Saturday 9 May 2015

A Vertical Slice of Charm

Bounding across abyssal drops as you scramble for purchase on a stark cliff face; Soaring through a cyan sky bled amber by the sunset, while gliding majestically under the wing of a giant leaf; Gazing in wonder after summiting that plateau you had long been working towards, looking out across the bubble-gum fantasy land stretching before you: Just some of the regular activities to undertake as you absorb the bright, youthful, rhythmic pleasures of Grow Home. Yes, there’s gonna be hyperbole and yes, the luminous glow of my strong recommendation already burns bright.

It’s a simple premise. You've fallen to earth from a spaceship parked in the low atmosphere of an alien planet and basically it’s up to you to climb back - up through the pastel tapestry of floating rocks, islands, waterfalls and asteroids that populate this very vertical world. Conveniently you team up with a kind of giant beanstalk that you ‘grow’ in order to climb the gaps to get yourself ‘home’.  But thanks to the dynamic agency you are granted over this overzealous sprout it ends up feeling less like an artificial construct of progression and more like artistic collaboration with nature as you paint the sky green in spaghetti like abstraction.

So, you are also a robot. A cute one. Kinda clumsy – turns out the little red guy and his flailing limbs were actually a result of the free-form physics-based skeletal movement system this experimental game was based on. Remarkably for an Ubisoft game it was an innovation they ran with early in development and ended up embracing whole-heartedly – as reflected in the character, aesthetics and level design of the final product. 

There’s a childlike joy to flinging that little bot around, a distinct physicality lending momentum that just feels more natural. It’s such a pallet cleanser to the rigid acrobatics of Assassins Creed where a leap in any direction usually prompts the AI controlled avatar to stagger then rigidly animate on any one of a million pre-programmed yet unexplainable edge conditions. In Grow Home the grabbing is manual, the climbing real, your arms under your direct control, every surface, every object - tangible to your magnetic grip. It’s a freedom of movement unique in gaming and worth the price of the game alone.

The floating islands you will traverse are spread vertically on a grand scale but made relatable through the various nooks, penetrations and cute vignettes – detailing the world and giving it charm. It’s a profoundly alluring arrangement always teasing the bountiful plateaus first from their dark underbellies, lending the vertical climb an always rewarding sense of reveal. But if that wasn’t enough the developers went one step further teasing you to explore every corner by the liberal placement of collectible gemstones that gradually unlock movement capabilities - focused in the latter part of the game on jetpack upgrades (As you can imagine quite useful in a game featuring such gigantic pitfalls).

For a collectible system the stones are fairly well distributed and the rewards well connected to core gameplay, however at a certain point I couldn’t help but sense a certain manipulation as my free spirited quest to rise up through the world started to feel at odds with an unnatural obsession I had developed to hoover up every last collectible - lest I miss out on the full-flavoured joys of jetpack bound navigation. Like in so many games the sense of virgin exploration is somewhat diminished when you find yourself being deliberately led to every last corner rather than discovering those places for yourself.

Regardless of its more artificial attempts to stimulate exploration, Grow Home, through beautiful world and simple mechanics, comes together as an unabashed delight. It’s a short but oh-so-sweet experience and anyone remotely interested in reconnecting with a childlike sense of fun and exploration should buy and download immediately. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m off to scale a waterfall, dance across a field of asteroids and then skydive back down through a green sprawl of my own creation. If gaming has ever had a relationship with the world of your imagination this is sure to make for one of the good times you'll not easily forget.

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