Alternating between the left and right bumpers, I methodically swing– one arm at a time– along the underside of one of the many branching pieces of the hulking Star Plant. Upon reaching the bud, I grab hold and grip tight for dear life as the new section of plant grows rapidly, only halfway paying mind to the direction that I point it in. Nonetheless, I am able to guide it toward a small floating island that holds within its soil some sort of special, irradiated nutrients that cause the main stalk of the Star Plant to grow at an alarming rate. After exploring the small island, I turn around, running along the stalk I just grew. Hitting a bump causes me to fly through the air, building up my momentum greatly. Try as I might to stop, I just can’t. I flail with my arms to grasp onto the stalk, the only thing around, but it is to no avail and I plummet from my position a thousand plus meters in the sky to the ground.
That’s the core gameplay loop of Grow Home in a nutshell. Climb the beanstalk to reach buds. Use the buds to Grow new limbs to reach the islands with star plant food. This grows the star plant’s main stalk higher which then allows you to reach new places that can grow the star plant. This is mixed up with checkpoints that you must locate and activate, so that whenever you fall down you can get back up the tree relatively fastly. Rinse & repeat. There’s not a lot more to the game than that, except for some collecting.
A huge part of this game is traversal. The aforementioned climbing is your main mode of transportation. While slowly climbing the underbelly of a giant floating island was fun, the same can not be said concerning climbing the same generic Star Plant segments over and over. Thankfully there are giant leaves that act as jump pads placed along the stalk. The buds are also an effective form of travel, since they grow at a relatively fast pace. There are also a couple of environmental objects you can carry around to assist movement. The first is the fall flower which acts as a parachute, but be careful, because once it runs out of petals you are screwed!
The second item– the glide leaf– is used as a hand glider. While it won’t ever break, bumping it into an object will cause it to fly out of your hands, resulting in you careening to the earth.
Lastly, you unlock a jetpack after gathering 10 crystals, which is upgraded as you gather more crystals. The jetpack becomes an essential part of navigating the world map later on, but starting out the jetpack has so little fuel that it often doesn’t last long enough to carry you between even medium sized leaps.
The act of gathering crystals was one of the more enjoyable collectathons that I’ve partaken in over the years. Crystals glow a bright blue, so they usually stick out from the landscape during the day and are easily spotted from hundreds of meters away at night. And whenever you are anywhere near one you can hear it “sparkling”. Don’t worry, the hunt is kept interesting since many crystals are placed on the underside of giant floating islands, inside caves, or on tumbling asteroids.
The game also lets you scan various plant and animal life by comically dragging it back to checkpoints. The game provides you with a list of all the life forms on the planet that you can scan & hints at what sorts of places you might find them; as many of them are rare and can only be found in one or two places. Despite the game’s small size, I felt it was more alive than many games 10 times the size.
While I found collecting fun, the collection systems offer such slow or non-existent progress that it often felt pointless. You only unlock one thing for scanning life forms– a cool costume that allows you to grow plant buds out to twice the normal length– and that is once you have basically explored the whole game top to bottom. And you only need to collect 60% of the crystals to get all of the substantial upgrades. Collecting is made worse by the fact that the True Ending is withheld behind another collectathon, which requires you to go back over the map with a fine tooth comb for a third time!
The biggest problem with this game is the unpredictable controls. All the movement is physics based and this is where most of the problems come into play. B.U.D. seemingly has no ability to break its momentum, as there were many times where strongly pulling against my momentum for several seconds failed to even cause B.U.D. to slow down. Merely tapping the X button causes B.U.D. to jump at max strength, but “max strength” drastically varies, especially when jumping while climbing. I had times where I would hold onto a wall and jump, only to be sent 30 feet up into the air, while other times B.U.D. would launch himself up a mere foot. Too often B.U.D. fails to recognize a piece of level geometry when you grasp for it. The jetpack wouldn’t activate at times, usually while on the beanstalk. Many of these things would cause you to fall off of your current platform and lose progress; which would have been fine if it were your fault, but when the game’s controls sabotage the experience it can become frustrating.
The game shines so bright, in my eyes, because it offers such a unique experience through its equally unique mechanics. The act of growing a beanstalk over a mile high is awe inspiring, especially whenever you stop to see the massive plant that you’ve grown. And the sense of scope instilled a fear of heights in me the likes of which I haven’t had since Shadow of the Colossus. And while the controls can be frustrating– on several occasions repeated control lapses caused me to fall the length of the Star Plant– it never felt like the game tasked you with doing anything precision based that exposed this to the point of blocking or slowing progress significantly, which is why I don’t feel it is a deal breaker. In fact, when the game worked reliably I was able to get a good feel for the physics, which made jumping and hopping around the Star Plant and the various islands a great joy. And even though I complained about how little benefit the collectibles gave you, I still enjoyed collecting them enough that I gathered all crystals & seeds, whilst scanning all life forms, which is not something I would normally do.