Wot I Think: Grow Up

Grow Home was born of an experiment in procedural animation, almost accidentally creating a lovely game to support it. Grow Up [official site] was born of a desire to make a sequel to Grow Home. I think this captures the key differences between the two games. Here’s wot I think:

Grow Up is charming and busy and simple and fun, the continuing adventures of little red robot BUD and his stumbly-walking attempts to reach for the sky. In the first game your goal was to grow a star plant ever larger until it reached your spaceship, MOM, just outside the atmosphere. Grow Up expands on this notion by giving you an entire (albeit tiny) planet to play on, four star plants to grow, and many more areas to strive to reach floating about in the sky.

MOM, it seems, has crashed, bits of the ship all over the planet. To guide you this time, you’re accompanied by POD, a flying robot who acts as your eye in the sky, letting you see a view from above and place objective markers, as well as replacing MOM in the role of offering occasional advice. Along the way BUD regathers abilities from the first game, as well as a few new ones, letting him reach further, higher, and complete a collection of BUD Challenges scattered around the place.

It is, ostensibly, exactly the same game but with Ubisoft Disease – the condition that causes a game to come with a map covered in icons. And more of the lovely Grow Home is really no bad thing! But I struggle to get past how there’s not a glimmer of further inspiration or innovation on display. Where Grow Home was this gorgeous, silly vignette, an experiment in movement, an act of defiance against the controls, Grow Up is this writ slightly larger, the clumsiness of BUD making less sense in this flatter, broader environment.

It doesn’t start well. The beautiful simplicity of Grow Home is somewhat lost in a far more typical Ubisoft barrage of interruptions to introduce controls and characters and directions and pick-ups, all in the first few minutes. When it finally stops wrenching the controls away from you and leaves you to get on with it, it’s immediately a touch daunting. The whole world is accessible right away, and I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be sticking to the given task or was free to roam. It turns out it’s both, as doing the first couple of bits and pieces as you’re told gives you the vital abilities to hover with a jetpack and break falls with a sort of umbrella/blade thing.

And then yes, it’s your playground, possible to mildly subvert by reaching high destinations without ascending their paths, but worth retracing for extra pick-ups, abilities, teleport points and crystals. Crystals improve your abilities, with hugely helpful boosts like being able to fly upward with the jetpack or zoom along on your glider, while teleport points save lots of dreary re-climbing if you’ve had a big fall. And you will, because BUD is still Mr Wobbly Legs, with each grippy climbing arm assigned to Q/E or your controller triggers.

The challenges laid out for BUD to complete really underline my point about the lack of innovation. Rather than a collection of varying tasks themed around BUD’s various talents, they’re all, absolutely all, just a bunch of hoops (or squares) to guide BUD through, like every flying game ever in the history of time. Sometimes you do it on foot, sometimes via plants that project you into the air, sometimes on your glider, and completing them gets you… different outfits for BUD to wear. It’s cute that he can be a bee, but sigh.

It’s visually stunning, its distinct aesthetic adorable and delightful throughout. The sound is utterly wonderful, music, effects, the lot. It’s exquisitely well done, with so many neat audio cues guiding you as you explore. Hindering as you explore, however, are these really stupid spiky plants that have hit boxes literally three times wider than they are, repelling BUD against all reason. It does feel a lot like one of these games of extremes, some aspects joyous, others deeply frustrating.

But weirdest of all are the new additions that are completely superfluous to the game! Here BUD can get seeds for every new plant type he finds, and then pop that plant down anywhere he wants. Throughout the entire game to completion, I only ever used the bouncy mushroom plant, finding no use nor purpose for the dozen or so others. And I mostly used the bouncy mushroom plant out of laziness because I couldn’t be arsed climbing. You keep collecting the plants, then never needing them, no matter how far through you get.

Even stranger still is BUD’s new ability to turn into a ball. Hit B (I find the game far more comfortable on a controller) and he’ll turn into a ball! For literally no reason I could find. It’s introduced early on, leading me to assume there would be gutters to roll down and round tunnels to fit through as I explored. Nope. You quickly get a boost ability for it too, making it pretty much exactly Metroid Prime’s morphball, and I never once used it. I’ve no idea where I would have used it. It’s like they just completely forgot they’d put it in.

