shadow Tactics is all about the feeling you get from a perfect execution. The developers know that, and they not only challenge you enough to make you earn that execution, they also give you the tools you need to get there. If you desire that feeling and don't mind quite a bit of experimenting, Shadow Tactics is a worthwhile endeavor.