Quick Look – Cloud Gardens (#JustOnePercent 79/100)

Developer: Noio
Release Date: September 1, 2021
MSRP: $17.99

When you have a library as large as mine, you sometimes (read: almost always) forget when you bought a game. I had assumed that I bought Cloud Gardens around the time of its release, however, when I went into my account details to confirm that (and find out how much I paid for it), I discovered that I was only sort of correct – I picked it up in 2020, shortly after the early access release for just over $5. The game spend just under a year in early access, going into a full release in September of 2021.

Now, I did play a bit of the game when I first bought it – about 16 minutes, according to Steam, and what I remembered from that experience was only that I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand the game, and I remember feeling like I had to be missing something. Even in EA, people loved this game. I should have loved this game. The idea of making little dioramas with growing things in them sounds delightful.

Unfortunately, two years later, and I still don’t get it.

On each level, you start with a seed. Plant the seed, and then place debris around it to encourage it to grow. As you progress through the levels, you unlock different sorts of placeable objects for the sandbox mode, and different types of seeds. Once your plants reach a certain growth level, you can harvest the flowers, which allow you to purchase even more seeds. In the lower right hand corner of the screen, there’s a percentage indicator to let you know how much more growth you need to progress to the next level.

I think that the game expects you to keep adding seeds each time a new one become available, making objects placed further into the level effect the growth of multiple seeds, but I often found myself so caught up in trying to oh-so-gingerly place the objects so they wouldn’t fall off the edges of the world, or crush my already growing plants that I wouldn’t notice my seed availability indicator light up. This often resulted in need to restart levels, as I would run out of placeable items long before I achieved the required amount of growth.

Cloud Gardens is features a pixel art style and a color palette that’s both relaxing and really beautiful, and the sound design in phenomenal. The physics of placing objects feels realistic, but I often wished it was a little less so – the maps are small, and I struggled with the camera both with a controller and with the mouse, so often an object I though I was placing just right would topple over. Placeable objects come in groups, but I couldn’t see anything that indicated how many groups you had left to assist with planning.

While it’s lovely to look at, and watching your plants grow out of the wreckage is very satisfying, for me, it lacked the a-ha! moments of a puzzle game, and was too nitpicky to feel like a really good sandbox. Which is why I think I still just don’t get it – I feel like this is meant to be a relaxing puzzler, but nothing to me felt puzzle-y enough.

SteamDB estimates that Cloud Gardens has sold between 33,600 and 92,300 copies on Steam. Although it may lack the wide appeal of more traditional games, its target demographic has really liked it, and reviews are almost universally positive. It is ranked 116 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.

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