Review – Cloud Gardens (Switch)

There are plenty of video games that provide a chill, relaxing experience as a means of escaping the harsh realities of everyday life. Simple gameplay loops that work toward bettering a game’s world provides a certain type of catharsis that’s hard to describe unless you’ve experienced it for yourself. It’s this very concept that have made games like Stardew Valley, Minecraft, and Animal Crossing such incredibly popular franchises. In Noio’s Cloud Gardens, you literally grow within the game’s world, but don’t expect to find much more than that during your time with it.

The premise of Cloud Gardens is pretty straightforward: help nature reclaim its place over a dystopian wasteland. Unlike the myriad of other dystopian titles on the market such as Fallout, Borderlands, or Horizon, Cloud Gardens doesn’t have any protagonists, NPCs, or any sort of storyline. The only semblance of a narrative is tied to its theme: that nature will endure and survive long after we’re gone.

Cloud Gardens Rotating Objects

Rotating objects is easier said than done, thanks to an unreliable camera.

The overall gameplay in Cloud Gardens is incredibly simple. You’ll have to plant seeds within a dilapidated urban setting and place objects around the seedlings to encourage them to grow. Once a plant has grown big enough, it will eventually produce seeds of its own that you can collect and use to create new plants within the level. Once you’ve successfully grown enough flora and fauna to cover most of the diorama, you’ll be able to move onto the next level.

It sounds simple, and for the most part, it is. Cloud Gardens isn’t a difficult game… as long as you understand what it is you’re suppose to do. That was my biggest issue with Cloud Gardens, that the rules and mechanics aren’t explained very well. For example, from the beginning you’re told that placing trash/objects near a plant will help it grow. That’s fine and dandy, until you realize that the pile of empty bottles you’re stockpiling next to your sprout is no longer having any effect, regardless of how exemplary your stacking skills are. This was a reoccurring point of frustration for me early on in the game.

Cloud Gardens RV and Car Art

Behold, my greatest work of art! It’s what we call “avant-garde”.

What isn’t made clear is that each plant will only reach a specific size, at which point it will produce some seeds and will not continue to grow. These seeds must then be collected (some are tough to spot, so moving the camera is often necessary) and then planted elsewhere within the diorama. The original plants can potentially produce new seeds, but only after they’ve been plucked and encouraged to grow from discarded items being placed near them again.

The act of placing objects around each diorama, as well as their effectiveness, isn’t explained very well either. It took a few levels and plenty of frustration to discover that each object gives off a sort of radius of influence that will encourage foliage growth. When you grab an item it will be surrounded by a circle, and this is the apparent area of effectiveness. However, it’s often difficult to tell exactly how far the range extends because adjusting the camera is usually problematic. You can only zoom in and out, and rotate the diorama, but doing so often moves the item you’re looking to place, making it tough to gauge if it will affect your plants or not.

Cloud Gardens Circle of Effectiveness

Spin the camera and this circle of effectiveness can change dramatically.

Then there’s the plants themselves. There are several different types of seeds you’ll collect all the way, each with their own distinct look and growing pattern. In the beginning you’ll only need to plant the type of seed presented to you within that level, but after a while that approach won’t work anymore. Cloud Gardens does make a brief mention that you can swap out seed types through the UI if desired, but it’s never directly stated that some levels can only be beaten by planting several different types within the same diorama. This was another point of aggravation for a while, when despite my best Jenga-inspired trash stacking skills and careful plant placement, I still couldn’t advance to the next section. Once I realized that I would have to switch between seed types, the rest of Cloud Gardens became significantly easier.

Cloud Gardens Seed Types

These are just the first few seed types you can unlock. Cloud Gardens covers all types, from vines, to cactus, and even bamboo.

Once I fully understood how Cloud Gardens worked, it became much more enjoyable. A puzzle game is only fun if you know how all the pieces work and fit together. Seeing the foliage gradually takeover the urban decay was somewhat satisfying. Although, I did feel fairly underwhelmed by Cloud Gardens‘ art design. This could very well be due to playing it on the Switch, but many of the details and textures looked hazy and muddied. Even some of the plant growing animations (especially the vines) looked stiff and blocky. Obscure details combined with the small scale of the dioramas themselves, frequently made it difficult to see and appreciate the finished product. Instead of gleefully taking in the natural beauty I had cultivated, I was often times trying to comprehend the jumbled mess before me.

Even though there were aspects of Cloud Gardens that were annoying (mainly due to the lack of proper explanation), I do have to give credit to its Creative Mode. As you progress through the main game, you’ll unlock various objects and seed types to use to create your own levels. I was pleasantly surprised by how addicting this mode was, especially after gaining more items to use at my disposal. Before long I found myself trying to recreate the settings from some of my favorite dystopian video games, with moderate success.

Wheat and Pipe

Wheat and rust. How glorious!

Cloud Gardens is a casual, laid-back, puzzle-solving experience. That being said, it’s not the type of game that you will want to play for hours on end, but it’s entertaining in short spurts. It offers over one hundred levels, which sounds impressive, but bear in mind that many of the assets are constantly reused, making levels feel tedious after a while. This makes it ideal for a system like the Switch, where you can pick it up and play here and there on-the-go. Once you understand how everything in the game works, Cloud Gardens can offer a chill experience to relax and unwind with for brief sessions.

Graphics: 6.0

Each diorama is so small that it makes it difficult to tell what’s going on once you’ve filled it with trash and plants. The animations and graphics themselves aren’t very clear or well detailed either.

Gameplay: 7.0

A fairly simple game where you plant seeds and  strategically place objects near them in order to encourage them to grow. Not all of the gameplay mechanics are explained clearly though, which lead to a bit of confusion the beginning.

Sound: 8.0

No voice acting and very little sound effects, but this is by design. The soundtrack is very chill and mellow.

Fun Factor: 7.0

There’s no story or deeper narrative to unlock. Cloud Gardens is simply a casual, laid-back puzzle experience to relax with.

Final Verdict: 7.0

Cloud Gardens is available now on PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X.

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.

A copy of Cloud Gardens was provided by the publisher.