It doesn’t matter, really. It’s just odd. There are lovely bonkers insects in the world, I assume also using some form of experimental procedural animation, since they all spend nearly all their time stuck on their backs/sides/in plants, but remain extremely cute and rather fun to pointlessly rescue from their immobility. There’s a day/night cycle that looks gorgeous at dawn, day and dusk, and absolutely bloody awful at night. Games – no one wants night. There are some astonishingly phallic plants. There is abundant cuteness in almost all aspects.

What’s really missing, however, is the emotion. In Grow Home, the relationship between BUD and MOM was completely wonderful, her worried nagging and maternal love for the robot completely infectious and helping to convey his vulnerability to the player. In Grow Up, POD says nicely silly things, but it’s now fraternal and loses all the impact. This became starkly revealed to me on finishing the game when a rebuilt MOM immediately begins fussing, and it was all completely lovely again.

If you’re after a bunch more Grow Home, then you’ve absolutely got it, and it’s very pleasurable to play. My almost-two-year-old was utterly spellbound by it, which was a nice bonus, and he now walks into my office demanding, “DADDA ROBOT DADDA ROBOT”, which presumably means I need to leave it running in the background for the rest of my life. It’s a perfect game for playing with kids (although try to keep your sniggering at the cactus willies to a minimum, in order to avoid awkward conversations). What we don’t have is Ubisoft Reflections reaching for something new, something innovative, something surprising.

Grow Up is out now for £8/$10, on Steam and Humble, and mysteriously isn’t on UPlay.

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38 Comments

  1. CarthAnne says:

    I do kind of like the idea of the Ubisoft style of gameplay with this really whimsical and spirited coating instead of the typical serious-but-also-kind-of-not-at-times-but-still-really-serious art and story style that Far Cry and The Division had. It’s at least a little different.

    • MiniMatt says:

      Good point, “you’ve got 23 minutes to save the world” jars with “oh you want to go over there & collect shinies? yeah, totally cool”.

      In this sort of game icon hoovering makes a lot more sense.

  2. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    You know how every time spiders show up in a game there’s always a thread that’s like “NOPE. Can’t play because of spiders.”

    That’s me with this series, thanks to acrophobia. Climbing in other games, not a problem. Flight sims? Fine. High altitude platformers? Handled. Jet surfing in Just Cause? Good times.

    Going hand over hand with this wobbly robot a mile above the ground on the other hand is easily more terrifying than any horror game I’ve ever played. I get the appeal, but something in my lizard brain just won’t allow me to enjoy more than 15 minutes at a time.

    • Assaf says:

      Interesting, thanks for sharing.

    • Premium User Badge

      The Almighty Moo says:

      I’ve actually found it to be a bit of a rush in that respect weirdly, so I sympathise.

    • Josh W says:

      Yeah I’m pretty sure some of my family members would be the same, even though their fine playing something like mirrors edge. I think it’s the uncertainty in the controls, the trembling of it.

    • qrter says:

      I have that with swimming underwater in games.. the lizard part of my brain has an instinctive fear of deep water, so I have to psych myself up a bit before playing those bits in games. Especially when there’s the possibility of something attacking you while swimming.

    • Urthman says:

      I think I know what you’re talking about, but fortunately I enjoyed that feeling (in the safety of a video game). Grow Home gave me the best sense of I-can’t-believe-how-high-up-I-am vertigo since jetpacking to the stop of those huge mushroom castles in the first part of Giants: Citizen Kabuto.

  3. MiniMatt says:

    Are we entirely sure that “DADDA ROBOT” is not a warning to us all? Now I’ve got this image of John as a Terminator I just can’t shake it.

    • Archelon says:

      John Walker is out there! He can’t be bargained with. He can’t be reasoned with. He doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And he absolutely will not stop, ever, unless he gets to a really frustrating boss fight.

      • Philotic Symmetrist says:

        …or a single unit which is represented by three individual people.

        (which actually makes perfect sense as unit in the relevant context is used in the sense of “a group of people living or working together, especially for a particular purpose”)

  4. sub-program 32 says:

    The use of the Ball mode? Well, the game pretty explicitly says that it’s good for long ranged travel across the ground, especially with the boost, effectively negating the slowness of Bud’s ground movement in the first game. Also, for fun! It’s an exploration game after all, a thing that let’s you move in a new way justifies it’s own existance. If there were areas that artificially forced you to use the ball form like you suggest with the gutters idea, if anything that would damage the soul of this game even more in my opinon.
    And you only ever used the mushroom? I can understand not wanting to use the others, but findng no use for them at all?? Surely the use of tall plants to climb to higher areas and flowers to blast you up really high is fairly self-evident (especially since those flowers were also in the previous game)?

