Announced but two weeks ago, you can now get your hands on Ubisoft Reflections' Grow Home. I've been playing it all day, and here's wot I think:
What times we live in when it's meant as the highest compliment when I say Ubisoft's Grow Home feels like it came from an indie studio. Shedding all their AAA clothing, including the requirement for UPlay, here some of their designers run about gleefully in the nude, creating a genuinely lovely game.
It's unquestionably a confusing name, but no, this is nothing to do with Gone Home at all. This is an experiment gone right from Ubisoft Reflections. A little robot called B.U.D. (let's call him Bud), charged with growing a plant from the surface of an efflorescent landscape, up through a sky filled with floating rocks and vegetation, to reach his spaceship. He's after oxygen, you see. But Bud isn't exactly stable on his feet.
Reflections were, we hear, experimenting with procedurally generated animations. I'm not going to pretend to understand what that means, but my best guess would be it's why Bud feels like his movement is deeply involved in the world around him, rather than executing a pre-defined set of movements despite it. And it's this, even more than the beautiful graphics and enormous satisfaction of guiding shoots of the plant into floating energy sources, that makes Grow Home so special.
As well as a wobbly pair of legs that mean Bud struggles to stand still for too long, each of his little roboty arms is mapped to the left and right triggers of your gamepad (the preferred method) or left and right mouse buttons, meaning that as he climbs (he can grip to any surface) you must move and place each hand in turn. This provides a really delightful feeling of direct control over Bud, and creates the most extraordinary sense of scrambling and effort as he struggles up over a ledge, or just manages to grip onto an extended branch without tumbling thousands of feet below.
As you grow your plant, stems grow leaves (bouncy) and shoots (growy), the latter of which you can climb upon, and then ride as they enormously extend, guiding them toward glowing green rocks suspended in the air. Connect with one (and later in the game, it'll take multiple shoots to do so), and the main plant grows upward. That's the main goal here, and I imagine if you focused purely on doing this, the whole experience might be over in a three or four hours. But if you played like that, you'd be a monster, and we'd never be friends.
Bud is just adorable. Too adorable. Like that bit in Gremlins where Gizmo is trying to create a paperclip grappling hook to escape the filing cabinet, and it's more cute than you should ever have to be able to handle. His staggery, unsteady movements, but big-eyed tenacity, makes me want to hug and squeeze him until bolts pop out. It can certainly be frustrating when he's moving too fast, and his legs go from underneath him, and he tumbles off a high point it took you ages to reach. But first of all, it was mostly you're fault - you're the grown up, and he's only a baby robot. And secondly, aw, you can't stay mad at Bud!
It's important to note this isn't about something like Octodad, where fighting the controls is the main purpose of the game. Bud is perfectly controllable, but just requires a lot more care than you might usually have to put in. He's unwieldy, like a toddler just figuring out a route from the side of the sofa to the bowl of fascinating-looking glass balls in the middle of the room. It's your job to stop him from smashing his face into the coffee table and eating a handful of marbles. As it were.
As Bud progresses, he gains a few new abilities, but it will require your taking the pretty route. (The very pretty route.) Glowing gems stick out the sides of the scenery, and when collected in enough quantities, unlock extra power for Bud's circuits. At first you get better camera control (this may seem an odd thing to lock away, but it comes almost straight away, and before you need it), and then a little rocket booster pack. This, combined with the helpful uses of gathering daisies to float from, or leaves to glide below, makes Bud a whole lot more manoeuvrable in the later stages.
The only downside I've found, beyond the game's infrequent glitchiness (they're expecting you to clip occasionally - the game immediately suggested I self destruct to reform at the nearest teleporter when Bud got stuck in a flower), is that there's an unsweet spot midway, just between Bud's becoming fully equipped with movement abilities, and the falls really packing a penalty in terms of how much you'll have to reclimb. But this really is the only time the game errs, which is quite the thing.
It all just bursts with loveliness. From the feelings of protectiveness I immediately felt for Bud (I don't doubt being a very new dad is a large factor in this), to the verdant beauty of the polygonal world, to the exquisite pleasure of successfully growing the plant, it all sings with creativity. And then there's more on top, with scrumptious messages coming from an unseen guide called M.O.M. She utters thoughts like, "I suddenly realize I've sent you down there without any lunch.." Or worries that you might be getting too muddy. And my favourite, when you explode (from falling too far, or deliberately self-destructing) she affirms you with, "You're doing very well, BUD. Well done."
Take your time, play with the flora and fauna (although be careful, it's not all friendly), search out the gems (some are cunningly hidden), and enjoy taking your time. This isn't a game to rush, but to wobbily savour.