by Nathan Rowland
reviewed on PC
It’s hard not to describe Manifold Garden without the use of metaphors and analogies, as a great deal of this game’s experiences comes from the visceral emotions it evokes through it’s brief spell of gameplay. A bare description of the game would describe it as a first-person puzzle game with abstract exploration across three dimensions, very much in the style and design of the graphic artist MC Escher. Something not too far in comparison from The Witness or Portal as you creatively traverse their seemingly ongoing worlds.
So, what did Manifold Garden initially make me feel? Well on my first day, entirely nauseous and dizzy. That’s because it’s bright colour palette and brilliant, interlacing structures took me a while to get used to. Out of the gate I was a bit bewildered by the dimensions of it, going so far as to give me a bit of vertigo. This is heightened by the principal mode of movement, pressing space-bar, which lets the player change the axis of gravity to “walk on walls”. More accurately, we’re changing what dimension is considered the floor. When done in rapid succession, I’d be dazed for a few seconds. However, on my second day, I found most of the visuals were no longer having this dizzying effect on me. I’d evidently acclimated to this stunning, awe-inspiring world.
More Power to Penrose
From then on, the experience is just a constant reinforcement of those wonderful “aha!” moments that good puzzle games seek to constantly reinforce. Compared to likes of The Witness, the puzzles aren’t particularly hard, instead requiring a good deal of lateral thinking to discover various dynamics to a puzzle that aren’t always apparent from the start. Usually all that it takes is a change in perspective, which is exactly what Manifold Garden empowers you to do. Jumping off buildings and floating through space endlessly to better position yourself is easily done once you’ve gripped the mechanics of movement. It’s a simple and pared back design which makes good use of visual cues like colour or the lack thereof. A great example of this is the surface displaying what plane you’re standing on by the colour changing of your cursor. Shifting between these planes can have the same effect of altering gravity on cubes which share the same colour. This is principally how most puzzles are solved, but there is plenty of mischief the designers have put in your way to stop it from becoming simple.
What is most enjoyable about this experience is wrapping your head around the visuals. As the spatial environment doesn’t conform to “reality” as we might expect. Walls disappear, entering new rooms creates new horizons, rain falls indoors from seemingly endless heights. If you don’t have a picture in your head of what the world should look like, you can quickly lose your orientation. And yet, there are moments when it can invoke a real sense of calm, become something of an Escherian gardener, tending to your infinitely growing trees. Which is exactly what the game challenges you to do, finding various ‘god cubes’ to cultivate your garden of endless tesseracts. It seems like it would've been a challenge to design, but you cannot fault the results - it quickly sets out the rules of this universe and manipulates them just enough to empower your mind in overcoming its puzzles. So much of my ingrained and learned game experience is deconstructed by the simple mechanics of Manifold’s 3d-design and the ability to traverse the map by altering the dimensions of gravity. It’s certainly not the first to have done so, but never with this much aesthetic appeal.
Supporting the experience is a tremendous soundtrack and ambient design to Manifold Garden’s visceral interactions, always interrelated to the gameplay’s beat by beat moments. Raindrops pattering on window panes when you enter the “dark world”; the whooshing of air as you pick up speed falling through space; the soft thud when you land on a trees’ branch. The wonderful score provides moments of great depth as well, heightening the mood as the game culminates towards its revelatory finish. I’d describe it as a wonderful ode to the likes of Vangelis’ score for Blade Runner as well as Hans Zimmer’s composition for Interstellar.
The only negative I could give is that the game often clips between sound files quite abruptly when you transition between rooms, opting to go without a cross-fade between tracks. This stands out in a game that is otherwise highly polished towards its very focused experience. Though it is brief, with my playthrough taking 3 hours, Manifold Garden has taken root as one of my favourite game experiences this year.
Engaging world design, empowering control system, a visual spectacle
Not the most challenging puzzles, audio issues