I’m a guy who plays games to relax. While I don’t mind the occasional racing game or FPS, mostly I love to sit myself down in a comfy chair and finish off a Picross puzzle, or gently arrange furniture in Animal Crossing. So I was very happy to get the chance to do a Cloud Gardens review because this game looks right up my alley in every way. A post-apocalyptic gardening sim crossed with a puzzle game? Yup, sign me up.
What I didn’t expect and is quite hard to articulate, is that Cloud Gardens is exactly what I expected in some ways, but the gameplay isn’t quite what I had in my mind. With over 100 levels, you must plant seeds in these barren wastelands to bring them back to life. But, you help them grow by placing rubbish, with each broken tv, garden gnome, or various other forgotten pieces having a particular radius of effect.
The tough part is both balancing and fitting all of the junk onto the stage, but also placing your seeds strategically so that each placement of trash feeds the most seeds at once. Throw on top of this the fact that you can pick flowers from the growing seeds to make more seeds, and then the fact that certain seeds grow straight up, grow on buildings or spread like weeds… well, there’s a lot more nuance than I initially expected.
One thing Cloud Gardens has absolutely nailed is aesthetic. The wastelands are given a charming personality thanks to the chunky pixel/low-poly style, and even simple architecture like building’s roofs and telephone poles are modelled with care. Floating in a void, there’s a gorgeous light gradient adoring the background, and you can catch subtle reflections of light from windows as you rotate the level to place your seeds.
Each level starts out empty, and as you start playing, you might (as I did) thoughtlessly toss trash onto the level in the hopes of quickly getting your seeds to grow as soon as possible. But with a little more patience and curation, I started creating peaceful little dioramas where everything is balanced and beautiful. The size of pieces of trash you receive can fluctuate wildly, so while you might have ten various gnomes to power up a couple of seeds, you might also get a giant slide or a car instead.
The radius of larger items is suitably larger and is a massive boon for all of your plant life, but you don’t get many of these. Instead, you need to maximise the floor space for your plants, make sure that the weeds can spread, and place the wall-crawling foliage somewhere where they can best receive the boosts from the trash as well. Then, it’s all about balance, as you place your trash on top of each other or as smartly as you can. These levels can also be pretty small, and if your trash topples off the stage, you’ll have to find somewhere else to place it. Ultimately though, you must fill a metre to 100% by planting enough flowers and helping them bloom. It takes a bit of time, but it’s so satisfying watching the numbers slowly tick up with every placement of something new.
There are over 100 hundred levels on offer here, which is hours of relaxing fun. You also steadily unlock new seeds that each function differently, and cost a different amount of seed points to create. These are spread out pretty well, keeping things fresh throughout the main campaign. The gameplay does also have a couple of other neat tricks, though they aren’t worth spoiling. But more tools for curation and creation open up the puzzles the later you play, and by the end, I felt ready to enter a topiary competition in real life.
Another great inclusion is the photo mode, so you can stop the fun at any time, spin around your delightful diorama, and share your handiwork with pals. Noio knew its audience here, as the mode includes sixteen different aesthetically pleasing lighting options, as well as a full customization suite so you can adjust the lighting to your exact needs. You can also continue playing with your preferred lighting option, which is a nice touch.
There’s also a full creative mode. After each level of the main missions, you unlock the items you used to play around with in creative mode. From here, you can simply build a level at your own pace, and adorn it with all the flowers and vines you please. This is a lovely addition that adds a nice incentive to the main missions, but you can also share your creations with other players online. You can download other player’s creations and watch videos of their dioramas, so I look forward to seeing this community blossom.
Now I’ve touched on the visuals- which are fantastic thanks to the low-poly aesthetic and captivating use of colour – I really want to gush about the sound design. Cloud Gardens has phenomenal sound direction, from the soundtrack through to every single little clunk or thud of foley when you place a piece of trash. There’s a marvellous little twinkle that plays when you place a seed, and while simple, it adds so much to the idea of bringing this barren world back to life. There seem to be quite a few different little noises as well, even when placing similar objects, so it’s clear the team went above and beyond to make everything sound just right.
I did have a couple of niggles in my playthrough, though. While relaxing, I couldn’t only play Cloud Gardens for hours, as the gameplay is immensely satisfying for a while but can become a bit too similar between levels. It’s almost perfect at what it sets out to do, but I’d recommend that you space out the levels and take your time. Also, I did come across a couple of minor bugs. Once or twice, as I neared completion of a level, the growth metre would stop counting, leaving me at 80% or something, and force me to restart the level. It’s not game-breaking, but these are long levels, so it’s definitely a bit of a bummer.
My only other issue is that the controls aren’t quite as intuitive as I’d like. Camera controls during regular gameplay can be a little frustrating. While you can spin around the level, you can’t change your viewing angle, for example, looking up at the level from below to get a better look at certain sides of buildings. This option is in photo mode, so I imagine it’s for gameplay reasons, but it just felt a bit stiff. I also found that the regular camera speed, as well as the cursor speed, were a bit slower than I’d like. More options to speed up or alter your playstyle would be greatly appreciated.
Finally, and this might just be me being greedy, but I really would love to have seen touch controls in handheld, and even some motion controls. Using the analogue stick as a cursor is never ideal, but the slow gameplay here means it’s not a huge problem. But the ability to use a stylus with the screen like Mario Maker 2 or gyro controls like in World of Goo? It would be the cherry on top of an already brilliant experience and would add another element of precision and fun to the gameplay.
Cloud Gardens should be your new chill-out game. A greatly relaxing experience is accentuated by stunning low-poly visuals and masterful attention to sound design that makes this post-apocalyptic wasteland a joy to traverse. It’s stuffed full of levels and even has a robust creative mode, while there are already hours of relaxation time for any players who take the dive. Cloud Gardens is a breath of fresh air to the puzzle genre and a blooming great way to chill out.