Grow Up – PlayStation 4
Platform: PlayStation 4
Developer: Ubisoft Reflections
Release Date: August 16th, 2016
Nerd Rating: 7.5 out of 10
At long last, Ubisoft’s follow-up title to their 2015 release Grow Home has come out, and the developers at Ubisoft Reflections challenge you to Grow Up. Having found a lot of promise in the first title, this is a game that I’ve had my eye on for a bit, and I am excited for the opportunity to tell you all about it. Let’s get things rolling.
Before I set things off, I’d like to take a minute to talk about Grow Home. Developed by Ubisoft Reflections, a small team within the larger umbrella of Ubisoft, Grow Home is a short, experimental title that has the player exploring a fantasy world as a red robot, collecting crystals and facilitating the growth of a giant start plant, which the player uses to climb up into space to get home. Most notable about Grow Home is its emphasis on a relatively open, vertical world, as well as the main character’s movements, which are heavily reliant on procedural generation. The protagonist, B.U.D., feels a little wonky at first, but he’s extremely fun to control once you got the hang of it. I had a lot of fun with Grow Home, if only it wasn’t so damn short.
Enter Grow Up. With Grow Up, it seems the developer’s goal was to take the concepts explored with Grow Home and really take the time to flesh them all out. The very first thing that stood out to me about this game was the sheer attention on atmosphere. The game begins with a little cutscene that establishes the scenario. B.U.D.’s mother ship, M.O.M., has been hit by space debris, crash-landing on a moon with the rest of her pieces flung onto the surface of a nearby blue planet, along with B.U.D., the little red robot. As B.U.D. soars over the planet, pulled in gently by its gravity, the player is treated with an epic, gorgeous view of the planet’s surface, accompanied by bouncy, upbeat techno music. In just a couple short minutes, the player is given a scenario, a motive for action, and a genuine curiosity for the fantastic world that surrounds them. Now if that ain’t a way to start off a game, I don’t know what is.
Diving into the game proper, B.U.D. comes to on the surface of the planet, accompanied by his flying friend, P.O.D. Together, the two robots begin exploring the strange planet, scanning exotic plants, searching for crystals, growing giant star plants, and, most importantly, seeking out the scattered parts of their space ship. The world is filled with bright, vibrant colors, everything is moving around, and I really believe in the world that surrounds me while playing this game. Right off the bat, Grow Up has successfully created an interesting world that entices the player forward through its sheer focus on atmosphere alone.
One of the things that stood out the most about Grow Up’s predecessor, Grow Home, was the way that B.U.D. controlled. Using procedurally-generated animations, the developers set up a host of rules that would interact with each other based on a wide variety of factors, including player input. If you’re unfamiliar with procedurally-generated animation and movement, I wrote out a more detailed description of it in my Grow Home review.
Grow Up sports the same type of procedurally-generated movements and animation that Grow Home did, with seemingly very little changes made. B.U.D. still runs around all wonky if you start pulling him in several different directions, and he bounces around and alters the positioning of his feet based on the sloping of the surfaces he runs over. It does feel to me that his running mechanics may have been tightened up a little bit, allowing a smaller stride so that it’s a bit harder to mess up while running, but it’s hard to tell. Another thing that stood out is that the protagonist’s animations are a lot more glitchy this time around, which could be due to a variety of factors.
In general, the controls are fine, but things start to break down a little bit when it comes to B.U.D.’s glider. One of the unlocks available throughout the world of Grow Up, the glider offers a great way to get around, especially when you need to make it from one floating island to another that happens to be way on the other side of the planet. Cool. Flying is fun, but it doesn’t always agree with the camera angles; pointing the camera in the wrong directions makes the glider almost impossible to control, requiring the player to point the control stick in counter-intuitive directions. I think having a system with more of a 1:1 ratio between player input and direction of the glider would have been better. The fact that the camera interferes with these controls at all is a little baffling, and definitely not easy to deal with.
Part of Grow Home’s experiment also dealt with open-world level design; its world consisted of a series of floating islands that climbed their way up and up, resulting in an extremely vertical level. For one, this was a really cool flip to the traditional, horizontal design of most platforming and adventure games, and secondly, the developers were able to manage this while impeding very little the player’s ability and choice to go to whichever islands they wanted. Entire islands could be skipped or explored slightly out of sequence if the player so wished and if it was within their ability.
Grow Up also deals with open-world concepts, only this time the development team blew it wide open, crafting a small, spherical planet with its own gravity that the player can explore at their leisure. This is a pretty cool concept, and while it’s not entirely original or new, it’s definitely not utilized very often (Super Mario Galaxy comes to mind), and I think it lends itself pretty well to the philosophy of non-restricting gameplay. The world, itself, has a pretty decent size to it, complete with plenty of floating islands all around so that it takes a little while to really explore every nook and cranny. Above the planet floats a moon, which is the player’s ultimate goal, resting just outside of the planet’s gravity.
