By Jordan Erica Webber.
What is it? An experiment-turned-game from a small team within a big studio.
Influenced by Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Wall-E.
Reviewed on i7 960 3.61GHz, 6GB RAM, HD 4870 X2
Alternatively SteamWorld Dig
Price £6 / $8
Release Out now
Developer Ubisoft Reflections
Link: Official site
Grow Home is a wonderful surprise. Announced just two weeks before release, this little experiment is proof of the benefit of making space for that "indie" mentality even within huge studios. Made by a small team at Ubisoft Reflections, the studio that co-developed Far Cry 3 and Watch Dogs, it couldn't be further from their previous output.
You're a red robot called BUD (Botanical Utility Droid), who looks a bit like he's made out of Lego, on a low-poly planet with low-poly flora, fauna, and floating islands all built in Unity. Your task, as explained by M.O.M—a ship’s computer that watches over BUD while cracking jokes—is to encourage a giant star plant to grow until it flowers and produces seeds to take back home.
At this point, in the interests of completeness, I’m going to have to be crude, because Grow Home is a Freudian field day. The star plant just is a giant green phallus, complete with a bisected bud on the end. To make it grow, BUD has to climb it until he finds a smaller offshoot, which he then straddles and rides as it reaches for a floating glowing energy rock. You aim these shoots but they also have a mind of their own and struggle against your direction, presumably to avoid creating a plant that’s all straight lines. And finally, when the shoot is plugged in and starts taking up the energy the main plant needs, it actually pulses a few times.
It’s a testament to Grow Home that I only laughed the first few times. I got so involved in the fiction of what I was doing that I forgot to make jokes about it, too busy planning what connections to make for the most economical climb. The first few energy rocks are nice and close so you can get the hang of it, but further from the ground they’re more dispersed. You’ll find yourself winding the shoots in all directions, around each other, doubling back to sprout an offshoot from an offshoot, and when you look down through the polygonal clouds you’ll see a beautiful tangled maze of your own creation.
It should only take a couple of hours to make the star plant flower, but Grow Home has a great pace. Shortly after BUD lands on the planet you’re taught the grab mechanic that’s used for almost every action in the game, including climbing, and directed to use it to retrieve a gem. Collecting these gems unlocks abilities, the second of which is the ability to zoom out the camera and should become available around when the world starts to open up.
These gems also encourage the more horizontal exploration that supplements your vertical climb. After every few energy rocks your star plant will break through a kind of landmark, perhaps a floating island with a prominent waterfall, and I was always glad of the opportunity to take a break for some more traditional platforming. The joy is in the discovery. Iit’s simple stuff, like the cave that houses a lone low-poly dodo, but it made me smile.
Phallic imagery aside, there’s childlike wonder to Grow Home and BUD himself, which is unsurprising given the team has said it took inspiration from Wall-E. He even moves like a child, running like a toddler who’s only just grasped basic control of their own limbs. It’s cute until the first time you overshoot and go skidding off the edge, which is also prone to happen when the overanxious camera—already liable to clip through the scenery—swings around to give you a better view of that relatively thin shoot you were running along.
Ubisoft says BUD’s particular style of movement is a result of “procedural animation”. You control his hands separately, one for each bumper/trigger (you’ll want to use a gamepad, trust me), and when climbing his body dangles between them. A couple of times, I reached BUD’s hands upwards through a gap and pulled his body through after them only to find that his head had got left behind. (Don’t worry, there’s a self-destruct button, and death just takes you back to the last teleporter checkpoint you unlocked.)
I’ll say the same thing I said about GIRP, however: real-life climbing does not rely 100% on the upper limbs. BUD might not feel the strain, but even after only a couple of hours my wrists did, especially because—while bouncy leaves and the unlockable jetpack provide intermittent relief from climbing—the same grab mechanic is also used to collect gems, gather up the flowers and leaves BUD can use as parachutes, and torment wildlife.
That said, it’s my own fault. Like I said, you can finish off your star plant in a couple of hours, but even if your wrists are throbbing you’ll be glad of the extra mission that gives you the excuse to go explore more. Thanks, M.O.M.