One of 2015's most delightful, out-of-left-field surprises was Ubisoft Reflections' Grow Home, a simple game about a robot trying to escape the planet he's been stranded on by climbing higher and higher, up the wildest of beanstalk-like plants. More than a year later, the UK-based studio, better known for working on triple-A hits Watch Dogs and The Division, has returned with the more ambitious but still endearing Grow Up.
We take climbing for granted in most games. You press forward or tap a button and the character scrambles onward. (You see this all the time in Ubisoft's other games, from Far Cry to Assassin's Creed.) What differentiated Grow Home was its demanding that players become active participants. By tapping and holding the left or right triggers on the controller, the lil' robot's left and right hands would hover towards the next landing spot. Wiggling the analog stick let you adjust where the hand ultimately landed. You gained enormous autonomy over your climb.
Here's what that looks like:
So many games promise players a great deal of freedom, but in practice, are forced to slap constraints on what's possible. Given the realities of time and money, there's no way for developers to deliver on such lofty pledges.
But Grow Home was different. It had a simple mission: to let you climb. If it seemed like you could climb something, you could. And the mechanics were nuanced enough to let you futz your way into places you shouldn't be. I loved slowly maneuvering my robot underneath a lofty mountain in the sky and just... hanging out.
In this regard, Grow Up isn't much different than Grow Home. The basic philosophy of letting players climb their hearts out hasn't changed—the sequel's just gotten much, much bigger. You now have access to climbing challenges to unlock costumes, the ability to scan plants with specific abilities (i.e. some are tall, some let you bounce) and plant seeds around the world, and a climbing playground that's several times larger than the entirety of the original game.
That turns out to be a blessing and a curse, as more is not always better. Part of Grow Home's charm was the unabashed simplicity. It was a tightly designed game with an efficiently sculpted world to match. You're doing a lot more traveling in Grow Home, moments made less boring as you gain abilities and can scramble around faster, but early on, it gets tiring. Whenever you're not doing what Grow Up is best at—you know, climbing—the game is at its weakest.
To that end, the controls in Grow Up (and Grow Home) are purposely squishy and imprecise. That worked pretty well because Grow Home wasn't demanding much precision from the player. That's less true here. During the challenge sequences, it's largely about precision. Sure, you can just avoid the challenges, as they're not required to progress in the game, but I used the last game as a stress reliever, and it felt odd to be barking at the screen in its sequel.
And yet, there are plenty of moments in Grow Up where it's just as serene asGrow Home. Few moments in games match the awe of a blind jump in this game, as demonstrated here:
When I'm climbing, I'm happy. When I'm falling, I'm happy. Though Grow Home has lost some of that focus, it's in service of trying to provide more of that. There's still nothing else like Grow Home. In most games, you're excited to save the world. Here, satisfaction is climbing a tree.
Grow Up is out now on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.