James Stephanie Sterling
Grow Home Review – The Seed Is Strong
A gorgeously pleasant game about driving long hard tubes into Mother Earth.
Developer: Ubisoft Reflections
Released: February 4, 2014
Copy obtained via Steam press account
Grow Home really did come out of nowhere, quietly announcing itself two weeks before launch and then sneaking onto Steam with an almost mute dignity. This unorthodox – especially for an Ubisoft-published game – approach demonstrates that word-of-mouth promotion has power, since this curious title has nonetheless caught a ton of attention and positive press. I can’t say it’s ill-deserved, either – Grow Home is a captivating, joyful, humble little experience that instantly endears itself to the player. It’s also intensely sexual. Intensely.
I’m not saying Grow Home has an intentional concupiscent meaning, that it’s an allegory for carnal activites or attempts anything deliberately illicit in nature. However, as I sat atop the red tip of a growing organic length, steering it toward a vibrant mass so I could penetrate it and absorb its juices with pulsating hunger, I couldn’t help feeling slightly… stirred. This is the main goal of the game, to climb up a gigantic plant, grab hold of its growths, and extend them outward, controlling them as they extend toward energy sources in order to make the main stem taller and taller. Piloting the chirping robot B.U.D, players are tasked by MOM (and I’m not even going to touch the Oedipal connotations there) to make the Star Plant bloom, exposing its innocent Star Seeds for analysis. You will use B.U.D’s ability to hold onto things primarily, his grasping hands wrapping around tumescent columns, filling your rigid stalk with enough power to pierce the sky and explode in a procreant shower of seed.
Maybe it’s just a cute little game about a robot and some flowers. Who knows?
Grow Home is ostensibly all about climbing and physics. B.U.D is an unwieldy prospect, as he seems to lead by the head with his segmented body following drunkenly behind him. Limbs flail wildly, and his momentum can be unpredictable. When facing any surface, B.U.D may latch into it with separately controlled hands, one button gripping with his left arm, another gripping with the right. By alternating hand grabs, B.U.D can clamber up anything, regardless of verticality, allowing him to scale sheer cliffs and even scurry across ceilings. Everything is contextual, and handy colored symbols indicate where each hand will grab next, allowing one a decent measure of control over its movements. I say a “decent measure,” because part of the challenge is overcoming B.U.D’s awkward nature, working to ensure he can steer himself in the right direction and making judgment calls on when to let go of something, when to jump to new platforms, or whether or not you could walk along a narrow bit of beanstalk without slipping and falling. It’s reminiscent of such physics-based recklessness as Surgeon Simulator, Mount Your Friends, and QWOP, though it offers far greater control.
It can be frustrating, there’s no denying that. The camera isn’t always helpful, and since B.U.D’s hands rely on the player looking at surfaces, it can be hard to get a bearing on one’s surroundings. As players reach higher into the sky, teleporters will be unlocked to act as progress checkpoints, but it can still be disheartening to clamber slowly upwards, miss slip up just a little, and subsequently fall miles and miles away from one’s goal. Sometimes B.U.D just won’t grip what you want it to, even when it’s quite clear it should, and its wriggling body can get lodged in crevices, get in the way of its own hands, or otherwise lead to failure that should have been more avoidable. The teleporters only mitigate so much lost distance, and it’ll often be a long road back to the top.
Offsetting the potential annoyance is the fact that climbing is, itself, a strangely satisfying experience. Many games have attempted alternate button presses to simulate climbing, and rarely does it ever feel as good as it should, often confusing one’s fingers and generally acting unresponsively. Here, shimmying up a chunk of rock is a fast and (usually) efficient bit of traversal, and it’s just fun to watch the silly red ‘bot dragging himself enthusiastically along a wall. As players explore and pick up hidden crystals, they’ll acquire flowers that allow their robot to float for a limited time, a leaf for gliding long distances, and a rocket pack to making jumping far more useful. With a fairly simple overarching goal, a lot of Grow Home‘s meat is to be found in exploration. The floating islands that make up its world are full of hidden crannies, angular animals begging to be messed with, and all manner of bizarre sights. It’s like Proteus with a point – a laid-back, whimsical little sandbox with not a huge amount to do, but plenty to be amused and delighted by.
What I love most about the game is just how happy it is. Like Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Ubisoft Reflections’ phallic outing is bright, colorful, and absolutely elated with itself, simply thrilled to be around. Its visual style is simplistic, but bold as hell, and its sense of humor is just plain darling. Sounds are subtle, with ambient background noise, B.U.D’s bleeping and a reserved soundtrack keeping things ticking along. There’s a little visual roughness when it comes to that aforementioned camera, struggling as it does near solid surfaces and sometimes clipping through them to make everything appear hideous. For the most part, however, this is one of those games that showcase just what a great engine Unity is when it’s not being used to lazily sew together a piece of despicable digital garbage.
Grow Home may cause me to become more fascinated with male genitalia than I already am (which takes some doing), but it’s nonetheless a cheery adventure that’s all about exploring, ascending, and just having a jolly old time. While its intoxicated physics can lead to occasional despair, the overwhelming joy of the whole experience is a strong tonic, over the handful of hours it takes to get through, I couldn’t help maintaining a smile. Also, unlike most reviewers, I got through this entire critique without using the words “charm” or “personality.”