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Wot I Think: Grow Up

Or stay exactly the same

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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