Over the last decade, Ubisoft has developed a reputation as one of the most prominent “AAA” game publishers, owning 29 studios and employing about 10,000 people around the world. Last year, the megapublisher quietly launched Grow Home, a throwback to early polygonal games initially developed for internal release by an eight person team, to critical and fan acclaim. At this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, Ubisoft delighted fans with another surprise: the charming indie-like game from one of the world’s biggest game publishers would be getting a sequel, entitled Grow Up. The sequel promised to be bigger and more substantial, expanding on the foundations of the original Grow Home. An unspoken question lingered: Could the small team at Ubisoft Reflections make a larger-scale sequel while still maintaining the charm of the first game? The answer, unfortunately, is no. While Grow Up further develops the ideas and mechanics established in its predecessor, some charm and cohesiveness get lost in translation, resulting in a solid but somewhat lacking sequel.
The story of Grow Up is simple: You play as B.U.D., a Botanical Utility Droid who has crash-landed onto a planet and has to grow up all the way to the planet’s moon, collecting shattered pieces of its fallen spacecraft (the titular home of the original) in order to rebuild M.O.M., the ship’s main computer and your commanding officer from the first game. In lieu of M.O.M.’s guidance, you receive your orders from a new friend: your shipmate P.O.D. Right from the beginning, P.O.D. highlights a difference in design between Grow Up and its precursor, one that persists throughout the 4-6 hour campaign: while Grow Home felt like an indie game or even a student project, its sequel feels very much like a contemporary Ubisoft game masked in a retro low-poly aesthetic. P.O.D. gives the player guidance throughout the journey, which is sometimes necessary (one of P.O.D.’s first tips is to explain the rudimentary but still charmingly clunky climbing mechanics) but sometimes feels a bit unwelcome, guiding you away from exploration and back towards your primary goals of scanning plants and gathering ship parts.
Unfortunately, P.O.D.’s propensity to unload unwanted advice on the player reflects an underlying issue with the expansion of the game world which B.U.D. inhabits and explores. In Grow Home, the planet was relatively small, with the titular quest being a linear vertical journey from the planet’s base straight up to B.U.D.’s mothership. In Grow Up, the quest is familiar - get from the planet up to the moon, and reunite with M.O.M. - but the journey itself is much more open-ended, to varying results. Compared to the relative intuitiveness of B.U.D.’s first outing, there’s more of a learning curve this time around. Not only must the player get acclimated to the slippery eccentricities of running and jumping in addition to the core trigger-based climbing mechanics, there’s an increased emphasis on using the flora of the game world (endearingly yet somewhat blandly named “Floraforms”) for traversal - you can scan Floraforms and plant them at will once scanned, though this never truly feels necessary past the first hour or so of the game. The introduction to scanning and utilizing Floraforms is nestled in a more open, extended opening area, through which you are introduced the option to use waypoint markers and therefore directed away from exploration of this open world and towards your goal: the game’s first Starplant.
Starplants are beanstalk-like formations which provide the primary method of vertical expansion - the titular growth upward. In Grow Home, the Starplant held a literally central role as the centerpiece of the game world, the sole method by which B.U.D. can return to M.O.M. Grow Up sees a simultaneous expansion and reduction of the Starplants, as there are now three scattered in the larger game world, all of which boast a unique aesthetic but lack the simple visual charm of the first game’s pure green tower. Despite the multitude of Starplants scattered around the world, their vertical scope is more limited than the singular stalk found in the previous game, which would grow through multiple checkpoints, ultimately stretching all the way to the end goal. The three Starplants in this game only stretch to a single checkpoint each, limiting player engagement with the climbing mechanics which were such an essential key to the appeal of the original Grow Home in addition to diminishing the sense of progression earned from growing the Starplant.
The decreased emphasis on climbing is compounded by the game’s new methods of traversal. As is appropriate for an expanded game world, some mechanics introduced in Grow Home as temporary environmental power-ups of sorts have become permanent additions to B.U.D.’s arsenal. Once you collect the appropriate amount of crystals (a welcome carry-over from “collect-a-thons” of yesteryear, there are 150 to find scattered around the game world, albeit less concentrated and more difficult to locate than in Grow Home), you unlock the “air brake” (essentially a parachute) and glider abilities, which, when coupled with the jetpack carried over from the previous game, make it easier than ever to fly around the various floating rocks found in the sky. Unfortunately, the convenience of flight not only further reduces the role of climbing; it makes another movement option - a ball form which can be charged Sonic-style to roll around quickly on the ground - less favorable to use by comparison. While it’s adorable to see B.U.D. curled up in a ball, the amount of time spent progressing vertically - and therefore the lack of time spent on solid ground - makes the ability feel a bit superfluous.
B.U.D.’s new flight-assisting abilities not only make horizontal exploration and vertical progression easier, they also enable a new feature: challenges. There are 40 challenges offered by P.O.D. scattered around the world, which can be beaten to unlock new costumes. These costumes aren’t purely aesthetic; they each boast enhancements, such as increased plant growth or greater jump height. The challenges are fun, and are where P.O.D. really shines as a character outside of the droid’s well-intentioned nagging, but they also further take away from what makes the game feel like a perfect throwback to N64/Playstation-era games. On one hand, flying through rings (which is the basic gist of the challenges in Grow Up) was a staple of games from that era, but on the other, that type of challenge persists in 3D games to this day, with the addition of free-roaming game worlds and waypoints - both of which are added features of Grow Up. While fun, the dramatic shift in gameplay, coupled with a change in music to a louder, more energetic track, makes the P.O.D. challenges feel removed from the rest of the game.
Game critics can make a lot out of the concept of “game feel,” but it’s appropriate to discuss regarding Grow Up, especially in comparison to its more contained predecessor. Grow Home felt like a relaxing garden, an experience you could sink into and slip away. Grow Up certainly affords the player those moments of floating through the colorful sky and admiring the beautiful polygonal atmosphere while the soft soundtrack plays in the background, but it overall feels like much more of a game. For some, this will undoubtedly be a welcome change. Rather than clunky player character movement, tedious climbing, and quirky plants and animals to awkwardly scan, Grow Up focuses more on exploration and ease of motion. However, the expanded world and new traversal options beget some burdensome staples of modern game design that Grow Home felt like a welcome escape from. B.U.D.’s all grown up, but nothing can replicate that nostalgic feeling of home.