When games explore the End-of-the-World, humanity’s mark on Planet Earth remains and leaves a landscape of devastation. Broken infrastructure, hazardous junkyards, and the ever-barren wasteland are familiar sights to anyone who has played blockbuster apocalypse thrillers.
Cloud Gardens goes in a different direction by offering these wastelands to the elements.
Cloud Gardens explores the persistence of nature in a world without humans. Developed by Thomas van den Berg as Noio Games, this “experimental project” is continuously being updated with player feedback. In this Cloud Gardens preview, we take a look at what makes this lo-fi gardening simulator tick.
The game is in Steam Early Access for your regional pricing.
Story – Build a Scene, Build a Tale
In Cloud Gardens, you hop from scene to scene with the goal of racking up enough nature-takeover points so you can progress through the game. Strictly speaking, there is no story to this experiment – which actually lends to the beauty of the experience.
The items that you build as you terraform old buildings and junkyards for your beloved plants are simple enough. You start off with old signs, wooden crates, and chain-link fences, but soon you will receive interesting items like shopping carts, garden gnomes, and teddy bears. Proof of (previous) life creeps into the scenes you create.
Soon, I found myself weaving stories into the stages I worked to complete. In one instance I rounded together white monoblock chairs and scattered glass bottles and tin cans on the floor – then I added a boombox for good measure. I thought about the people who could have been sitting and drinking in those chairs, and the stories they told each other as the world ended. Before I knew it, I felt nostalgia for carefree days, where I would do the same with my friends – these lost moments immortalized by junk and debris left behind. There were times were building these scenes became an emotional and personal experience for me, and perhaps as you encounter more innocuous scenes and objects to play with, the meditative state you start to fall into might lead to creating stories of your own.
Gameplay – Taking a Breather
Cloud Gardens was designed to be a chill gardening game, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be using your brain. Each scene gives you seeds to plant, which will grow as you continue to add items and harvest even more seeds from the initial flora. Your goal is to reach a good plant density in the scene and reach the 100% mark. You have to be careful as adding new items to the scene is liable to harm existing plants and bring down your score. It starts off easy, with some scenes giving you plenty of space to work with, but soon you will encounter challenging landscapes that will make you think outside of the planter box.
I had this interesting conflict while I was playing around with the stages. I wanted to pass the level, of course, but I also took care to make sure the scene felt right to me. Balancing the aesthetics of devastation and the actual puzzle of getting enough flourishing flora in the scene was a fun challenge on its own. You’ll find yourself cycling through all the plants you’ve unlocked, strategizing to maximize the meager space you have been given to garden.
Despite being liable to fail and start all over again, it never becomes a frustrating experience. Learning from your previous mistakes and happy accidents is as relaxed as you might expect. The few actions that you take within the game feel tactile and the gardening logic (where you can plant, where you can’t) makes sense. It’s truly a chill and straightforward encounter every time.
Aside from the campaign, you also have the sandbox mode that lets you play with scenes and the seeds and items you have managed to unlock. It’s here that you’re able to flex your gardening skills, creating dioramas to your liking.
Audio and Graphics – Lo-Fi Loving
It’s the simplicity of Cloud Gardens‘ art direction is its strength. The soundtrack and visuals work together to create an atmosphere that is relaxing but carries just the right amount of existential dread. The additional background noise of crows crowing and droplets of life-giving water add to the wonderful desolation you feel as you play through the game.
The in-game models of everyday objects may be simple, but they start to become breathtaking as they form these robust landscapes with your help. The plants also look great as low poly graphics and manage to breathe life into the scenes. The colors used in the sceneries are also well-planned – not obnoxiously bright, but not boring and drab, either. The developers have equipped you with the tools to create the prettiest wastelands ever. You won’t be able to help but admire the unique landscape that you created, and you’ll be using the photo mode to create some great wallpapers for your devices.
If there is one area that could stand some improvement, it would have to be the music. The track that plays as you create your dioramas works very well in creating a chill atmosphere and synchronizes with the sound effects that you hear during regular gameplay. However, it seems that it’s the same track throughout the entire campaign. If there were any changes, I didn’t notice. Different songs for each section of the campaign would add some variety to the listening experience. It’s a small detail, but the progress of the music could help reflect the progress of the player and the growing complexity of the stages.
Cloud Gardens was previewed on PC with a key provided by Future Friends Games.