Grow Home – PlayStation 4
Platform: PlayStation 4
Developer: Ubisoft Reflections
Release Date: September 1st, 2015
Nerd Rating: 7.5 out of 10
On August 16th, 2016, Ubisoft released Grow Up, the follow-up title to their experimental 2015 release, Grow Home. So far, the public reaction to Grow Up has been a little less than ecstatic…more like lukewarm, actually. So, this being the case, why did Ubisoft see fit to make a sequel to Grow Home? What was so great about it in the first place? I had a great time with this game, and I think it’s time to set the record straight.
Grow Home was developed by Ubisoft Reflections, a small team of developers within Ubisoft that worked on side projects while the main team toiled away on other things, such as Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege. From what I understand, the original goal of Grow Home was to experiment with a small, standalone title with a heavy emphasis on exploration. What results is a game in which the player takes control of a goofy little red robot, running around a mystical world searching for crystals and growing plants using deceptively simple platforming mechanics. And, well, that’s about it. Having fallen from his mothership, the robot, named B.U.D., is attempting to return home using a gigantic vine that grows up and up all the way into space (yeah, pretty cool).
Along the way, the player is encouraged to explore the world around them, collecting power crystals to upgrade their abilities, activate respawn points, and simply just marvel at the sights. There’s no epic story or anything like that to Grow Home; the developers seemed content with just dropping the player down in a fantastic world, letting them explore it at their leisure.
Right from the bat, the first thing that stands out about Grow Home is the crazy-ass way the character moves around. Like, really, what’s going on with this guy? He looks like he just stumbled out of his spaceship drunk at the end of an intergalactic bender, insistent that he can still walk on his own. He builds up a really good sense of momentum, but turning him any which way in the middle of movement can result in all sorts of crazy leg-crossing fumbles.
Anyway, turns out that the main character’s movement mechanics are procedurally-generated, meaning that instead of establishing a set of concrete walk cycles, the development team set up a host of interrelated rules that govern how the character moves. Depending on the player’s input, B.U.D.’s inertia interacts with these rules in a variety of ways, resulting in a whole host of unique possibilities. I’m really not sure why this decision was made, but it definitely looks funny, and is a testament to the power of modern technology in video games.
Just think about it: way back in the day, early consoles like the NES simply didn’t have the processing power to run a bunch of calculations that determined exactly where a character’s foot was supposed to land based on an interwoven stream of data and player input. So instead, sprites would take over this job, swapping each other out to imitate running, jumping, falling dead, or what-have-you to achieve cycles, i.e. Mega Man’s “running cycle” up top. Over the years, sprites have given way to fully-rendered 3D models, but despite this, the large majority of modern games still rely on animation cycles, though many are blending in procedural elements (think of the way Link from The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker or Nathan Drake from the Uncharted series will change their foot position when standing on stairs or an incline). As it stands, most AAA developers perceive procedurally-generated elements as secondary to the core components of their games, so it’s typically utilized in small ways, or for more physics-based elements, like throwing grenades, etc. Grow Home may be the first game I’ve ever seen where a character’s movement is entirely procedurally-generated, so that’s really cool.
B.U.D.’s movement may be a little distracting and wonky (though still awesome), but the real fun happens once the player begins exploring the world that surrounds them. Exotic plants, animals, and floating islands all beg for the player to explore them, and the physics-based nature of the platforming mechanics give the player all sorts of ways to traverse and interact with them.
All that aside, how do the controls feel, in general? On a grade school scale, I’d give it a B+ to an A-. B.U.D.’s drunken nature takes a little bit of time to get used to at first, but his procedurally-generated movements actually add quite a bit of depth to the way the world in Grow Home can be explored. Jumping has kind of a light-weight feeling to it and is improved with inertia, climbing has a really neat thing going on where the player has to alternate holding triggers for the left and right hands, and the items can be used to achieve some really awesome feats of acrobatics. All together, these elements turn Grown Home into a bit of a skill-based platformer.
A platformer in 3D space? I thought that was a dying breed! I’m a huge fan of good platformers, and it’s my opinion that 3D platformers are dying out because developers have consistently ignored the central component to what makes them great: the main character’s movement. Think of Super Mario 64. The central component to what made that game so great was its unwavering focus on Mario’s movement mechanics; if the main character wasn’t fun to move around with, the game simply wouldn’t work. Director Shigeru Miyamoto tapped into this notion, and ensured that a large part of the game’s initial development focused on giving Mario a host of moves that felt good and wasted nothing. He was fast and efficient, capable of preserving momentum with a host of moves that could accomplish tasks in different ways. It feels very much so that Ubisoft Reflections took that exact same philosophy with Grow Home. On paper, B.U.D. may seem a little clunky, but there is actually quite a bit of nuance to the way his inertia influences his ability to move around, and the practiced player can put all of his abilities to use in order to accomplish some really cool stuff that the developers probably didn’t even plan for. And that’s the beauty of procedurally-generated physics; its emphasis on improvisation heightens the player’s feeling of individual exploration because they’re exploring the world around them on their own terms.
