It might be a damp, grey Newcastle morning, but I’m giggling with delight, uncharacteristically, perched on the sofa in the corner of Ubisoft Reflections’ offices. Grow Up is entirely to blame. The sequel to Grow Home, one of last year’s most endearing games and the product of experiments with procedural animation, is a gleeful, lighthearted adventure with a gorgeous globe to explore and a wobbly robot to explore it with.
Set just after Grow Home, robot BUD is reunited with his ship/AI parent, MOM, but not for long. The pair are separated once again, with the inquisitive automaton stranded on a planet, though one that’s also a veritable paradise, where he’s joined by his new pal and makeshift satellite, POD. The team does love its three letter acronyms. She’s a bit like his little sister, but with an encyclopedia for a brain. The duo, then, must find their way back to MOM, who is now on the moon.
“In Grow Home the goal was pretty obvious: go up,” explains the series’ producer, Pete Young. “With Grow Up, we wanted to set something that was equally intuitive as a target, so that’s where the moon comes in. We wanted something big, obvious like that, but to leave it as open as possible in regards to how [the players] get there.”
BUD is, for all intents and purposes, a child. Indeed, his delightful gait – unsteady, stumbling – looks a lot like that of an infant deer, like Bambi trying to walk on ice, or a drunk stumbling out of a pub at 1am. I nudge him forward and he staggers like a puppet on strings, leaning and lurching, but always managing to stay up. And the world is his playground: a planet-sized funhouse where the flora can be used like trampolines or hot air balloons.
Grow Home tasked BUD with climbing up a huge “star plant”, and expanding its reach by growing its vines and loosely controlling the direction they moved. He has to do the same again in Grow Up, riding vines that twist and spread out across the sky. But this being a sequel and all, there are now four different star plants – including a gargantuan cactus – all fighting to grow in different ways. There’s a lot of gardening, is what I’m saying.
There’s more to it than simply nourishing a greater number of star plants, however. Especially when you take into account that climbing them is not the only way to reach the moon. Eventually, BUD can even fly there, effortlessly soaring across the void using his powered-up glider, enhanced thanks to the crystals he can collect throughout his journey.
“The big thing for us is that we didn’t just want to add more content, more of the same,” says Young. “We wanted to change the game in a fundamental way. You’re able to go all the way up into orbit. You can reach the moon, and gravity flips when you get there. You can take the gameplay from being vertical to looking at the horizon and jumping out and trying to reach it.”
BUD also has access to a lot of flora that he can collect and plonk down, permanently changing the world and rewarding him for his green fingers. I’m told I have a bunch unlocked already, so I plant the first one I notice. It’s a bulbous flower thing, maybe it’s a fruit. It’s definitely bouncy. But since BUD isn’t very fast, walking into it doesn’t do a whole lot. Thankfully, BUD’s been taking some notes from Samus and Sonic, and can now transform into a ball and rev up. And thus a little red robot introduces pinball to an alien world.
There are 24 of these plants in total, and most of them are built around the acrobatic nature of Grow Up, getting BUD moving around the environment, catapulting him into the air or shooting him across great distances. Some, Young points out, are just for fun, however. There’s the shy grass, for instance, that hides whenever you get close, and the challenge is in trying to catch it, rather than using it to get back to MOM.
It’s easy to get distracted. I want to investigate one of the star plants, but then I see some adorable looking beasties milling around some flowers. What’s their deal? I decide to go up to them and say howdy. Unfortunately, I’m still in ball form and going very fast. One gets booted into the water as I smash into it and scatter the rest. I don’t have time to feel thoroughly terrible, though, because a glint off in the distance tells me that there’s a crystal over there, and I’m hungry for upgrades.
Climbing is the only way I’ll be able to grab it, but that’s fine: BUD is better at climbing mountains than James T. Kirk. Each of his mechanical hands works independently, controlled using the triggers – it’s absolutely most at home with a gamepad – and while it’s reminiscent of Surgeon Simulator or Mount Your Friends, it’s entirely stress free. I yank the crystal out of the rock and roll back down again, treasure captured.
Despite its name, Grow Up is full of horizontal exploration. “It’s always tough when you’re trying to build on something that’s come before,” Young notes. “You’re trying to retain enough of what people loved and what was familiar, but you’re also try to do something new. We hit on using the planet, expanding the gameplay from purely vertical to horizontal, this world where you can go everywhere in it.”
The planet is littered with caves, different biomes, new plants to snatch and use, ship parts to discover so you can rebuild MOM on the moon, and a series of challenges that reward BUD with special suits. The challenges are not necessary if you only want to finish the game, but they give the bot bonuses that certainly make things easier. Also, you can dress BUD up as a bumblebee, and that’s just bottled happiness right there.
With the costumes, the planet and all that irrepressible whimsy, Grow Up is immediately evocative of Mario Galaxy, which Young cites as an inspiration. But, as he explains, it’s not a “pixel perfect” platformer. It’s slightly loose and imprecise. It also seems more forgiving, encouraging far more than punishing.
The challenge comes from navigating the environment and finding a way to the moon, though messing up a jump or falling off a star plant – as he is wont to do – won’t smash him to bits. BUD’s surprisingly resilient when he curls up like an armadillo. But as I soared through the air, aiming for a distant island beyond the horizon, BUD didn’t seem remotely clumsy. For all his staggering and falling, he’s also got a surprising amount of acrobatic grace. He’s a more confident robot than he was in Grow Home, and Grow Up looks like a more confident sequel.