Grow Home is a beautiful game. You’re a little robot named Bud on a small island guiding the growth of a giant plant into an endless sky. Islands float in the air, some small and used as plant food to spur further growth of the main trunk and others serving as large areas to explore. Sheep run around the land at ground level, strange plants grow on the larger islands, and the sky cycles from day to night with every shade of lighting lovelier than the last. If Bud didn’t control like a brain-damaged walrus, then Grow Home would be a perfect bite-sized snack of platforming adventure.
Bud is a robot who has fallen from his space ship, left hovering two thousand meters above the surface of the island he’s landed on. Fortunately, Bud was after the seeds of the star plant growing on this island, so all he has to do to get back to his ship is nurture the plant so that it grows tall enough for him to walk through the door. Along the way, Bud can also pick up crystals to earn and strengthen a rocket pack, as well as harvest daisies to use as a parachute or a fallen leaf that works as a glider. All of this help to take the edge off traversing the towering heights the plant grows to.
Initially, though, the plant is only a few dozen feet tall, barely worth getting excited about. Bud can grow shoots off the plant which extend a decent length before coming to a rest. Each new growth has new shoots you can nurture, and when they make contact with the green glowing islands hovering in the air they suck up the essence and transfer it to the central plant body. Each stage of the journey back to the ship requires the harvest of a certain number of energy islands, causing the plant to grow and burst through a major new area.
Getting around the plant and sky-islands it connects to should be simple enough, but Bud doesn’t seem designed for mobility. His movements are generated in response to the surfaces he climbs or stands on, which sounds great on paper but leads to constantly arguing with Bud over what he should be doing. Running over land will see him get caught up on rocks and other dips in the ground, and the bumpy surface of the plant constantly slows down his movement. After a while, you’ll give up and jump everywhere, which is both faster and more reliable, but even that isn’t free from failure. At one point during a fall from several thousand feet, I gave up and let Bud plummet to his death in the sea below because he was descending head-down, and no amount of jet pack usage or spinning the joystick would turn him at an angle that would allow any control of direction. The next time this happened I used the rocket pack with the joystick to angle him perfectly to a handy vine, despite there being no difference in the starting position.
The climbing mechanic works a bit better, although it’s also far from flawless. On a controller, the bumpers and triggers cause Bud to grab with his left or right hand. This is perfect for dragging around a sheep or boulder, and especially useful for hanging onto the plant for dear life when the clumsy robot can’t anchor his feet. Bud can climb any surface at any angle, so scaling the underside of a floating island to grab a crystal off the bottom is both possible and nerve-wracking as he dangles from one hand over thousands of feet. Climbing is free-form, not based on canned animations, so as you grip with one hand, the joystick controls where the next one will go. It’s usually an effective system, although like all Bud’s movements it can lead to arguments when you think something is right there to grasp and the robot decides it’s at a weird angle. The climbing does get over-used in the early part of the game, with endless rounds of left bumper/right bumper/left bumper/right bumper while Bud works his slow way up a cliff or vine, but once the rocket pack is obtained, climbing becomes a handy ability rather than endless slog.
The sad thing about the controls is that everything else in Grow Home is so well done. Exploring the world, gliding around on a leaf, climbing to the bottom of an island, and growing shoots to new areas are a lovable traits. The bigger islands had some fun secret caves to explore, and there are plants you won’t figure out the uses for right away. Grow Home takes place in a beautiful world, Bud is an appealing character, and the sense of verticality while playing in the sky is fantastic. But then Bud gets caught on a bump and his head curls into his body, or the camera decides it wants to wander away. Most of the time you’d accept responsibility, but Grow Home‘s controls foster a sense of disconnect. There’s a lot to love about Grow Home, and if controlling Bud was one of them then this would have been a truly fantastic adventure instead of the flawed platformer.