Nature is Healing
This time last year, I previewed Cloud Gardens during one of the worst wildfire seasons my corner of the US had ever experienced. Now, as I review Cloud Gardens nearly 365 days later, California is literally embroiled in a wildfire battle yet again with the second-deadliest fire the state has ever seen. During this time of chaotic devastation, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with news of almost immeasurable loss due to such a destructive force; although Cloud Gardens doesn’t extinguish the problems, it serves to soothe the nerves with its chill aesthetics and gentle reminders that even in death, life always finds a way.
Developed and self-published by Noio, Cloud Gardens spent a year in Steam Early Access to weed out bugs and implement quality of life changes based on player feedback. Described on its Steam page as “a chill game about using plants to overgrow abandoned wasteland dioramas,” Cloud Gardens is available at a launch price of $13.49 (regularly $14.99). Hovering somewhere between a game and a sandbox toy, Cloud Gardens has already received the coveted Overwhelmingly Positive rating on Steam with nearly 1,000 reviews — a good sign for those still wondering if this title is right for them.
Cloud Gardens offers players two different modes: campaign and creative. In campaign mode, players will find a themed diorama with remnants of humanity strewn about the scene. The goal? Plant seeds and encourage their growth by placing more objects in the little environment. After hitting the growth goals for the level, the next level will unlock, and players will be whisked away to the next small post-apocalyptic scene. Beating each diorama means unlocking items to use in sandbox mode, giving players a handful of pixelated prizes upon completion. Although the levels may be bite-sized, the entire game itself is pretty substantial — the pre-release version took me about six hours to complete, and a slew of levels have been added since. And that’s just the campaign mode!
When it comes to sandbox mode, Cloud Gardens pleases those with a virtual green thumb and plenty of creativity. It’s a little bit of a mess at first — especially when you are just starting out and don’t have a ton of assets to work with — but those who have seen Cloud Gardens’ campaign mode to the end will surely find a lot of fun and freedom in this setting. In fact, my only real criticism of Cloud Gardens is in regards to the sandbox mode, specifically when it comes to laying down any ground. If it was simpler to get started, I think the sandbox mode would be far more enjoyable; as it stands, it’s weaker than the campaign mode, but worth a go nonetheless.
The most soothing aspect of Cloud Gardens has to be the aesthetics. While this low-poly, PSOne era-type art style is often found in horror games these days, it’s really found a foothold in these serene overgrowth scenes. The dioramas are shrouded in a vaporwave-palette fog as well, and when coupled with the calming, subdued soundtrack and sound effects, Cloud Gardens becomes quite the meditative experience. Be prepared to lose hours in these floating gardens — you’ll have a really hard time wanting to come back from these peaceful little patches of heaven.
Cloud Gardens has an overall placid vibe that will absolutely lower your blood pressure, but that certainly doesn’t mean boring by any stretch of the imagination. One of my favorite parts has to be the simultaneously cheerful yet dark humor that unfolds during this somewhat emergent gameplay through the use of gnomes. As you plant seeds and place objects, you’ll occasionally get items like tables, chairs, boom boxes, TVs, and even bottles of beer. After setting up these once lived-in scenes, the game throws you a few gnomes to “inhabit” the setting you just made. It’s funny in a way — humanity is gone, but these little representations we’ve brought to life take our place in a scene frozen in time, slowly being reclaimed by nature. It’s funny in a sad way. In a good, thoughtful way. In a unique, existential acceptance way. Hey dev, you okay?
Cloud Gardens is a hypnotizingly meditative experience and perhaps one of the best chill games I’ve played all year. Its soothing soundtrack and peaceful dioramas are made more pleasant and calming with each careful move made by a contemplative player. Cloud Gardens reminds us that the apocalypse isn’t bad news for the Earth — just humanity. Life will continue to flourish and thrive long after we’re gone; Cloud Gardens showcases that bittersweet beauty of a world without us.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: XBox One, XBox Series X | S, PC (reviewed); Publisher: Noio; Developer: Noio; Players: 1; Released: September 1, 2021; MSRP: $14.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a retail copy of Cloud Gardens purchased by the reviewer.