Grow Up

B.U.D. the rag doll robot has returned for a new adventure in Grow Up, the sequel to last year’s peculiar gaming experiment, Grow HomeGrow Home was moderately successful at what it set out to do, even though its movement mechanics became tedious and there wasn’t much to do before the game was over.  For Grow Up, the wonky rag doll movement remain, which is disappointing.  The world and the gameplay mechanics, however, have been expanded and provides a deeper, more lasting experience.  In this regard, Grow Up is a successful sequel, even though some significant problems remain.

For those of you not familiar with B.U.D.’s first adventure, the defining feature of Grow Up and Grow Home is the protagonist.  B.U.D. isn’t animated like a traditional character.  Instead, his movements are procedurally generated using rag doll physics.   When you climb, you don’t just press or hold down a button while you push a stick.  Instead, you control your right and left hands with the R1 and the L1 buttons, and you climb in a direction with alternating hand movements.  Theoretically, this unique way of controlling and animating a character should open up a world of possibilities in the gameplay department.  Unfortunately, as players of Grow Home experienced, there are huge drawbacks to this approach.

There is no way to sugar coat the biggest problem with Grow Up and its predecessor – the controls are positively awful.  They are so bad that they would sink any conventional platformer which, thankfully, Grow Home is not.  The game’s main quest doesn’t require you to do much movement quickly or precisely, but you will still experience enough frustration with the controls to annoy you.  B.U.D. has a lot of inertia, as if he were a bowling ball with noodles for arms and legs.  This causes B.U.D. to pick up speed very slowly when he walks, bumbling and stumbling like he just drank a fifth of whiskey.  B.U.D. also has a big problem coming to a stop, so don’t be surprised at the numerous times that you watch him fall of a ledge because he took a bunch of extra steps after you let go of the analog stick.  B.U.D. also can’t step onto an object that is a foot off of the ground.  Just doing a little hop to jump onto a ledge can be a chore.  The climbing is excruciatingly slow and tiring for your fingers, and even if you do it perfectly, it is very easy to fall off a wall that is at an oblique angle.  Sometimes you get stuck while trying to pull yourself up onto a ledge.   If you collect enough crystals then you gain a hang gliding ability, and the controls for the hang glider are some of the worst that I have ever experienced in my life.  All of these problems are inexcusable, but fortunately the game has enough going for it to still make it enjoyable.

In Grow Home, your goal was to grow a great big beanstalk into the sky to reach your spaceship.  This aspect of the game was fun, but there wasn’t a lot to do other grow the plant and collect crystals.  For Grow Up, the gameplay has been expanded and so has the world.  You begin by crashing onto a remote planet, with your ship’s parts scattered about the globe.  Most of the pieces are at a very high altitude, and to get to them, you have to grow three huge Star Plants using the same mechanics that were used in Grow Home.  If you didn’t play that game, then you might find this game to be fairly daunting and confusing.  For some reason, Grow Up has no tutorial, but it really could have used one to introduce new players to its unique mechanics.  If you did play Grow Home, then you will be able to pick up right where you left off.

This globe is arguably the biggest upgrade from the first game.  Whereas Grow Home was somewhat linear (in an upward fashion), Grow Up is breathtakingly wide and full of open space.  The globe is seamless, and once you start the game you never need to see another loading screen until the end.  It spans a huge area, with multiple biomes like a desert, a volcano, a frozen area, a large lake, and green grassland.  The altitude is impressive too.  You can still climb or fly hundreds of feet above the clouds, look down, and barely see the ground.  You can get up so high that you can clearly see the curvature of the planet, which is now lit with a day/night cycle.  If you can see a rock in the sky, then you can probably get to it, even if it looks like a tiny speck in a distance.  Grow Up may have the largest seamless play area of any game on the market right now.  Despite the low polygon counts in the environments and all of the creatures in the game, Grow Up is still an impressive technological feat.  There is almost no way to finish this game without occasionally taking time out to relax and admire the beauty all around you.

Power crystal collection, once again, plays an important part in the gameplay.  Most of your abilities are upgraded by finding those crystals.  Since the world is much larger this time, Grow Up needs a lot more mobility options than its predecessor provided, and it does have plenty of those.  By collecting crystals, you can gain a jet pack, which gets stronger as you progress through the game.  You also soon find a parachute and then a glider.  Once you upgrade these items a few times, you can travel vast distances across the world, flying and gliding thousands of feet at a time.  The glider is a great idea in theory, but it controls very poorly at times and isn’t a practical solution for most challenges.  You can also turn into a ball and roll along the ground Metroid-style, but I never found a use for this ability.  To make your life easier, you can now catalog plants, and once you have catalogued a plant, you can drop one anywhere with a flat surface.  There are a handful of useful plants that you can use to help you reach a higher elevation, like bouncy mushrooms and flowers that rocket you straight up with a stream of pollen.  Thanks to these gameplay improvements, there is less of the slow climbing than there was in the previous game (although you will still be doing plenty of that).  More options for mobility are a good thing.

One major attempt to expand on Grow Up’s gameplay doesn’t fare quite as well.  There are a number of timed challenges that are similar to the checkpoint races that you typically find in sandbox style games.  These challenges almost always require using an advanced form of the abilities that you gain in the game, like the rocket pack or glider. Race type activities are a rather unimaginative side activity to a game to begin with.  The challenges in this game, which require some timing and precision, are made worse by the game’s poor controls. I was able to complete about a third of them, but once I finished the game’s main quest I had no desire to complete any more of them.

For the most part, Grow Up is not a game that succeeds solely on its gameplay, which is passable.  Like its predecessor though, the game is bright, colorful, and oozing charm from every pore.  The scenery is varied and the creatures and fauna come in a huge variety of colors and sizes.  For almost any game, the low polygon counts would make for some pretty ugly graphics.  Somehow in this game though, they become a part of the overall style and the scenic beauty.  Perhaps more realistic graphics wouldn’t work with this game’s setting.  The music is serene, albeit a little bit repetitive.  As with its predecessor, the dialog in Grow Up features no actual voices, but rather a bunch of electronic bleeps, bloops, and static noises that sound like a fax machine or an old 56K modem.  It is great example of clever design, giving B.U.D. and his companion (P.O.D.) a bunch of personality without any voice acting.

When it comes to developing this sequel, Reflections Studio clearly did not rest on their laurels.  They made some large improvements, particularly with the design of the world and the expansion of the sandbox aspects of the game.   I would still love to see what this game would be if B.U.D.’s rag doll body and movements were replaced with traditional animation and controls.  It would mitigate a lot of the game’s frustrating problems without losing what makes it a special experience.  This series’s defining trait is, unfortunately, its biggest problem.  Nevertheless, Grow Up is a solid choice if you are looking for a laid back game in which you can do some exploration in a huge, colorful, peaceful world.