With a more open world comes more space to fill, i.e. more things to do. My one biggest complaints with Grow Home was that, aside from the main task of growing the star plant and the more secondary (yet also necessary) task of collecting power crystals, there wasn’t really anything else to do, aside from simply exploring the world around you. Sure, you could collect animals and plant life if you really wanted, and there’s a bonus task to complete once you beat the game, but it’s not too engaging. All in all, Grow Home was a little lacking for the more goal-oriented player, relying a little too heavily on the player to want to want to explore on their own.
It seems like the team at Ubisoft Reflections also noticed this, because Grow Up sports a lot more things to do. Just like Grow Home, you can grow star plants and collect crystals (with three more star plants to play with this time around), but the main goal involves seeking out the pieces of your destroyed ship. Aside from that, there are a whole bunch of very Spyro-esque time trials that can really put your platforming abilities to the test. I really like that these are in there, giving the player more of a challenge while providing a fun and engaging way of getting somewhere you need to go, since most of these time trials will lead you straight toward critical areas. This is a perfect example of vertical integration in game design, allowing the player to knock out two birds with one stone without even realizing it.
Alongside time trials, you can activate respawn points and collect your various abilities, which are as scattered as the parts of your ship. Collecting these abilities will increase your agility and allow you to find crystals more easily (save for one ability, but I’ll get to that later) while heightening the player’s feeling of accomplishment, knowing that they worked on their own to find all their skills. Finally, you can scan and log plant life. This last one is the most optional of them all, and is not entirely necessary for completing the game. Which reminds me…
Perhaps the coolest thing about Grow Up’s design philosophy is that the game forces you to do virtually none of these things; the only absolutely required task is collecting the ship parts, and the rest are entirely optional. Of course, it would be hard to get the main task done without acquiring some of B.U.D.’s power-ups, but it may actually be possible to do without them, I don’t actually know. My point is that the developers let the player loose in their world and allow the player to decide on their own what activities they want to do and in what order, down to a T. This is an amazing feat of game and level design, and it really goes a long way toward further immersing the player in the world that surrounds them, making them feel more in control over their own destiny. In one fell swoop, Ubisoft Reflections updated the format of Grow Home to have something for the player who just wants to mess around, as well as the goal-oriented player who wants to keep busy with tasks to do.
There is not much difference in the art design from Grow Home; Grow Up sports a low-polygon art style with soft, yet bright colors that imbue the world with a vibrancy. The shapes are recognizable, yet obscure enough to let the player fill in a lot of the gaps with their own imagination, while reducing the processing requirements. There are a couple changes to the art in Grow Up that I noticed: for one, dynamic shading and lighting seems to be a much bigger thing. This is accentuated by the use of overhead clouds that will change position, casting parts of the world in moving shadows. Secondly, the sun tends to move around a lot more, since the planet in Grow Up is relatively small. Day cycles will last a handful of minutes, and so will night cycles. Grow Home also had day and night cycles that changed the way the world looked, but the level design in Grow Up accentuates this a lot more, and damn does it look good.
The soundtrack in this game is simply fantastic. Featuring a nice collection of upbeat, bouncy techno music, the songs of Grow Up accent the wonderful world perfectly, giving it a fun, family-friendly vibe that encourages wonder and exploration. Honestly, it sounds like Owl City could have made the tracks. I can’t say that the soundtrack for Grow Home stood out to me very much, but the soundtrack for Grow Up caught my attention plenty of times, as the world burst into a flurry of bubbly excitement during a time trial or gentle music twinkled out of nowhere as I glided toward the planet’s horizon.
Nip’s Complaint Corner
Welcome to the first edition of Nip’s Complaint Corner, a place where I air out all my grievances with Grow Up, back-to-back-to back! Settle in and enjoy some unadulterated game design rants as I explore everything Ubisoft Reflections could have done better.
Let’s start with perhaps the most egregious and stand-out issue with Grow Up: Ease of Access. And I don’t mean that this game is inaccessible to the casual player; quite the opposite, actually. To put it bluntly, once the player gets about halfway through the game, it becomes way too easy. Because of how open and non-restrictive the level design is, it’s possible to acquire a lot of B.U.D.’s abilities early on with a minimal amount of effort, and some of these abilities reduce the challenge of navigating the in-game world to a trivial annoyance. Now, a lot of games sport a sandboxy, go-where-you-want feel, like the Grand Theft Auto series (to an extent), the Just Cause series (to an even larger extent), as well as the Far Cry series. These games are largely built around restricting the player’s movement as little as possible, giving them a huge playground to run rampant in. New abilities aren’t “collected” in the world around them, but earned by completing in-game scenarios or missions that are activated at easy-to-reach locations.
