I thought I knew exactly what I was getting into when I first clapped eyes on The Gardener and the Wild Vines. Happily I was mistaken. Yes, it’s another platform game with retro inspired graphics, but the similarities end there.
You play as the titular Gardener, who is on a rescue mission to save the Prince. A pesky Magician, once ridiculed, has kidnapped the Prince and locked him away in a tower (sounds familiar) to make a rather grand point. This means the Gardener needs to scale a series of structures in his quest to rescue the man he loves. That’s right, the lead character is gay but it’s handled in a grounded, realistic fashion which is refreshing to say the least.
The 28 levels in the story mode are split up by short bursts of dialogue between the characters which tells a simple narrative, but more importantly fleshes out their personalities. Once the Knight and Pirate are on board, the small gang really are a charming bunch, and funny at times too.
As you may have guessed, each level presents you with a tower which you must climb to the top of, to see if the Prince resides within. The structure is at the centre of the action, and you circle it in an effort to find a path upward. Things start simple, but before long you’re hopping between a series of towers to get to the summit.
You can jump, slide and stick your shears into walls to dig in, and slow your fall. Pressing down on the left thumbstick will add speed and weight to your fall, and when you land on certain items (such as vine leaves) they will propel you upwards like a trampoline.
Attacking flowers that are growing on the tower walls will cause roots to grow and vine leaves to form, gradually revealing a path upwards. You can move at pace by linking together combos by moving from flower to flower as the complex network of vines encircle the tower. At first it’s a linear route, but before long it gets tricky, testing your reflexes and timing.
Various obstacles will pose a threat, such as crabs and energy orbs, that knock you down and take one of your three hearts away. If you lose them all, you’ll be starting again from ground level. The gameplay keeps evolving across the four worlds, with the addition of seesaws for which you need to find weights to launch yourself upward and portals that zap you across towers.
The final world pits you against the Magician, as he pursues you through every level. You will have to avoid him and his various attacks, whilst also climbing the tower and dodging the usual hazards. It adds a different slant to the action, constantly keeping you on the move, offering a decent challenge.
Each level also has a lovebird to save, but you’ll normally have to complete a task before the cage in which it is imprisoned materialises. This may be breaking several golden flowers against the clock, reaching the cage within a certain time or occupying a small space until it’s counter hits 100% (whilst still trying to dodge enemies). Once the cage is present, you can simply smash it open to release your feathered friend.
The Gardener and the Wild Vines controls pretty well on the whole, but every now and then you may feel short changed after swearing you reacted in time, but the Gardener didn’t behave accordingly on screen. It’s a minor issue, and most times errors will be your own which feels fair. I found myself switching to the D-Pad for movement and speeding up my falls, as the thumbstick would sometimes get confused and not register my downwards input.
Once you’re done with the main story, there is a Challenge mode to get stuck into. This places parameters on each of the levels in the campaign, such as hitting combos and clearing the level within a certain time limit. These extra elements add some replayability and offer an opportunity for achievement hunters to scoop up some Gamerscore.
On this subject, it’s refreshing that a game of this ilk has achievements which you actually need to earn. Rather than chucking 100G at you for every level you complete, The Gardener and the Wild Vines will make you work a little harder to earn that coveted Gamerscore. More importantly, you’ll enjoy yourself in the process.
It’s helped that the well versed vintage visual style does the job, but it’s the music which I found myself enjoying the most. The opening world theme instantly reminds of Donkey Kong and will have you bopping along; the following pieces mirrored their settings very well indeed.
The Gardener and the Wild Vines is a feel good game, with a lovely message for its players. The team behind it, Finite Reflection Studios, rather impressively made the entire game from home during the pandemic. A little note at the end shows just what a labour of love it was. Love, quite fittingly, being the central theme.
The Gardener and the Wild Vines is a charming little adventure that, despite the unassuming presentation, is hard not to like. Give this one a go, it may well grow on you.
Grab The Gardener and the Wild Vines from the Xbox Store