“I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.” [HAL 9000]
-2001: a Space Odyssey
Speaking of great science fiction, remember the premise to Pixar’s WALL-E? The eponymous junk-bot is stuck organizing trash on an over-polluted Earth until he meets EVA, a shiny, slick fem-bot from outer space on a mission to find organic life on the ruined terra firma and bring it back to her galactic HQ. In Grow Home, which is said to have been inspired by WALL-E, the mission to procure and nurture organic life takes center stage.
This open world adventure by Ubisoft puts you in the metal shoes of BUD. That’s Botanical Utility Droid. I knew you were curious. BUD is sent down to this alien planet on a mission to raise a Star Plant to the final height of 2000 meters. Above him, the AI computer M.O.M. will give occasional mission updates and tell you what to do.
Grow Home is a game that is set vertically with only a few horizontal spaces. The island where BUD becomes active beside a teleporter is not a large area, with a few rocky outcroppings, some alien vegetation and some sheepish creatures, a beach, a cave and the roots of the Star Plant. However, exploration of this and many other areas to follow are crucial to what makes Grow Home so engaging.
As children, adventures and exploring were two things that almost entirely occupied our playtime. Grow Home capitalizes on our repressed childhood sense of discovery with its atmospheric dimensions, hazy distances, floating islands and hidden secrets. Though the game is lamentably short, there is always something new to find and BUD is well-equipped for the task. Unique and intuitive controls allow players to manipulate both of BUD’s arms individually to grab onto things, grapple, and climb his way up, up and up. His grip never tires and he can clamber upside-down anywhere he pleases. BUD is also packin’ a jetpack and he can make use of giant flowers as limited parachutes or huge leaves as hang gliders.
BUD is not only tasked with growing the Star Planet, but also with finding samples and specimens of other alien flora and fauna. In the first area alone he can pick up a few prickly plants and even grab hold of the sheepish quadrupeds, carry them back to his teleporters and compute data on them.
Another thing to keep his cybernetic eye out for are local crystals growing naturally out of the rock. You can power up BUD’s systems and give him enhanced abilities like longer flight with his jetpack if you collect enough crystals. Good thing they’re hidden in the worst possible places. Seriously, some of them are really tough to find, tucked in a dark crevice or hidden underneath rubble or at the bottom of floating islands. But the power ups are worth it if you can find all one hundred crystals.
So how do you grow the Star Plant? Glad you asked. As the central stalk grows, there will be offshoots that you can climb onto. These can individually be grown and directed through the air in twists and turns.
You can therefore create your own ecosystem with the branching vines and use them as bridges to reach other planetoids and rocky satellites. When you manage to connect vines to nearby floating islands glistening with green energy, the hungry Star Plant will drink it dry and begin again to grow in height. This continually leads you to the next accessible area, until you reach space itself.
Grow Home is an acrophobe’s worst nightmare. That’s a person who is irrationally afraid of heights. I happen to be one such person. I had to force myself up ladders in recent years due to my profession but even getting a few feet up off the ground was enough to illicit embarrassing schoolgirlish noises from me. Heck, World 5 in Super Mario Bros. 3 made my hands sweat and playing through Grow Home? There were several hours when my palms were moister than swimming pools at the Ramada, particularly when I missed a jump and plummeted toward the ground.
The 8-Bit Review
You may be saying to yourself: “Above average? Really?” Yes, really, skeptical one. Testament to the success of its graphics is the aforementioned perfect simulation of a fear of heights. It is acute. Hanging upside-down several hundreds of meters in the cerulean air from a single branch felt as close to being high up in real life as I’ve ever felt in a video game, and that’s due to the way that Grow Home renders its sense of distance. So even though it may be a low polygon environment, don’t write it off. It uses its visuals to great effect.
Another cool thing about the appearance of the game are BUD’s procedural graphics. This means that every time BUD moves, walks, jumps, dives, floats, flies, stumbles, crawls, climbs, runs, grabs, hangs, falls, or swings it’s actually an animation being rendered in real time. BUD will seem to constantly be balancing himself. It gives him and the world he interacts with a feeling of gravity and physics and tangibility lacking in other titles. So where Grow Home seems to fail in the graphical fidelity department, it actually succeeds with its procedural animation. The system isn’t perfect. There’s the occasional jitter and sometimes his limbs tie themselves into horrible knots. But furthermore, even with the basic polygons, the environments of Grow Home still somehow look beautiful as the lighting shifts from dawn to dusk. It reminds us that there is more to great graphics than just pure realism. If you write off this game simply because it doesn’t “look cool”, you’re missing out on a lot of things in life. Like “delight”, for instance.