In Grow Up, the entire point of the game is to get to hard-to-reach locations, collecting abilities along the way that make the player better. However, it is way too easy to become too powerful early on, trivializing the search for these power-ups to an extreme degree. Part of this is due to the non-restricting level design; what’s the point in spending the time to grow a giant plant when I can just fly where I need to go on my unlimited-use glider with a boost upgrade? And therein lies one of the sadder things about this game: the developers included a lot of creative ways to get around, but the player doesn’t have a need to use them. The player can grow a handful of giant star plants to help them reach floating islands, and can store seeds for all of the plants found in the world. A lot of these plants will launch the player forward or up in the air at high speeds, but by the time the player has upgraded their jet pack once or twice, the seeds become essentially useless. Normally, I wouldn’t consider this such a bad thing, but Grow Up is a game built around the struggle and the challenge of overcoming the odds, but all of that gets lost along the way. Some players will appreciate the decreased difficulty of Grow Up, and I suppose there is a “critical path” that the developers may have been imagining in their heads that maintains a good level of difficulty throughout the course of the game, but therein lies the challenge of open-world level design; when the player can do whatever they want, a higher degree of focus is required on everything to keep things interesting and engaging.
Take, for example, this game’s predecessor, Grow Home. Grow Home is technically an open-world game, but the developers creatively designed its world so that the floating islands rose up and up above the head of the player. There were no esoteric obstacles blocking them like a wall of boulders; just gravity. Power-ups, items, and power crystals were distributed judiciously along the way in order to avoid letting the player become too powerful too fast; if they wanted to improve their abilities, eventually they would have to keep climbing up. The floating islands were spaced out far enough away so that, even with all the player’s abilities, they would still have to rely on their star plant buddy, and keep growing it up and up to help them reach higher places, activating checkpoints along the way. In Grow Up, the power-ups make navigating the world so easy that things like topography and interacting with the star plants don’t really matter, essentially detaching the player from their connection with the world they are exploring.
And don’t even get me started on the checkpoints. They are literally useless. And there are so many of them. Why? Grow Home had fewer than half as many checkpoints, and they were highly useful due to the level design. They probably could have been cut entirely for this game, or at least scaled down by a lot. That said, they are fun to activate.
What’s this ball ability? Why is it in this game? This ability is by far the most useless ability in the entire game, and probably should have been cut. It could have been interesting in a Metroid fashion for getting into small or hard-to-reach places, but the developers didn’t use it for this. I honestly don’t know what it’s good for.
On to the power crystals. The world of Grow Up seems like it may be four times as big as Grow Home, but the amount of power crystals has only increased by half. This seems like a pretty low number to me. Also, finding that last one is ridiculously hard for the completionist player.
Also, this game is kind of glitchy. By far the most noticeable example of this is the way the entire game will freeze for a second or two any time anything interesting happens, such as achievements or collecting power-ups. It’s really weird that this happens so often, especially since the game’s art style should present a relatively low burden on the system. None of this has proved game breaking, but it is kind of annoying.
That concludes this edition of Nip’s Complaint Corner. Thanks for tuning in!
Grow Up is an open-world platforming/adventure game with a heavy emphasis on exploration, expanding the concepts from the preceding title Grow Home in many fun and interesting ways. Its vibrant, well-crafted world lures the player into a fantasy land, rising above the odds to collect the parts of their destroyed ship with a lot of side goals and opportunities to keep the player engaged throughout. This family-friendly game is simply a marvel to behold at times, inspiring awe and wonder in equal measures, enticing the player to explore every nook and cranny to uncover its secrets. That said, Grow Up stumbles over many of the pitfalls of open-world level design, making most of the mid-to-late-game stuff pretty trivial and uninteresting. Where its predecessor, Grow Home, had more focus and control over this, Grow Up simply falters, crafting a world that is a little too accessible.
Because of these things, it’s hard to point at this game and say “this is a definite improvement” but it’s equally difficult to regard it as a step backward, since it does improve a lot of elements that were lacking with Grow Home. Grow Up is not a bad game, and I would even call it a pretty good game. I most definitely appreciate Ubisoft Reflection’s willingness to continue experimenting, bringing fresh concepts to the table, but some experiments are naturally bound to fail from time to time. For just 10 bucks, Grow Up is a really good buy, and I remain excited to see what new titles Ubisoft Reflections comes up with in the future.
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