Grow Home: More Acorn Than Oak

It’s easy to look at smaller, digital games from behemoth publishers with an unfair sense of cynicism.  There’s a certain appeal that attaches itself to the word ‘indie’, a sort of inexplicable resistance against the supposed greed of corporations. So when Ubisoft releases a colourful, simple digital title all the while distancing itself from the process and flinging Ubisoft Reflections into the spotlight… well, that’s when the furrowed brows start appearing. When big business starts getting involved, that’s where the questions start getting asked. There are no pitchforks here, however; whatever the motive, Grow Home is a pleasant couple of hours.

You play as B.U.D, the flailing-armed robot whose sole task is to nurture a ‘star flower’ for no other reason than you’ve been told to. That alone is a refreshing approach gameplay for the sake of it and it needs nothing more than its vague and loose storyline to pin it all together. Your goal is to plug the flower’s phallic offshoots into nearby floating rocks, guiding the ever-growing branch into its ultimate destination. Of course it’s not quite as simple as that, since you first need to reach the budding flowers to activate its sudden growth spurt. As a result you’ll spend much of the game left-click, right-clicking as you guide the robot hand-by-hand carefully up the side of rockfaces, flora and even the thick trunk of the star flower itself. It’s an unusual system, one whose very action adds an extra sense of tactility to the gameplay. It creates an enduring sense of personal growth across Grow Home’s short runtime, an idea that as you become better at manipulating the awkward animations of B.U.D. you’ve gone through a similar journey to the flower itself. Sadly it’s not quite perfect, and ultimately the very control system will cause you to slip, fail and sometimes can become a point of frustration as you’re forced to repeat a particularly arduous navigational challenge.

Aside from the required objective, there’s an unforced set of optional alternatives, too. The first is a set of 100 crystals embedded within the landscape; collect enough of these and at periodic milestones you’ll be rewarded with a minor but helpful upgrade. The second is a database of fauna and flora that inhabit this colourful environment, a database that can only be compiled by dragging each undocumented item to one of only a handful of teleporters. These become a puzzle in and of themselves, the reward in the very completion of the act rather than any tangible benefit from the game itself. Disappointingly, it does mean that without any recompense for the considerable challenge doing so can pose there’s no sense of drive to actually attempt to carry these items to the teleporters, ultimately making this side venture a thankless task not worth the willpower required to complete it. Animals will resist, for example, and some will even attack you suffering the stress for nothing other than personal achievement just isn’t worthwhile.

And in a way that’s the biggest problem with Grow Home. The very act of climbing to the top of the world is, in itself, enjoyable enough to see you through to the end, but even before its couple of hours are over, your interest begins to wane. The sense of exploration is drawn upon from the crystals, the challenge from the database; but nothing in the core game matches that sense of exploration. There’s a twee enjoyment in creating arbitrarily spiralled stems, but it quickly becomes an irritant when you’re required to use more than one branch to connect toa power source wasteful spiralling is too easily forgotten for the sake of the job.

It’s almost as if Grow Home is imitating the concept of a modern indie game those exploratory, sensory experiences we see so much of rather than actually understanding what makes such a title appeal to gamers. There needs to be more to do and see to feed the inquisitive mind, more to give outside of itself. Each milestone in the flower’s growth adds renewed vigour, providing another platform from which to wander off and search for these optional extras proof that Grow Home’s success is in aimlessness, a contrast to the very direct nature of plugging those branches into their various power sources. There just isn’t enough superfluous extras to maintain your interest, and that’s where Grow Home could have succeeded the most.

In spite of all this, it does manage to offer an experience worthy of its admittedly low cost. It’s a serene sort of game, a tranquil, uncomplicated few hours of exploration. The combination of unique, polygonal art style and hushed audio and sound effects make for a relaxing, peaceful title and once it’s over there is more to do in the form  of collectibles and even a new, post-ending task but it’s largely unrequited. Grow Home, after all, is not a success in a mechanical fashion, but instead in a contemplative one and once you’ve achieved that main goal there’s not really much more desire to continue.

And that’s fine; it would be unfair to expect more from something that isn’t looking to offer it. Though comparisons to thatgamecompany’s Journey or, perhaps more fittingly, Flower are abundant here, Grow Home simply doesn’t impart the same scale of emotion. It is pleasing, not passionate; calming, not compelling. In that there’s an argument, perhaps, that the sentiment was lost in the corporate machine, but to suggest so would discredit Ubisoft Reflections’ work here. Grow Home isn’t the masterpiece you’ll hang on the wall, it’s the vase of tulips on the coffee table appreciated at the time, but forgotten once they wither.

The challenge of taking flora and fauna to teleportation points in particular, the few animals you’ll meet adds a greater layer of emergent puzzle solving that Grow Home just doesn’t have inherently in its game design. It almost makes us wish that Ubisoft Reflections had focused on scanning the various elements of this new world as the main objective of the game, added much more disparate creatures and plants to find and provided a greater reward upon completion of each new scan. It’d help bolster the sense of exploration that Grow Home doesn’t empower nearly enough, and would make each new discovery much more personally elating.

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