Grow Home sequel Grow Up has arrived this week, as you may have already gathered from reviews by other, more professional, members of the gaming press. I haven’t played it, I’m afraid. Partly because I’ve been busy with life, and work, and trying to get laid, but mostly because the publisher never sent me a copy.
That’s neither nor there though, because what I have played is Grow Home, which I apparently own, despite having no idea when or why I bought it. I blame Humble Bundle. Since most of my current gaming life is lived deep into the cavernous reaches of my expansive Steam backlog, it seems strangely appropriate to finally play Grow Home just as everyone else is digging into its follow-up, at precisely the sort of time when no one in their right mind is interested in reading what I have to say about it. So, with that auspicious start, here we go.
For those who don’t know, Grow Home is a little title that Ubisoft released early last year, presumably to the surprise of no one more than themselves — it was originally an internal experiment, never intended for release, and fits oddly into the publisher’s current catalogue of Assassin’s Creeds, Far Cries, and assorted Tom Clancy titles.
You control B.U.D. (Botanical Utility Droid), a chirpy little robot with bulbous eyes, a toothless grin, and a voice like a 50k modem. Your task is to shepherd the growth of a Star Plant, a towering vine that you have to help reach the top of the map, leading its offshoots to the glowing, floating islands that fuel it as you explore the vertiginous map. You can also collect crystals for power-ups (like a rocket pack, or… a better rocket pack) and catalogue the local flora and fauna, which are just interesting enough to add a touch of color to the world, and nowhere near interesting enough to be worth going to the effort of analyzing.
B.U.D. is just the right side of adorable, gawking at the world and stumbling around, a whirl of limbs and procedurally generated animation. And it’s a good thing too, because you’ll stumble. A lot. The movement controls are both Grow Home’s defining feature and, for me at least, its crippling flaw. First up is the climbing mechanic, which sees you clamp down on the left and right triggers in turn to grip onto walls with B.U.D.’s arms, alternating to progress up and around vertical rock faces. At first, it’s slow and frustrating. Later, it’s still slow and frustrating, but you do sort of get the hang of it.
More challenging is the fact that B.U.D.’s feet are decidedly less grippy, and running in fact proves trickier than climbing. The little bot slips and slides everywhere he goes, with a particularly frustrating habit of doing so right off the edge just as you think you’ve nailed a landing. It’s the sort of system that somehow never quite seems fair when it lets you down, and I found myself blaming every too-rapid descent not on myself but on the mechanics, rightly or wrongly. Failure is an inevitable, perhaps essential, part of playing almost any game, but Grow Home made me feel like the developer had failed more often than I had, that the controls were unmanageable, the physics unpredictable, the systems unreasonable.
Coming at the game a year on from its release, I know my experiences don’t jibe with those of most other critics, many of whom have been eagerly awaiting the sequel’s release. When I read pieces like Christian Donlan’s at Eurogamer, celebrating the discovery of a magical world to explore and “utterly empowering” controls, I wonder what I missed. Was I just not good enough to get to grips with the game? Am I too set in my ways to adapt to a control scheme that consciously rejects the engineered precision of a Mario game?
So I don’t know, maybe you’ll love Grow Home. It looks like just about everyone else did. As for me though, I’m just glad I don’t have to worry about finding the time to play Grow Up in my schedule any more, and I can get back to exploring 2013’s finest.