Cloud Gardens Review – Review
A tranquil experience about flowers growing from plots of dirt.
There isn’t much to the gameplay side of Cloud Gardens, a peaceful sim experience about greenery growing in unexpected places. Its message–that nature is powerful enough to find a way to co-exist in among human junk and destruction–is a poignant one and grows more topical by the hour. In between the shooting, exploration, and jumping of other video games, sometimes it’s nice to have a much simpler objective without the pressure of winning and losing. Sprouting seeds in Cloud Gardens feels very much like stopping to take a deep breath and relax, which is a practice so many of us could use more of.
Across more than 100 levels, which can take the form of pillars, towers, and derelict automobiles balanced on a small patch of earth, your objective is to place one or more bundles of seeds and watch them grow as you surround them with human-made objects. Dropping emergency cones, rubber tires, sign posts and other everyday roadside staples allows your plants to proliferate and spread out across the scenery. Certain plants will produce flowers and buds that can be harvested to allow you to place further bundles and “greenify” new sections of the stage. The juxtaposition of dropping trash into the landscape and watching it actually bring something to life is especially satisfying.
Some of the stages are much larger than others, but at all times the specific goal to advance to the next level requires raising a meter in the corner of the screen to 100 percent. This number represents the growth of your plants, and as you drop objects beside them and watch the plants sprout up, your progression meter slowly builds. It’s possible (and even likely) that you’ll run into situations where your plants stop growing, you no longer have any objects to drop onto the stage, and your progression halts. At this point, you can simply restart from scratch and try new placements, or you can even take a chainsaw to your handiwork and retrieve any plant bundles that weren’t growing so well, so that you can move things around without losing all your progress.
After completing a handful of stages, you’ll start to unlock different platforms, pieces, and structures that can be used in Cloud Gardens’ sandbox mode. This more freeform setting allows you to basically create your own stages and decorate them with all manner of seeds, plants, structures, and synthetic objects. It’s also possible to share your creations with other players, but for me, an experience like this is a deeply personal one. Especially in the sandbox mode, which really allows you to experiment and be creative, what I was able to come up with felt like an expression of how I saw the world and even my own connection with nature.
The simple but functional UI makes accessing and placing seeds and materials a snap, and what may look like an experience built for using a computer mouse is actually quite well done on Switch. Placing objects with sufficient precision is easy, and you can rotate each stage to see behind pillars and to attach signs to walls. This allows your seeds to sprout and your plants to crawl down the sides of a tower, which can really get that progression meter climbing. That said, it can be frustrating to not see growth even when you’ve placed scores of items nearby your plants; the recipe for moving from one stage to the next isn’t always a clear one.
Aesthetically, Cloud Gardens has a pixelated look that adds a bit of a fantasy or simulation aspect to its real-world depiction. There’s a charm to the absence of photo-realistic graphics that builds up the wonder of experimenting and reclaiming wasteland spaces with green nature. The background music and ambient sounds never take you out of the zen-like space that each stage creates.
All in all, Cloud Gardens is definitely a title that leans more towards experience than game, but its classification matters much less than how it feels to play around with its tools or the positive message it espouses. By focusing on creating and elevating green spaces, we can return our world to one where nature is in harmony and a balance is struck between humanity’s footprint and mother nature’s embrace. Spending a few minutes or even a few hours experimenting with Cloud Gardens feels like a worthwhile endeavor.