Even though this is a PlayStation 4 review, Grow Home was initially released for the PC. There’s not a whole lot of variation between the two; the game’s low-polygon art style results in graphics that aren’t hard to replicate on either device, and there’s no extra content hiding for one version or the other. The biggest difference, by far, is the control schemes. Simply put, playing this game with a mouse and keyboard just doesn’t feel right. B.U.D.’s sense of inertia feels like it was made for the responsive touch of an analog stick, and alternating clicks on the mouse doesn’t feel quite as fulfilling as tapping the triggers of a controller to get B.U.D. climbing up a wall. There are a lot of elements to platforming that the binary inputs of keyboards just don’t capture. Bottom line: playing Grow Home on the PC doesn’t make that much of a difference, but if you don’t have a way of plugging in a controller, the console version will probably give you a more fulfilling experience.
The level design in Grow Home is really good. Most adventure games place a heavy emphasis on sprawling locations that entice the player to see what’s over the horizon, but this game goes for kind of the opposite approach; the world consists of a series of floating islands, with several ‘layers’ or levels along the way, requiring the player to climb upward and upward through an extremely vertical level. Each large space gives the player a new feeling of wonder and discovery, with a whole host of little mini islands sprinkled about.
The player can run, jump, scale, glide, and use a jetpack, but their primary method for ascending the world around them involves a monstrous plant, with several little budding branches sticking out that can be grown. Accelerating the growth of these buds, the player connects them to powerful islands, causing the large plant to grow up and up. This is a really cool system, giving the player both a means of progressing and a means of saving their progress, should they fall or need to traverse elsewhere. Over the course of the game, you become connected to this plant, as if it’s your only friend along your journey.
And therein lies one of the more interesting things about Grow Home; it’s kind of empty. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Take Shadow of the Colossus, a game with relatively few NPCs that was built specifically with the idea of developing themes of isolation. Grow Home is a lot like that. There are a few dodo birds, bulls, and sheep hanging around, but where the game lacks in NPCs that you can interact with it makes up for in the sheer vibrancy of the world, itself. Plant-life is diverse and bouncy with a good physicality to it, the world is filled with ambient sounds of water and rushing wind, making the world feel very much alive. In this way, the world of Grow Home becomes its own character, despite the fact that it is otherwise empty of actual characters.
On that note, Grow Home’s emptiness may also be its greatest weakness. The most glaring issue with Grow Home is the availability of things to do, or, more accurately, the unavailability of things to do. Grow Home is an adventure game with an emphasis on exploration that takes place in a pretty cool world that encourages the player to find out what’s around each new corner. But, once you get there, there’e not really that much to do. You collect hidden crystals, collect wildlife (if you want), activate respawn points, and grow the giant plant’s limbs. That’s just about it. While I appreciate the game’s heavy emphasis on raw exploration, there’s not a whole lot to keep the more goal-oriented player engaged with this game. It would have been awesome to see what would have resulted if the development team had a little bit more time to add more task variation or craft more interesting and unique scenarios. As it stands, there’s not a whole lot of replay value, and the game’s finale ends up being a little bleh, baring the inner skeleton of its experimental nature the more you play it.
But, that doesn’t mean that Grow Home feels like an empty game. In fact, it may be one of the most vibrant exploration-based games I’ve seen. The world is full of soft, calming colors of green and blue, populated with a crazy variety of both familiar and absolutely strange plant life that rustles and makes atmospheric noise, and the protagonist, B.U.D., alone carries a fantastically goofy charm that you can’t help but smile at.
As an experiment, I would consider Grown Home a success; it takes platform and adventure gaming into a 3D space, inviting the player to explore a well-crafted, vertical world with an excellent atmosphere. At the player’s disposal are a tidy handful of highly-focused, procedurally-generated platforming mechanics that give the protagonist a (slightly drunken) compelling feel that truly embodies what it means to be a unique platforming game. Grow Home is not a perfect game; the small size of the map and severe lack of interesting things worth doing cause this game to grow old a little quickly, especially if the whole explore-at-your-leisure concept isn’t really your thing. All that said, Grow Home does succeed in eliciting that sense of child-like wonder, due in large part to its non-restricting level design and movement mechanics, which are the key components to what makes this game so cool. While there are ways this game could have been improved, I think Ubisoft Reflections was really on to something, and I can’t wait to see what they came up with for Grow Up.
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