Recently, and by recently I mean ages ago, I played a game to completion. That’s right. An entire game, end to end, in about two days. Such a feat hasn’t happened in years, largely due to this debilitating ‘life’ I seem to have finally snagged onto as I stumble into my late 20’s. I’m going to write something about that really soon, if you’re wondering. But for now, let’s focus on this rapturous game. It wasn’t a sprawling RPG, it wasn’t a bullet-flailing, fire-hailing shooter, it was, as one might expect from a six hour affair, a twee 3rd person indie (at heart) platformer, called Grow Home.
Ubisoft have done a good job at unravelling some of their best work with Assassin’s Creed and Splinter Cell and Driver and Rainbow Six… so it was with a due sense of exhaustion and dread that I approached Grow Home; doing so once again, purely because Sony spat a copy down my digital chimney for the insignificant price of 40 quid a year. But Grow Home instantly hit a chord with me, and it wasn’t from its polish, or down to a lovingly written little narrative. It was in fact, its lack of polish. Grow Home has a fumbling, paltry, low-poly demeanour that makes it feel like a PS2-era game in the very best kind of way.
Typically I reserve ‘this looks and feels like a PS2 game’ exclusively for things I dislike. I don’t actually ever remember using it as a compliment before I began Grow Home; which is significant and a slight turn up for the books, when you think about it. Lots of games hark back to ye olde 8-bit revolution; to mechanics and visuals and the iconic square-eyed squandering of our youth that was yesteryear, but more often than not, it’s citing an era that was so much more defined. The last few generations have melded into each other, taking blurred and oft-hazy, though still valiant and eye-popping, leaps and landings. So how do you capture the virility and magic of one the greatest consoles ever to exist? You innovate.
That’s not to say Grow Home will have you leaping from your sofa, arms aloft in haughty and mawkish praise. In fact. for the first few minutes you might be trying to recall whether you did actually see Ubisoft’s logo on the splash screen as it booted up. It’s clumsy. It’s made in Unity, and you can tell. But the developers have woven that particular aspect of the gameplay into the charm of the package. You are a hapless robot, seemingly always on the brink of mechanical breakdown. The controls feed this back to you from the off, giving you just enough accuracy to get by, while also becoming a part of its unique challenge.
The prospect is simple; you climb an enormous plant, reaching new protrusions of said plant at greater heights and grow these stems out using your magic robot powers. Then connect them with nearby floating rocks, the completion of which increases the overall height of the plant, and up and up you go. Okay, so ‘simple’ was not the right word.
How Grow Home wins you over though, is in the charm of its mechanics. You control the grip of each hand with L1 and R1, alternating each with rapidity to climb, monkey-bar shimmying across increasingly perilously grown branches and stems to reach your goal. Vaulting and free-falling before sublimely clinging onto a trunk to halt your imminent plummet makes you feel significant and masterful, an adept and skillful explorer of the colourful world. The height alone, in fact is an alluring prospect; there’s something truly riveting about being SO high up in a game, where one false move sees you tumble and plunge all the way back down to the very start of the game.
Platformers try new things all the time; it’s a genre that is no such stranger to variation, with many experimenting within their clearly-defined boundaries, but this one seems to achieve with a uniquely nostalgic efficacy. Whether it goes above and beyond those boundaries is a matter of opinion, and a non-point, because what it does do is innovate in a manner that reminds me of gaming maybe 10 years ago. And I can’t think of a single other game that’s done that. It’s hard to describe exactly what it is that makes it such a success in that department, perhaps the fact it’s predominantly a ‘climbing’ game, or its bright and brash textures alongside right angled, low-poly visuals, the explorative, non-violent nature of your goal, or maybe it’s the way it feels like it might all apart at the seams in a moment. Whatever it is, I had a great time with Grow Home, and though it’s a short-lived experience, it’s worth a blast for some old-school style innovative and charming, fresh-feeling gaming. More on Respawn (I promise) soon.