/ Rob Beschizza / 3 am Fri, Oct 25 2019
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  • Review / Manifold Garden

    Review / Manifold Garden

    William Chyr’s abyss stares back. It's a good puzzle game, too.

    Free of text, of talk, of anyone at all, Manifold Garden’s only voice is the sacred geometry of its environment. It challenges the player with puzzles and lures us into an impossible tangle of place and motion.

    An echo of brutalist architecture and technical illustration, the garden looks like a haunted, sun-faded polaroid. You’ll soon realize you can switch the direction of gravity on a whim and that you’ll never die. This is empowering and mind-scrambling. Lurch from wall to ground, from floor to ceiling, only to find that the region of the garden you’re in repeats endlessly in all directions—and then, that you can soar between these reflections by turning up into down, opening otherwise inaccessible surfaces to exploration.

    Or leap into the void, and land exactly where you started.

    Surfaces aligned with gravity's arrow are highlighted a certain color, one for each of the six cardinal directions, a subtle navigational cue. Impeding progress are closed doors, linked to circuits and power sockets. Fortunately, the garden is not quite dead: cubelike fruit grow on cubelike trees, each colored according to the direction of growth, and act as batteries. Most puzzles are solved by placing fruit to power logic gates, to direct water into turbines, or to charge doors and glowing pylons.

    Elaborations follow as the journey unfolds. The player must learn to exploit the manifold nature of the space, flying from one instance to the next, over and over. Planting new trees yields more fruit. Puzzle-pieces sail on gravity’s wind in maddening games of cosmic Tetris.

    But it’s the architecture that matters. The player stumbles from plain and claustrophobic puzzle-chambers (which reminded me of early solid-3D puzzlers such as 1988’s Total Eclipse) to cathedral halls and on to the demented exteriors, all repeating off into the distance like a hall of mirrors, suggesting both infinity and limitation. Doorways (and corners, to sickening effect) open up to other regions, each with its own architectural character, all with the same patterns of scale and disorientation.

    The garden never tells you what it wants, but corruption (and menacing events triggered by solving each region’s final puzzle) implies its needs. Poisoned trees are healed, revealing strange artifacts and portals to the garden’s hub. The hub is revived and restored with each artifact returned to it, a flowering of ... something.

    Is the garden alive with anything more than its own elegance? Its design, rolling from M.C. Escher to Damien Gilley by way of Frank Lloyd Wright and Tadao Ando, implies an architect. It is developer William Chyr, of course, but in the garden, is he an absent god or a present devil? Is the garden an inviting ruin or a sadistic maze? Am I exploring or escaping?

    The gameplay, interesting and challenging as it is, never approaches these implications. The puzzles are all there is to it. Each breathtaking view offers no reason to linger that you don’t bring in with you. This isn't a bad thing; while the garden poses questions that playing the game can’t answer, I appreciate not being asked to stay. It's the beauty of the abyss that stares back, after all.

    Escape it is, then.

    ★★★★☆

    Manifold Garden (official homepage) is available on Windows at the Epic Games Store, iOS and Mac via Apple Arcade, and is forthcoming on PlayStation 4.

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