Ubisoft’s experiments in procedural animation have borne some absolutely lovely fruit. A side project turned full game, Grow Home is a cure for the gloominess created by this cold, dark month of February, all bright and full of cartoon whimsy.
I’ve spent much of the afternoon and evening letting out little sighs of contentment, as I clamber up and down vines as BUD (Botanical Utility Droid), a charming little robot on a mission to bring some peculiar flora back to his mothership. I’m smiling so much, frankly, that it’s embarrassing.
Dropped into a gorgeous world that defies the laws of physics, BUD is tasked with growing a huge stalk, the Star Plant, until it bursts through the stratosphere and blooms. Fertiliser and water are unnecessary, however, as the stalk rapidly grows by tapping into the energy trapped inside floating islands.
The Star Plant can only do this, though, if its vines burrow into said floating islands, which is where the chirping, bleeping droid comes in. BUD can climb onto the vines, sitting on the red flower on the tip, and loosely control them. Holding on for dear life and then tapping a button sends the vines shooting out, and their trajectory can be guided so that they strike their target.
Islands are usually situated quite far away from the stalk, so the first attempt to connect them often falls short. Conveniently, the sprawling vines spawn new ones, so it’s a simply a matter of making BUD climb back down just a little bit, look for another red flower, and then ride it until it reaches the green glow of an island rich in energy.
The well-fed Star Plant grows and grows, tearing through the sky, making BUD constantly climb higher to help it break the stratosphere and get close to the waiting spaceship, where his companion, M.O.M. waits, occasionally sending sweet messages of encouragement. It doesn’t take much time at all for the very first island, one that rests in the ocean rather than in the air, to become a dot.
BUD is not what you would call graceful. Maybe he’s new to existence, because he wobbles around the place like a toddler getting used to its limbs. Controlling the little robot takes a bit of getting used to, but the bouncy, loose animation and the adorable noises he emits makes it hard to get frustrated. The imprecision is all part of BUDs endearing charm.
It’s reminiscent of Octodad, on reflection. BUD grips surfaces like his hands have little suckers, and the right and left mouse buttons control the corresponding hands. Letting go of the button makes that hand let go, too. So there’s a rhythm, left, right, left, right, like a march. Climbing is very slow, though, because BUD’s only got wee arms and the Star Plant is so very, very big. But it’s not the only way to get higher.
Sprouting out of the plant are rubbery leaves that, when jumped on, sent BUD rocketing upwards, and dotted around islands are equally bouncy mushrooms. It’s a doddle, finding something that can shoot him into the sky. But it’s equally easy to bugger up and fall, hurtling towards the ground or sea below, where the poor wee guy breaks into a dozen pieces. Not to worry! Grow Home is not a game that ever presents real danger. There are no lives, no scores, and there are an abundance of safety nets, from oversized daisies that allow BUD to float, to big glider leaves.
A reasonably generous checkpoint system also makes things nice and easy. They can be unlocked, and are easy to spot from their red glow, and act as both respawn points and a fast travel system. Despite there being the occasional spot of tricky platforming, it’s the sort of game that’s open to anyone, regardless of dexterity.
While BUD’s adventure can be finished up in a couple of hours, it’s a world that demands to be explored. Each island, even if it’s not able to feed the Star Plant, beckons. There are 100 crystals to hunt down, which unlock new abilities like a jet pack, though the game can be completed without any of them, and secret caves waiting to be delved into.
I found myself exploring just for the sake of it. It’s a tourist’s delight, with vistas that demand screenshots. And despite BUD’s awkwardness, traversal is blooming fun, whether he’s sliding down vines like he’s on a helter skelter, or freefalling from an asteroid to reach a new island.
It’s tactile, too. I had to climb every tree, pick up every animal (I should apologise to the sheep that I flung off a mountain) and grab every oversized piece of fruit. Why? Why not? There are lots of achievements connected to just playing around with the world aimlessly, but I honestly didn’t need the encouragement.
By the time that I decided I was done, I had filled the sky with a lattice of vines, spreading out in all directions, criss-crossing and linking up dozens of wee bobbing landmasses. My version of this world probably doesn’t look like yours will. How the vines are directed is entirely up to you, and you can be efficient and workmanlike as you make your way up to space, or you can get a bit creative.
Grow Home is utterly lovely. It’s welcoming and sweet, and its simplicity is as elegant as BUD is adorably clumsy. Little experimental treats like this are worth a dozen Far Creeds and Assassin’s Crys. More of this, please, Ubisoft!