    • Premium User Badge

      basilisk says:

      I also only ever used the mushroom. There’s simply no point in any of the others; the mushroom is the fastest to use, and once you upgrade BUD a bit, even that becomes pointless.

      I agree with John; it’s giving you tools for the sake of giving you tools. Virtually all of the plants have the same purpose: allow you to get higher. I don’t really need twenty slightly different ways to do the same thing.

      • Premium User Badge

        basilisk says:

        But I did take two critters to the Moon for the achievement, and when I saw them there looking rather miserable, grew a few of the plants native to the place I took them from, which made all the difference.

        So for gardening purposes, it’s quite lovely. Just like the whole game.

    • Phasma Felis says:

      Yeah, I haven’t played it yet, but I had that thought reading the critique of the plants/ball: just because a tool isn’t mandatory doesn’t mean it isn’t useful or fun, and including stuff that’s simply fun seems especially apropos in a game like this.

  5. klops says:

    Cacti Penos!

    • lancelot says:

      I reached the image of that green thingy and thought, “Surely John isn’t childish enough to include this to… Ah, yep, he is.”

      • Phasma Felis says:

        Wait, the alleged penisplant is in the article pics? Is it the thing in #6? John, if that’s what you think a penis looks like, please seek medical attention. They can do wonders with plastic surgery these days.

        • Press X to Gary Busey says:

          Thats no penis. THIS is a penis! *pulls it out*

          That’s a spoon…

          All right You win. I see you’ve played Peeny-Spoony before.

  6. SenorRoboto says:

    The ball mode has less air resistance and no fall damage, so you can use a high glider boost -> ball mode to go into orbit, allowing very fast travel around the planet. If it hits something, you just bounce off.

    • Premium User Badge

      The Almighty Moo says:

      Also it’s a great way to take off from standing- boost into glider and you are off with plenty of momentum to carry you upwards.

  7. TheAngriestHobo says:

    I gotta disagree – I want night. But it has to be done right, which means vision that adjusts to brightness of your surroundings, beautiful, high contrast light sources whose glow is reflected and scattered by the environment, and a time scale that takes the gameplay experience into account (Salt is a great example of a game that completely ignored the last point).

    Nighttime in games can be atmospheric, haunting, and gorgeous if done correctly. All too often though, it’s just daytime with a different light source, and maybe a few more/different monsters.

    • lancelot says:

      I’d ban the night in games and grant an exemption to Just Cause 3. Those shadows on the walls from people running in front of my APC… mwahaha.

      • mukuste says:

        Dragon’s Dogma has pretty good video game nights, with real proper darkness, atmospheric lighting from hand-carried lamps and more scary monsters.

    • qrter says:

      I like it when night in games represents a real sense of heightened danger – how you have to walk even more carefully in STALKER, or in Dying Light, where nighttime terrors are an integral part of gameplay.

  8. haldolium says:

    “It is, ostensibly, exactly the same game but with Ubisoft Disease”

    …which turned me off immediately after a few climb&grows :(

    It’s so sad that Ubi keeps infesting many of their otherweise good-great game ideas with that shit.

    I liked the simplicity and focused, cute experience of Grow Home very much (and the fact that Reflection was one of the very VERY few devs who actually knew the difference of “fullscreen” and “borderless window” when using Unity).
    Grow Up is neat and all, but this crap just taints the experience.

  9. Metalfish says:

    I found Grow home a calming experience, requiring just enough thought to maintain my attention without providing much real challenge. It was bright and friendly, but I’m not really sure I need any more of the same. Perhaps if I need to entertain any wee-uns for a bit.

  10. Neuromancing the Boil says:

    The original is the most psychosexual game I’ve ever played. You plant seeds, which cause gigantic phallic plants to erect out of the ground, which themselves have smaller phallic cacti. You then straddle the phallic cacti, which causes the cacti to erect out of the plant, strain ever upwards, longer and longer, bucking at the constraints of gravity until, yes, YES, YES!!! The tip plunges into fleshy purchase, which then causes its originating plant to become even more tumescent, even more proudly virile, even more a’thrust into the sky. You then repeat this process, over and over — an unyielding progression of sexual dance — until you return to your mother in space, sated and ready to reunite with the womb.

