I first came across ‘Grow Home’ while scouring casual downloads on Playstation Plus, in attempts to coax a friend away from yet another humdrum round of NBA 2K. As nice as it is to see someone passionate about their go-to game, when they take it to a level that effectively excludes them from all conversation that doesn’t revolve around either their latest stats acquisition or the digital likeness of their favourite player’s beard, sometimes it’s necessary to find a bridge back to a broader appreciation of digital worlds. Something that approaches a lego-like simplicity, far from the inbuilt assumptions of a long established franchise. Ultimately, Grow Home never did end my friend’s obsession with that game, but it did provide a cause to break up what had become a relentless console schedule, and at least temporarily impose upon it one of my own! When I heard about the sequel’s recent release, I leapt at the chance to give it a go.
Grow Up starts with a simple enough premise. You take on the role of botanical utility droid ‘B.U.D,’ who is stranded on a planet of varied lifeforms, both strange and familiar. Much lauded for its simple shaded, texture free low-poly look, the game instantly screams ‘toy,’ with a broad visual appeal and simple mechanics that translate easily between platforms. For PC, mouse and keyboard take the place of console-native controls, however, a gamepad is still touted as the preferred method. Not to be entirely dismissive of the narrative, but once you come to grips with leaping and climbing, the sandbox/exploration element of the series immediately comes to the fore. The simple joy of movement driven by interaction with a physics engine (rather than the usual pre-baked animation) presents a loose, open sense of possibility. Pretty soon you forget any explicit purpose, other than bounding freely – from ground to wall or wall to your watery doom. Bud’s wide-eyed expression reflects a state of wonder (or mild terror) as progress reveals an impressive sense of scale, more so than the original. This lends the game’s relatively sparse polygon count aesthetic as well as technical significance.
Despite the familiar acquisition of crystals powering Bud’s upgrades, the new instalment presents a few basic differences, mainly regarding getting around. Where in the original ‘fall flowers’ were used in order to safely cross sizeable gaps, canyons and perilous sources of water, Bud’s abilities now include a flower-like air brake, a jetpack, and the Floradex. This allows the player to examine various floraforms and fungi which can then be spawned at will – expediting movement between various airborne sites and other hard to reach places. Despite not quite having the charm and simplicity of fall flowers, these abilities definitely ease points of frustration where a fall could otherwise present a serious setback. In a game where progression is closely tied to your ability to traverse ever higher platforms, strategically placed ‘telerouters’ are the only save points.
Though the free-form nature of movement and exploration are enjoyable for their own sake, the grow mechanic is what defines the series, and is the main means of reaching your goals. Originally born out of an experiment with procedural animation, within the game it allows Bud to influence the growth of gargantuan star flowers, directing their fledgling branches to airborne sources of energy which in turn stimulate the core growth of the plant. Due to the grow mechanic, Grow Up can begin to feel like a sort of ‘techno-terrarium’ in which one can spend considerable time spawning unique growth patterns. As each branch spawns further [buds], there’s plenty of leeway for happy accidents, and the results of which eventually form a supporting network from which the player can leap and free fall to secondary objectives, clasping onto nearby floating isles with a frugal puff of the jetpack.
With its thoughtful level design, Grow Up certainly does a good job of directing the player towards their goal without making it all feel like an on-rails type affair. With plenty of side challenges and ability buffs to make playful distraction a meaningful part of the game, I never found myself forced so much as gently persuaded toward set achievements. That said, with all goals laid out clearly from your P.O.D map, players of the original may find the exploratory element a little lost to convenience, though this does make it easier to pick up where you left off. As a gamer looking for a release from the all too familiar, though, I couldn’t ask for much more. Whether you may have dismissed the series as ‘kid’s stuff,’ Grow Home’s sequel presents a fresh take on established themes, a veritable platform through which one can achieve both literal and figurative perspective (I’m now keen to see it in VR). Despite a few niggles over the developers lowering the base difficulty, as a casual tourist to this particular landscape, I would say it’s definitely worth a visit.