The Gardener and the Wild Vines (2021)
Developer: Finite Reflection Studios
Disclaimer: I received this game for free from the developer.
I don't know what it is about the last month, but it's been absolutely packed with new game releases! Definitely not something to complain about, but I have been happily overwhelmed by options of what to play right now. I also have recently been getting a higher volume of review requests on Sleepy Toadstool's Steam curator profile - which is always great, but I've temporarily closed them in order to be able to keep up with current requests. Actually, I would've never discovered this little gem of a game if I hadn't received it for review. The Gardener and the Wild Vines is a 2.5D storybook-like platformer about a young gardener climbing tower after to tower to rescue the person he loves. The Gardener and the Wild Vines is so heartfelt, so genuine, and so sweet, while also being a really catchy and fast-paced puzzle-platformer.
You play as the Gardener, a young man who is trying to gain access to a guarded tower so that he can see the Prince. The Knight guarding the tower stops him from going through the door, but the Gardener is not discouraged. He begins to climb tower using what appears to be magical plant powers, making vines grow all around the tower. The Gardener easily makes it to the top and opens the door, only to find that the Prince is not there. The Gardener is determined to find the Prince, though, and he continues to the next castle. He needs to see the Prince, not only to save him, but to declare his love to him. We learn that the Prince has been imprisoned by his own father, the King, after having started a rebellion against his father's rule. However, it's the Magician, who has served the royal family for years, who antagonizes the Gardener's efforts to find the Prince and by making each tower more and more difficult to climb.
Y'all know I'm a sucker for a surprise vocal track in the credits of an indie game, but holy shit, this one... this one's really special. I've been listening to this song on replay, and it continues to get me a little choked up every time. The rest of the soundtrack is well-done and very fun, although it can get repetitive when used for many levels in a row. The music in the final area is probably my favorite, as it still has that exciting sound but also a more somber and serious feel. The art style is very three-dimensional, despite being a 2D pixel-style platformer. There's some beautiful background art, even if you may not notice it while you're climbing a tower. The characters are given a lot of personality through their art, and the cutscenes especially are really beautiful use of pixel art.
The gameplay in The Gardener and the Wild Vines involves jumping on large leaves and making a path forward by cutting flower buds with your scissors. These slashes can propel you upwards and you can hit many of them in series to chain a combo. Essentially, the main goal is to reach the top of the tower - but you can also take your time doing combos or collecting the "Lovebirds" caged in each level. Each level has challenge modes you can do, either hitting a best time or doing the most combos. Early on, I thought about going back and trying some of these challenges, but there are actually a lot of levels and I was more interested in seeing the story through. This game's weakness is perhaps being a little too predictable in its structure. The first area has 7 towers, and then every area after that also has 7 towers. This means reaching the top of the first 6 towers doesn't feel as satisfying, although it advances the story slightly. It also gets a little repetitive, especially in the earlier levels. I think this game could've done with changing up the formula a little bit, like having a different number of levels in each area or throwing in some levels that are completely different from the previous ones. At first I thought the game was a bit too easy, but once I got to the mountain area the difficulty definitely took a step up. There's even a level near the end where I died and had to start completely over. The increase in challenge is definitely slow, but it does a good job of getting you used to the gameplay. It becomes really difficult to scale the tower towards the end and stay alive, so that definitely adds to the intensity and mood of the story. If I was recommending this game to someone, I would advice them that the early levels may be a bit dull gameplay-wise but it really starts to get interesting once you get to the 2nd or 3rd area.
You're probably wondering why the characters are named by their title - the Gardener, the Prince, the Knight, the Magician. This actually plays an important part in telling the story and developing the characters. Despite none of the characters having real names, you grow to love them through the journey as they figure themselves out with vulnerability, courage, and companionship. The Gardener reminds me a lot of Steven Universe, with his seemingly-endless optimism and his ability to see the good in anyone. It's this quality about him that brings shines light on characters who you perhaps didn't understand at first. The characters have their own struggles, separate from the main story, that make them feel like real people who the audience can relate to.
The Gardener and the Wild Vines took me completely by surprise. I only expected a cute upbeat pixel platformer going in, but the story really pulled me in. I highly recommend it, even if you're not the best at platformers. It's not too challenging, and even if it is, you can turn on "invincible mode". The story is likely one of my favorites of any I've played this year. The developers genuinely put so much love and care into this story, and it was perfectly communicated to the audience. It's still rare to see a game feature queer characters and even more rare to see authentic queer love stories being told in through gameplay. It warmed my heart and brought tears to my eyes with its well-crafted ending.
The Gardener and the Wild Vines is available on PC
Played on: PC
Playtime: 3.5 hrs