‘Cloud Gardens’ review: beautiful, botanical dioramas that’ll have you brooding over the apocalypse

The salvage-punk garden game that knows the value of an old boot

Images of the post-apocalypse haven’t so much taken root in pop culture as they have wrapped themselves around it entirely, choking the life out of it like an overly invasive vine. Take away all the zombies and mutants though; the roving gangs and bloodthirsty struggles in the mud; and you’re left with some tranquil, beautiful, backdrops. Landscapes of cracked concrete and plant-infested infrastructure.

This is Cloud Gardens – a post-apocalypse, minus humans. The focus here is all on these ruined slices of urban life that float nebulously in the ether, and upon which you’re let loose to play and tinker. You take two actions, one after the other. The first action is planting seeds – you flick through a beautiful set of cards and choose from a selection of plant types. There’s creeping ivy, propagating ferns, blossoms which hang and dangle, on top of larger plants and trees that stretch up towards the clouds. Each of them grow differently, some work perfectly well on concrete ground, others wrap around objects and reach up vertically.

Cloud Gardens
Cloud Gardens. Credit: Thomas van den Berg

After sowing your seeds you take your second action. You’re given a grab-bag of assorted clutter. In the highway maps this means old tires, traffic cones, bits of corrugated metal, rusted road signs and street lamps, sometimes even entire banged-up cars. When you plop these down, your plants bloom. Flowers burst from broken tarmac and vines shoot up to strangle the wreckage.

Despite Cloud Gardens’ obsession with all this non-human stuff – with plants and objects – it never feels like a cold or soulless affair. It presents scenarios without humans, but there’s still plenty of humanity here. It’s an archaeological kind of play, of picking through civilisation’s trashy remnants. Sometimes there’s even a bit of collaborative storytelling, reminiscent of how empty open-world games like Fallout lean into things like corpse jokes, where skeletons and paraphernalia are set-up in such a way as to imply a kind of narrative (before the bombs dropped). In Cloud Gardens this is a set of plastic chairs that you place up on the balcony of a brutalist high-rise. On one chair you sit a garden gnome, on the other, a rubber duck. Clink, clink. You plop two bottles of beer down beside them.

Cloud Gardens
Cloud Gardens. Credit: Thomas van den Berg

It’d be easy to gush about how relaxing and meditative a game Cloud Gardens is. The gentle, wistful wind, the tinkering piano soundtrack, the silly crows that peck among the debris before being startled and flying off into the pastel-tinged sky. But there’s also something deeper here. In games, as in other media, we’re increasingly seeing ecological concepts like “rewilding” explored – of bringing mother nature back to her true and original state. Cloud Gardens does a lot to resist these slightly woolly ideas, instead placing an emphasis on forms of salvage, hybridisation and repurposing rubbish. In a world with no humans, the game’s railroads and factories are as natural a garden as any fabricated plot of grass or heap of compost. It’s refreshing to see this strange symbiosis of artificial objects and plant-life, where an old worn-out boot can finally be seen as something valuable and put to use.

As the levels progress there are a few missteps. I wasn’t a fan of the novelty Halloween graveyard section. Also, as maps become bigger and start involving multiple steps – buildings suddenly shifting upwards out of the clouds to join the rest of the level – things start to feel slightly contrived. Ironically, some of these concrete playgrounds start to feel too much like a garden. Like carefully-plotted puzzles, rather than the early game’s chaotic, junk-strewn wilderness. Also, you can only tell the joke about the garden gnome and rubber duck tea-party so many times.

Out of almost a hundred levels, there are only a dozen or so that feel overly-elaborate. Add to this the game’s vast sandbox mode where you can create your own levels from scratch and use any prop in the game (once you’ve unlocked them), and there’s a lot of great stuff to doodle with here. There’s an entire section where you’re working within beautifully ornate Victorian-era greenhouses. The factory levels are also a ton of fun, as you continually wrap vegetation around a vast, knotted labyrinth of industrial pipes.

There are times when Cloud Garden’s mechanics are a little imprecise. Opaque and cloud-like – I’m still not entirely sure which seed is which, what the optimal conditions for growth are, and why sometimes my plants blossom and other times wither and die like the surrounding ruins. But this doesn’t matter much – nature is a fickle thing, and not wholly understood, after all. What’s here is engaging, and turning up for the vibes is half the fun.

Cloud Gardens is available for – deep breath – PC, macOS, Xbox Series X and Series S and the Xbox One. We tested the PC version.

The Verdict

A verdant puzzle sandbox that evolves beyond your usual feel-good, meditative experience, and leaves plenty of questions to reflect on. While puzzling can be a little obscure, and at times overly-elaborate, Cloud Gardens is more about tinkering and experimentation. An art rather than a hard science. It’ll be a while before I stop thinking about these beautiful little dioramas which value hybridisation over rewilding.

Pros

  • Beautiful overgrown ruin aesthetic
  • Huge sandbox with loads to play and tinker with
  • Wistful, meditative atmosphere
  • A fascinating perspective on ecological issues

Cons

  • Some contrived and overly elaborate levels
  • Mechanics are slightly opaque
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