Grow Home has been a surprise to me. It's an indie (sort-of-though-not-really) produced title from Ubisoft with minimalist graphics and gameplay. However, this simple combination is very effective and serves to evoke pleasant memories of other games I've played. Part Super Mario, part Minecraft and part Pikmin, Grow Home tugs on all the right emotional centres in my brain...
There's not much exposition going on here. Bud and his mothership arrive at this planet(oid?) in search of a star flower or somesuch thing. There's no explanation beyond "Go out there and get it to grow so we can harvest it!".... and that's pretty much what happens as you, the eponymous B.U.D. (Botanical Utility Droid), are kicked out of the ship to hurtle an incredibly vertigo-inspiring distance to the ground along with some support packs (i.e. teleporters).
Once you're through the tutorial, you're not exposed to M.O.M.'s (the spaceship's computer AI) ever-present comments very often other than to have motherly platitudes painted over your screen from time to time. These include such goldies as "Play nice down there..." and other things I forget. Actually, they are incredibly endearing and a very nice touch. In a way, the developers have crafted a very child-like experience for players to engage in both from the perspective of Bud and also from the oversight of MOM.
Bud has to cultivate the Star Flower by forcing/guiding its protuberances into glowing energy rocks in a very difficult manner (which I'll explain later) resulting in the growth of the star flower to a new 'level' of the world strata and, repeated several times, this all culminates in the production of star seeds and the return to the mothership.
... Sort of.
|There's a post-game objective to get more star seeds but the most interesting thing is seeing the in-development animals plastered on the walls of the mothership.|
Bud is the player character. He's a botanical utility droid, even though he lacks any sort of watering can, rake attachment or spade accessory. However, he's pretty good at his main skill which is grabbing on to things very tightly!!
The character design of Bud is also very canny, IMO. Bud's gormless grin and vacant eyes are perfect for expressing all the appropriate emotions the player is experiencing moment to moment.
|This is the best picture I had of his face and joyful smile as it's very hard to take pictures as you're panicking when plummeting from on high...|
Reading that sentence back, I realise that I've just done it again. Bud has no grin, just a fixed, empty, hinged slot. Somehow, though, the developers have given it a huge slice of personality in that hinged slot that manages to look like a smile, grimace or silent scream at the appropriate times,.. especially when you're airborne.
The other characters in the game are mostly the animals and the world you are exploring. The animals all give off a huge Pikmin vibe to me: They're cute and googly-eyed and their behaviours are entirely adorable. From the dodo-like birds that don't like to be pulled/pushed anywhere to the sheep that come along and eat the fruit/roots you just pulled up from the ground.
The world itself is also beautiful. The graphics are elegant and provide enough detail whilst leaving enough to the imagination that they inspire appreciation of beauty through their cohesion. Just as Minecraft does.
This is a world with lots of systems and interactions between those systems are where things get interesting.
First of all, you have Bud. He can grab on to any surface - assuming the velocity of said botanical utility droid is not too high! Bud can pull things apart, it can drag items across the ground and this grappling ability can also allow it to climb, hang and otherwise traverse the world.
It's a simple mechanic - left should buttons control the left hand, right should buttons etc etc. The left stick controls the direction they are going to grab onto and this stick is also controlled for general directional movement so it feels pretty natural: you "point" where you want to go.
The game relies almost exclusively on physics and inverse kinematics for its interactions. All of the animations of the animals and Bud are predicated on these systems and, as a result, movement is fluid, intuitive and also crazy-in-a-good-way. By that, I mean that it's not uncommon for Bud to be falling with style, rather than walking/running. This also adds to the feel of the game, makes it very cutesy (in an adorable way) and probably cut months of development time from the game because the surfaces that the player traverses are partially random/player generated and partially preset which means that a simple walking or climbing animation for set vertical and horizontal distances just won't cut it.
Interface-wise, the game relies on a lo-fi 70s computer screen output style. It's block, simplistic and does the job well. This is modern design sensibilities melded to a retro aesthetic and layered with a cute filter and the developers have pulled it off well.
The main objective of the game is to get the star flower to grow up to produce seeds. This is accomplished through climbing to a bud on the stem of the flower and 'activating' it. This makes the branch that the bud is on grow. Bud can guide the bud by using the directional stick.... however, it's really not very easy and you're fighting the thing to go where you want it to.
|I guess this is what gardeners do!|
Why we make these off-shoots grow? Well, it's to hit them into and attach them to these glowing yellow life-giving crystals (see above). These provide the star flower with energy to grow higher to reach space, at which point it releases the star seeds (the things we want). Each level of growth is tied to a different level of the planet's strata.