Accentuated by the occasional lighthearted electro-pop, most of the music you hear in Grow Home is going to be the atmospheric, ambient sounds of the sky. The music of the wind and the stars. It’s incredibly relaxing, which adds to the laid back feel of the game. I wish I had played Grow Home sooner, as it probably would have earned a spot on our list of Top 20 video game Sky themes. Particularly enchanting are the low whale-like calls of the Star Plant, and BUD’s own wordless warbling chatter whenever he does something fun. And I think I heard a bit of the old dial-up tones in there somewhere.
It is recommended by developers to play with a console controller to really connect with the sensation that you are BUD, climbing up all the way arm by arm. The game is designed for it, with the controls as one of its best features, so that’s probably another thing that makes its sense of height (and fear of it) seem so palpable. What’s more, the procedural graphics, the weight and physics, and the way BUD handles when he moves makes for more than a few mistakes. Trying to jump to an island with a bit of a jetpack boost can lead to overshooting or landing and misjudging your momentum only to topple over the opposite edge. For me, this sort of thing was never frustrating. BUD has been compared to a drunk for the way he staggers about, but far from inebriation his movements give the gameplay their clumsy charm. And Grow Home gives you a decent amount of things to do with its great gameplay before the staggering and the overshooting gets old. Peeps have complained that the game is too short, but I think it’s the right length so that its features don’t become irksome.
Climbing with both of BUD’s hands almost instantly becomes second nature. It’s one of the best rock-climbing sims I’ve run across. Add to that the fact that BUD has no complicated armaments or weapons systems. The most complex thing he can do is travel between different teleportation units scattered across the environment, but even that is as simple as selecting a location on a map. Gliding can be a little precarious at first, until you get the hang of it (heh), which will come quickly. I’ve grown to really love this kind of game that doesn’t throw a whole lot at you. Grow Home’s controls are not those which get in the way of enjoying the game. They’re there to saturate you in the game itself.
As previously mentioned, Grow Home is a brief run. The main mission can easily be completed in a few hours, which may make it palatable for some folks with less time on their hands than others, or less palatable for those who want more game for their buck. I thought it was a decent length for what I paid for it when it was on sale. Though the main mission is a cakewalk with only the dangers of falling and having the climb back up (there are infinite lives), the “true ending” where you must find eight more Star Plant seeds is pretty hard, mostly because they are tough to spot. It’s merely time consuming and requires an attention to detail and a knack for knowing where you’ve already been. The hardest thing, personally, in Grow Home was finding all 100 crystals, though I wish I had done it sooner. “Super Hero” BUD is awesome.
A few perks like trophies and extra BUD skins help to broaden the game’s appeal, but even with the one-hundred crystals and the numerous specimens to collect, Grow Home is a limited experience. Sadly that means there’s little reason to return to it after finding everything. It would’ve been great if there had been some kind of random world generator, but it is what it is and that is still a great game. Just not one with a lot of replay value.
Drawing from, and indeed respectfully poking fun at, various sci-fi concepts, Grow Home still manages to be original. While it may be aesthetically different, I’d compare it most to game’s like Flower or Journey which focus more on sensation rather than dialogue or complicated gameplay to immerse players in their worlds and imbue them with specific emotion. Grow Home may have been short, but I’ll remember it for a long while. It left more of an impact on me than BUD’s body left on the ground after falling 2000 meters.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
I really enjoyed this game and it was the best of the four I picked up during the recent weekend sale on PSN. I wish I had played it sooner. I’m discovering that I like this kind of game more and more as I get older. It’s accessible, simple, and I don’t have to put the kids to bed before I can play it. “Kiddie” games sometimes suffer a bum rap with all of the far more popular M-rated titles proliferating the market, but Grow Home, despite it’s appearance, is really quite enjoyable. You should be able to know if you’d like it or not at a glance. If the graphics bother you then that probably won’t change by playing it. If you have an inexplicable, adolescent urge to just shoot something, anything, then you probably won’t like Grow Home. I have no other way to explain some of the hate a few folks have for this game. But if you can play something for more than just “the best” graphics, you might just enjoy this one like I did.
Aggregated Score: 7.3