    It’s weird. Proper weird. Weird in a surprisingly uncommented-upon way. I don’t at all think it’s weird in a bad way; just obsessive and ripe for thorough psychoanalysis. Granted, at this point I’m probably just describing myself — but I insist it’s true of the game, too.

  11. genoforprez says:

    Agreed on all counts. The first game was a magical experience that I could not stop playing. There was a sense of wonder to it. And MOM’s maternal caring for you along the way was adorable. But it was also a much more focused experience. You need only concern yourself with going a single direction: UP. Where should I go next? Answer: up! What do I do now? Answer: Go up! It’s almost stupid in its simplicity. And going up was a much more gripping affair in the first game as you didn’t get the overpowered flying/gliding abilities until much later on, so the entire first half of the game was spent tightrope walking along the stems of the starplant, looking down, and feeling that thrilling mixture of terror and accomplishment. And it was easy to feel accomplishment because all you had to do was look down and see how much higher you were now.

    Grow Home basically fucked all of that up. You spend most of the game NOT going up. You don’t really feel that terror of falling during your climb since you get the super powerful jetpack and glide abilities almost immediately. You are more confused about where to go because now you have literally EVERY POSSIBLE DIRECTION to worry about except for the only one that is supposed to matter, i.e. UP. While I found MOM’s chatting in the first game adorable, it was sort of enjoyable, the same way it was adorable when the King of the Cosmos chimed in during Katamari Damacy. But POD was not like that. POD reminded me distinctly of Navi the fairy, which is to say annoying and won’t he please shut up and leave me the hell alone. YES, NAVI/POD, I KNOW, SHUT UP, I KNOW.

    Also, “challenge markers” that make me jump through hoops before a timer runs out is literally one of my biggest pet peeves of all time.

    All in all, it was an okay game. I didn’t dislike it. But I also didn’t feel anything special for it. I was literally sad when the first game was over, whereas I was sort of happy to get the second game over with.

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    The Almighty Moo says:

    I’m really surprised at all the people who only used the one plant. I used a range of them for different things (often ‘assiting’ my ways through the various challenge markers), and find the rocket pods things gleefully hilarious, especially as they keep respawning and going off. The crystals are also useful for some stuff.

    John, the suits change Buds abilities too- so the botanist gives you much bigger plants and the ninja gives you a better jump and (maybe in my head) gliding. Not all completely pointless from a ‘movement for movements sake’ point of view, though all the bee appears to do is make insects attracted to you.

    Either way, a very good critical piece on what being a sequel has meant to the game. it’s still thoroughly adorable and I highly recommend it, especially for eight quid.

  13. Buggery says:

    Here is a question: Is there a reason to complete Grow Home?

    I played it for about an hour and enjoyed it. I climbed up to a new level (i.e. the first ring island, with all waterfalls and such), delved around for some crystals so I could jet pack, wobbled about, etc.

    A week later I started it up again and sort of gave up after ten minutes. I grew the plant to another level and thought, boy, I really don’t want to collect any more crystals. Is it necessary to collect crystals? Are there hidden delights or have I basically done all the loveliest bits and now the rest will be approximately the same for a further four hours?

    Help me decide whether I’ve got all I can out of this and can remove it from my Steam library.

    • Premium User Badge

      basilisk says:

      The game is defined by its progression curve. It expands in scope as you continue. I found the final stages even more lovely than the early ones.

      Crystals are not mandatory, but they are helpful. You don’t have to collect all of them, but they expand and improve your moveset, so it’s advisable to grab one if you see it. But hunting down every last one of them is not something I’d recommend until you’ve done everything else.

      • Nixitur says:

        Yeah, I made that mistake. I collected all the crystals and only then finished what is essentially the main quest. And my reward was “Hey, now you can jump higher!” which is incredibly useless if you already have all the other upgrades.

  14. Kitsunin says:

    I guess that, I found the climbing in Grow Home to be kinda tedious. I liked Grow Up because you got a nice box of tools including plants, jetpack, glider, and climbing. Unfortunately I would say the point at which you can just zip to any spot you can see comes too soon, with a lot of stuff no-yet having been actually scaled. But, the brisk pace at which you unlock new movement options ensures it never becomes the least bit tedious, which I found Grow Home started to become after a while.

  15. bill says:

    I’ve been worried about it, because Grow Home was just about perfect, and all the things they’ve announced as new features sounded either superfluous or like they’d shortcut half the fun. (The glider, for example).

    Plus, making a bigger more open world with 4 star plants… er, that doesn’t sound that appealing either.

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