STAFF REVIEW of Cloud Gardens (Xbox One)

Saturday, September 4, 2021.
by Peggy Doyle

Cloud Gardens Box art The world can be stressful and, if the past 18 months or so have taught us anything, unpredictable too. We’ve all been doing our best to combat the stress and boredom in whatever ways work for us as individuals. This could be something like listening to music, reading, taking up baking sourdough bread etc., whatever helps to distract us from the steady stream of news and negativity on the news or social media. Video games, although well known as a distraction, haven’t really been known to be a form of calm meditation. Cloud Gardens has changed that. It was the perfect ‘Zen Garden’ for me to escape to.

Zen Garden may not be a perfect description of Cloud Gardens, but, created by solo developer Thomas van den Berg of Noio studios, Cloud Gardens is about creating green spaces in stylized empty landscapes. It definitely brought me a lot of moments of quiet contemplation.

Cloud Gardens tasks you with planting seeds and growing plants over scenes of urban decay. There are four different locations to play around in: Highways, a junkyard, rooftops, and a greenhouse. There are various types of plants and tree seeds you will unlock and can choose from, as well as water supply ‘seed’. Placing items (mostly garbage and junk items) coaxes your plants to grow. While placing the item, you can see its area of influence—with larger items usually causing more growth. It’s a strange mechanic, where garbage is essentially your fertilizer. As the seeds grow you harvest their flowers/fruit, and that harvest in turn fills the gauge you need to plant additional seeds.

You grow your plants and place items in any way you see fit with the goal to ‘cover 100%’ of the map indicated with a percentage gauge in the bottom corner. Most levels are easy to complete but there is a fail state, and I did fail a few levels, either by running out of plant material or décor items. It’s a quick restart though and addictive. I immediately jumped back in and just kept wanting to play more and more. I loved creating spaces with the artifacts to set a scene and a story in my head about what may have happened before the people simply disappeared.

As someone who has worked on volunteer reclamation projects in cities with abandoned plots of land, I found this game very rewarding. Taking back the dead land and making it alive again lit a spark. I need to find a way to do that again. It was beautiful and cathartic. I found it to be very relaxing and since the game has the ability to jump around and play levels as you want, as I could play my favourite areas more than once.

The level design is also pretty clever. Each scene is potentially part of a larger scene. Sometimes it was simply one area to complete and move on, while sometimes a scene would continue on to a larger diorama. I think the largest I encountered was 6 sections. The larger, complex ones were my favourites to go back and repeat. Once you knew what artifacts you would get as you covered more of the space, you could make a better plan the second or third time around.

There is no tutorial for Cloud Gardens, no explanation as to how the seeds grow, which will cover the most space or require the most resources to generate a seed, it’s simply trial and error. In that way I guess it’s like real gardening. You’re never quite sure what will grow or how it will flourish. In the time it took me to understand how Cloud Gardens really worked, I’d gone on an emotional journey from fleeting confusion to intense focus on the game levels. Each new level gave me the opportunity to rotate the camera, trying to find the perfect place to plant the seeds or place the items I was given to create the best garden. But as with all sowing and reaping, this is inevitably a game about balance. Using your garbage arsenal wisely comes into play as you hit higher levels with less items available to place around.

The game doesn’t have high resolution graphics and isn’t hyper realistic, but I think this lends to its charm. It’s like a beautiful watercolour that slowly reveals itself on a canvas. Perhaps I felt a little like Bob Ross in some moments, planting ‘happy little trees’.

As with most point and click style games that I’ve played on console, the controls aren’t as smooth as they could be. Camera movement wasn’t always easy to get a good angle, and physics-based stacking of items often became frustrating when they didn’t act as they should. None of these things took away from my overall enjoyment of the game though.

The entire game of Cloud Gardens has a serene and Zen like quality to it, and as you would expect, the music used for its soundtrack also contributes to this feeling. It had a very meditative quality that would be something you would hear in a yoga studio or spa environment. Cloud Gardens is a unique experience that is hard to describe or compare to anything else I’ve played before. It’s part garden simulator, part dystopian landscape designer, part puzzler and so much more. It’s a game about growth, beauty and the lovely wild things that can spring up in unexpected places. It’s an exercise in finding balance and it’s a gentle reminder to look beyond what you see on the surface, perhaps a bigger teaching moment than I’ve had in a game in some time.

Cloud Gardens gave me a moment to reflect how lucky I am to do things like this, to play games I likely never would have looked at if wasn’t given the opportunity to review them. Gamers tend to snap up the big, bold action-packed titles, or really well known and highly talked about Indies. I didn’t know what to expect from this game or how to approach it. Turns out this is exactly the way to go into the game. Look around, learn the landscape, take back the barren wasteland. It was satisfying, and a complete joy to play. It will stick with me for some time, and I think I will revisit it when I need to take some time out of my hectic life, or a botanical escape in the dead of winter in Canada.

**Cloud Gardens was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Would love to have the camera movement be a bit more fluid. I simply couldn't get the camera to move to some areas to see where I wanted to place items more accurately, especially when stacking smaller items like bottles.

Overall: 7.7 / 10
Gameplay: 7.5 / 10
Visuals: 7.5 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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