You see, instead of having a single mantle like the Earth, the plant Bud is exploring has floating islands and rocks at different distances from the ground. It's very surreal and very beautiful. It also is one complete world - meaning that you can fall from the space ship all the way down to the bottom without a break or loading screen.
Incidentally, Bud is not water-proof. Only water-resistant.
Speaking of falling: Bud has several skills/abilities to help it move around the game world. First off is the flowers. These delicate things can be harvested (only one at a time) and stored in Bud's backpack. When Bud is falling you can whip out the flower and slow your descent to a safe crawl (even at terminal velocities). However, upon using the flower, petals will begin to fall off, meaning that each flower's use is limited. You can keep track of how many petals remain through the handy pictogram on Bud's backpack.
Secondly, Bud can also obtain a big, leaf. These things are lying around in various locations and have to be swapped out for the flower as you can only have one item at a time in the backpack. The leaf provides controllable gliding flight to Bud but, if Bud hits the environment, it will lose hold of the leaf and plummet to the ground without a safety net. You can, if you have long enough and you're cool enough, grab the leaf you let go of to unlock an achievement... and also experience a cool moment. The leaf is a great way of spotting the collectable resource in the game and also seeing the game world from top to bottom from your own vantage point.
|It doesn't look like it in this picture but I just caught the leaf! I'm not falling to my doom... Honest!|
The last and, arguably the most important, is Bud's jet pack. It starts off weedy and practically useless but, as you collect energy crystals, it becomes more powerful until you're able to rise relatively huge distances with it. Which is great because you're going to need that the higher up you go into the atmosphere!
Oh, speaking of collectable energy crystals... there are collectable blue energy crystals. These are different from the yellow ones that make the star flower grow in that they make Bud have more energy and be able to fire his jet pack for longer. They're all over the place and I really enjoyed finding them (hint: at night they're easier to spot). I'm still missing the very last one (of a hundred total) so, my OCD completionist wants me to find it....
There are also teleporters that the mothership drops with Bud at the beginning of the game that need to be activated by deploying them through grappling with their stabilising feet (yes, this sentence does make sense once you've played the game!). These serve two functions: first, they are the game's fast travel system and you can instantly go between any two places by standing on one. The second is to scan all the flora and fauna in the game world.
This scanning mechanic is a fun little side quest and not that easy to complete. Much like the rest of the design philosophy of the game, it's easy to play and difficult to master. It's one thing to pull a reluctant sheep to the platform and another thing entirely to get one of the dodo-type birds from their positions far from the nearest teleporter on to the bloody platform without splatting their easily breakable bodies all over the ground or in the ocean...
Lastly, there's no consequence to death in this game. No death at all, really, other than an instant respawn in one of the teleporters I just mentioned and a mild admonishment from MOM to be more careful. This is very useful because it can be quite easy to fall to your death during the earlier stages of the game when you're not familiar with it.
|A serene experience...|
Grow Home is an excellent slice of game. It doesn't overstay its welcome; has just enough gameplay to really let the player feel like they enjoyed the experience without wearing the mechanics down. I would recommend this to virtually anyone who is confident in 3-dimensional manoeuvring and especially to those who are familiar with Mario 64, Sunshine and Banjo-Kazooie. It's a delight to play and a breath of fresh air from the general output of the major publishers.
|It's a really looooong way down!|
I got the game 'free' with the subscription to PS+. It's around €9-10 on various stores including PC (though I can't imagine playing the game without a gamepad so keep that in mind!) and at that price I think it's well worth it.
There's nothing really to change or wished changed about Grow Home. It's a self-contained experience that works exceptionally well in its brevity. You might desire more (and I would love more) but I understand that granting that would necessarily dilute the experience. One of the successes of the Mario design teams has been that they have been able to iterate and expand on a singular idea through new mechanics or new points of view. Grow Home is already a fully fledged experience that would have to be tinkered with quite a bit in order for that sort of thinking to work.
The mechanics in Grow Home allow for what the game does but no more. Sure, you could grow another Star Flower in a different world... but the experience would be very samey. The platforming mechanics are almost non-existent (that's not a bad thing in this game) but tinkering with those would generate an entirely different game and experience. Whereas it is expected that Mario has the ability to run up and slide down walls since Mario 64, Ironically, Bud has very little room to grow except to acquire new backpack items without changing the nature of the game - think from Mario World to Mario 64 level of different.