From a small team at William Chyr Studios, led by — you guessed it — William Chyr, Manifold Garden joins the ranks of the best puzzle games. An eerie, peaceful art style, gorgeous ambient music, and tricky puzzles make this experience great, but it’s mind-bending M.C. Escher-inspired structures give this game a particularly special quality.
Like the recently released Superliminal, or the yet unreleased Maquette, Manifold Garden is another indie puzzle game that messes with your brain. Not only do these levels have structures full of strange infinite tessellations, but the world itself is endless. Each structure repeats infinitely into the distance, like the image when two mirrors are opposite each other. It takes the puzzle basics of the legendary Portal series but stands out as separate from it after just half an hour of gameplay. In fact, it’s unlike any other experience I’ve ever had.
Story – Or Lack Thereof
There isn’t really any story in this game, or if there is it comes from what the player infers from its meditations on infinity. Overall, it’s just a feeling, assumedly stemming from William Chyr’s visual art experience. While there is obvious gameplay, what I took away from this game felt more like the visual artwork I’ve seen of Lawrence Lek, yet even more oblique. It makes you feel something, an eerie unclear feeling, yet peaceful. In spite of the lack of any obvious narrative however, this game deserves to be seen all the way through to the end. Manifold Garden makes up for its lack of traditional storytelling with pure, mesmerising style.
Gameplay – Falling Upwards
The puzzle gameplay here will be familiar to anyone who has played Portal, but it is by no means a copy. The core involves different coloured cubes being placed on a button the same colour. The immediate difference is that each has an arrow, denoting the direction that gravity must be in for you to interact with it. You can swing gravity in all six directions (up, down, left, right, forwards, and backwards) by going to a wall and pressing ZR, making you and the world around you flip perspective, like that scene in Inception. This is just the beginning, however. Just like all great games, Manifold Garden uses this solid core mechanic and adds interesting ideas with each new level.
A frequent part of the game is falling. As this world contains endless repetitions of itself, you can jump off a ledge and fall straight back to where you were. There’s something wonderful about just dropping out of the level and landing on the top of it, and, as you progress, this falling upwards becomes integral to solving the puzzles. While there is a lot to do in Manifold Garden, I always came back to taking a leap of faith and hanging out in free fall for a while until I spotted my solution.
Because of this, worlds take on a whole new meaning with each change in gravity. And as the scale increases, so does the challenge. But the nice thing about the game is that it never makes you feel stupid. I found a few moments where I was completely stuck, close to looking up a walkthrough. Then, I’d just drop out of the sky one more time, and look around as I endlessly fall. This technique worked wonders and meant I could survey the puzzle and bits of the landscape I hadn’t been to yet. Once I understood this, I never found myself stuck again. This game basically lets you open a map by jumping off a ledge.
Visuals – Infinity And Beyond
The design of this game is astonishing. With mind-bending M.C Escher inspired structures replete with mechanisms and glowing lights you would think it a sensory overload, but it’s not. It feels peaceful, hypnotic, inducing a zen-like state as you wander about half-confused, half-in-control. It strikes a nice balance between hard, grey, angular structures, plain glowing colours, and moments of strange beauty. Whether it’s the cuboid trees that blossom out and drop their fruit (their fruit being the cubes you use to solve the puzzles) or the simple pleasure of making a mill wheel turn by directing water towards it, Manifold Garden doesn’t just rely on the mind-blowing mathematical constructions — even though there are lots of those.
The settings get grander and more ambitious as you go, with colours changing as you change the gravity, making the world feel directly linked to you actions. You can wander around a chain of towers in a diamond shape, firing big lasers into the centre as you complete each tower’s test, or through red halls with grand Hellenic pillars, or just tumble through a world of stairs, climbing up and down and left and right and folding in on themselves and you until you suddenly land, somehow right where you need to be. Each level is an exploration of infinity and endlessness, and can sometimes overwhelm. But that half-confused state never makes you feel lost. You can always spin gravity another way, jump off a different ledge, or just have a look around and you will almost definitely find your way.
Also, in spite of these mind-bending visuals, this isn’t a dishonest game. Every inch of the game’s geometry is exactly the size and shape as it ought to be, and interacts with you in a way you expect it to. If you find your way outside a structure and look at its repetitions in the distance, you can often see the route you took through it, and what you ought to do next. This allows the gameplay and the visuals to be perfectly in tune. One tactic I often used was to look into the distance, see the structure that I am standing on, and use this full external view to try and work out the solution. The wonderful world of Manifold Garden encourages you to stop, look, and think, and invariably this is the best way to solve its entrancing puzzles.
Audio – An Ambient Masterpiece
The soundscapes here are luscious and subtle, evolving constantly atop an ambient core. I often thought of the ambient work of Ryuichi Sakamoto and William Basinski, but the sound moves beyond that genre, adding playful vintage synth arpeggios, crunchy distorted bass, and frenetic piano and xylophone (or metallophone?) loops straight out of Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians. It’s cleverly tied to your actions and builds as the tension grows towards the final climactic puzzle solution. Some of the best ambient music is hidden away in video games, and the gorgeous compositions of Laryssa Okada have joined that club. Even if you don’t get to play this game, you should definitely seek out this soundtrack.
The sound design from Martin Kvale is also stellar, adding to the intrigue and mystique of this game. Strangely, it often made me think of Halo. As you carry a cube and climb some stairs, it clips the staircase and sounds like a Needler. When you put that cube into its place, a coloured bar fills up along to the mechanism it interacts with, and it sounds like Master Chief’s shield recharging. Each flip of gravity has its own satisfying note as well, helping you recognise each change more quickly. Outside of that, there are singing birds and unfolding contraptions that give this world a vital grounded feeling. While it is technically endless, small sections of these maps have their own personality and strange reality because of these tactile sounds.
Manifold Garden was reviewed on Nintendo Switch, and a review key was provided by The Indie Bros.