Grow Home can be considered a video game version of E.T., except with no Elliot, and you know, done right. You play as the top-heavy robot B.U.D., who is dropped onto a planet to gather seeds of a plant. Unlike E.T., you won’t need to dress up in drag and make phone calls to strangers to get back to your spaceship, you simply need to help the plant grow to a great height and then gather the seeds it drops at the top… and then go home to your spaceship.
Dropped on a sandy beach, you’re presented with a stack of rocks, which you need to climb. Here, you’re presented with the very simple climbing mechanics that will make up B.U.D.’s mode of transportation. B.U.D.’s thin legs make movement difficult at times, especially after gaining momentum, in which case you will tumble over yourself almost like a child learning to walk for the first time. Because of these weak little legs, you have to rely on your little robots arms to help you climb up the environment. In a nice move, B.U.D. is non-gender specific – it is a robot, after all!
The climbing mechanics are simply wonderful to use; each shoulder button working as the grip for each hand. Press the right button and B.U.D.’s right hand grips the surface, press the left button and B.U.D.’s left hand grips. When you want to move up the ever-growing plant, you release a shoulder button making B.U.D. hold on for dear life with one hand, then direct your left thumb stick to where you want to grab onto. Before you know it, you’ll be like Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger, hanging from awkward positions and making awkward moves. Rinse and repeat. You’re climbing.
This sort of climbing mechanic has been implemented elsewhere just fine (Wolfenstein: The Old Blood springs to mind), but no better than in Grow Home. It can be a difficult control system and may take a little while to get your mind around, but if you’re patient and willing to give yourself over to this unique way of moving, then you’ll have a wonderfully unique experience that you may not find implemented many other places.
Most of the time, you will be climbing over the ginormous tree to sprouts that have sprung from the extended branches. Hold onto these sprouts, and they start growing out into the wide blue sky. It’s up to B.U.D. to hold on like George C. Scott to a bomb in Dr. Strangelove and direct the sprout into the glowing base of a floating island, and also to provide nutrition to that sprout so the plant can grow even further. Here you get to hear the great sound design within Grow Home – the plant groans under the strain of its own weight as it grows higher into the sky.
I am terribly afraid of heights and suffer from vertigo. Grow Home has the great honour of managing to make me check my pants after reaching a certain height. The sense of distance as you make your way up into the open blue sky is palpable. Pressing R3 pulls the camera out to provide a wide view of the plant and gives you an idea of how small and insignificant B.U.D. is in this world. The further up you climb, the more out of focus that sandy beach you started on gets. If you accidentally misjudge your grasp whilst climbing, your little robot pal will plummet to certain doom.
Fortunately, B.U.D. is able to pick up a flower that can be used as a temporary parachute to help guide your descent. As you progress, you’ll find little crystals poking out of the rocks. Collect enough of these crystals and you’ll be able to upgrade B.U.D. to have a jetpack, and eventually you’ll be able to use a leaf instead of a flower. Connect to Uplay – that ever present Ubisoft service – and you’ll gain the ability to have a radar to give you an idea how far away you are from a crystal. These incremental upgrades encourage you to explore your environments rather than just trying to get the plant to the highest point as quickly as possible.
And boy is it worthwhile exploring. The floating islands hide caverns that hold more crystals as well as odd creatures of varying kinds. Along your travels, you’ll find meeple (sheep with odd faces), dodos, and an annoyed bull. B.U.D. can interact with all of these creatures, creating some of the most enjoyable moments in Grow Home. It was completely accidental that I managed to turn B.U.D. into a homicidal animal killer, but it wasn’t entirely my fault! One of the achievements is ‘drown five meeples’. So, like the ever diligent trophy hunter that I am, I made B.U.D. grab onto a meeple and drag them into the water where they would explode, their eyes darting around quite confused at what has just happened.
Humour isn’t only evident in meeple genocide, however, as you are constantly encouraged and laughed at by B.U.D.’s computer M.O.M. Notes about ‘how cute you are when you explode’ appear when B.U.D. happens to plummet to the open sea without a parachute. This sweet, harmless humour that is brought on by an affectionate parental love is full of encouragement, and this reinforces B.U.D.’s infant-like exploratory nature.
B.U.D. is full of personality, and whenever a big achievement is made, the little robot will chime out with excitement. The same goes for failures, with sounds of disappointment echoed from B.U.D. in despair. It’s this direct communication between player and character that helps build the relationship between the two. The world-building noises like the groaning sounds from the plant as it grows and struggles under its own weight, or the teleportation devices, which sound like a dial-up modem, are all little touches that help make Grow Home a really enjoyable and immersive experience.
From the same perspective that Journey is just a game about climbing a mountain, Grow Home can be considered simply a game about growing a plant. The repetitive nature of ‘grow a plant, gain a seed, grow another plant, gain another seed’ feels almost like Sisyphus rolling his rock up the hill again and again, but is a relaxing and exceptionally rewarding experience. The simple concepts and elements make for a wonderful world to visit.