Go back to the 1980s, and our visions of the future were all about population booms. Blade Runner, Neuromancer, Brazil – they all took the extreme population growth of Japan, China and the US and imagined them writ large as skyscraper cities, or entirely urbanised countries. It makes sense that science-fiction will grab the fears and themes of the time, and unchecked growth was the story of the decade.
Now, our science fiction tends to the apocalyptic. If you’re to trust science-fiction, we’re not long for this world. Almost certainly through fears of climate change, pandemics and the damage we’re doing to the planet, we imagine worlds like Last of Us, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Fallout.
Cloud Gardens feels like an apocalyptic future, a WALL-E world where humans have left, burrowed underground or died. There are no clues to where we’ve gone in Cloud Garden’s world – no bodies, blood or the like – just our detritus, scattered about and rusting. But Cloud Garden’s message isn’t a negative one: it’s a message of hope. The world will continue without us, and the layers of concrete on the world can soon be jungles. It’s one of the most surprising and inventive things about Cloud Gardens.
How its world works is completely contrary, and theoretically contains a dangerous message, but nonetheless it works brilliantly: the seeds you plant in Cloud Gardens will bloom and spread when they’re placed near rubbish. That’s the game in one sentence, basically: you’re sowing the seed of a germinating plant, but you’re looking to place it where it’s most likely to grow, and that’s near the shopping trolleys, bottles and wrought-iron fences of the world. Ivy grows up larger structures, so you’re placing it at the root of arches or buildings. Cacti are hardy, so you’re placing them in the risky areas, where your mountains of rubbish might topple and destroy the flimsier plants. Monstera keeps on growing, and is your power-plant, gathering you higher and higher scores. Then you’re dropping even more rubbish down to make them flourish.
It’s hard to pinpoint why I like this theme so much. I suspect it’s got something to do with the inverted climate change message, that the world will fight back and reclaim the tarmac that we’re carpeting the world with. There’s an optimism there that’s kind of rare.
There are six themes or worlds to explore, with plenty of levels in each. You will move from abandoned parking lots to greenhouses, with the latter being particularly poignant, as the plants take over the structure meant to contain them. It’s the world of Cloud Gardens in microcosm, in fact. Each level is this discrete little diorama, a snowglobe scene but with a 28 Days Later vibe. In their own way, they’re beautiful, the hard lines and drab colours of road signs and crates being softened and brightened by the plants you grow around them. The slightly voxelled art style does a superb job of swinging between dull and vibrant, and the ambient soundtrack sets a more laid back tone.
Everything about Cloud Garden’s presentation is top drawer, and developer Noio – effectively just scripter Thomas van den Berg on his own – should take immense credit for what he’s grown over the years. Developed in full consultation with a Cloud Gardens community, following a demo last year, it’s clearly a labour of love, and even the detail-work, as crows scatter as you place down cars and trucks, is wonderful.
There is a bit of a rug-pull to the review, as while the concept and presentation absolutely landed with me, I wasn’t completely won over by Cloud Gardens.
Although the themes are wildly different, there is a huge connection between Cloud Gardens and another game that has launched in the past week on the Xbox: ISLANDERS: Console Edition. Both games give you a sandbox to build in, with only two options for things to place. They strip back the resource management and city-building themes to the barest of blocks. Then you’re placing these things with the aim of ‘chain-reacting’ with other things you have previously placed. Get the chain reactions right and your score will grow, but foster thin connections and your score will diminish, your resources will dry up and the level will end. They’re both designed to be serene, chilled games that aren’t threatened by combat, time limits or hazards.
A twist of fate has seen these two land at the same time, and has meant that I’ve been playing both in the same week. But playing ISLANDERS: Console Edition at the same time, which I would argue is the better game (almost perfect, in fact, in terms of communicating its vision, and is cheaper too), only serves to highlight the sharper edges of Cloud Gardens, which is the less refined, if slightly more characterful game.
Cloud Gardens is virtually text free, which is both a boon and a curse. It gives an almost spiritual feeling to the opening moments of the game, but it also means that understanding which plant is which, and what its benefits are, is difficult. That knowledge comes with time, but when seeds look so similar, but their effects are so wildly different – some climbing, some blanketing the floor – with a hefty punishment for failure (effectively, you lose the level), it can combine to create a steep learning curve for a new player.
To its credit, Cloud Gardens has a ‘Skip Level’ option, which is a progressive feature that you feel a lot of games would benefit from. Whether you’ll choose to use it depends on how willing you are to leave content behind you. There’s also a ‘Creative Mode’, which strips out the score threshold and just lets you plant.
While ISLANDERS and Cloud Gardens both allow you to have almost pixel-perfect placement, rotating and zooming into the environment so that you get perfect chain reactions, Cloud Gardens feels degrees more clumsy. Part of that’s in the controls. On PC it’s likely fine, but with a controller, zooming in to do the micro-work of placement is a continuous headache. You will want to move up and over obstacles to see a nook for a seed, but it’s fiddly to work the many different axes of camera movement.
But it’s the physics that makes Cloud Gardens feel occasionally clumsy. You’re not just placing things, you’re balancing things, and delicately stacking tyres or trying to place a bottle with its bottom stable is less fun than it sounds. The physics make the levels feel like realistic spaces, but they also create strange enemies of slopes and teetering piles of trash.
These things matter because Cloud Gardens could and should have been a chilled game. Everything else in the design is forgiving, allowing you to create at your speed and skip levels should you want to, but the occasionally cack-handed controls and teetering physics add a tension that we didn’t want. We wanted to kick back in the rocking chair and grow a garden, but it was slightly more stressful than perhaps expected.
There’s no doubting that Cloud Gardens is a delight. It’s a pared back builder sim with innovation and charm to spare. With a greater commitment to console controls and a stress-free, zen-like approach to gardening, it might have been a classic. But let’s appreciate it for what it is: a plant in need of a bit of trimming, but one that deserves a great deal of admiration.
You can buy Cloud Gardens from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S