I’ve always found point and click adventure games to be practically unparalleled in their ability to tell stories and build worlds, and unparalleled as well in their ability to endlessly frustrate me. Trawling through screen after cluttered screen for that lone pixel impeding your progress can be a chore, but thankfully Growbot’s developer Wabisabi Play seems to have spent far more time fleshing out their game’s world and puzzles than they did deviously hiding click boxes.
Although it doesn’t entirely reinvent its genre’s inventory-based wheel, along with varying its approach to puzzle design, Growbot takes a few decisive strides toward streamlining the point-and-click formula. Yes, gameplay still largely consists of clicking around the screen to either pick up objects or walk between different spots on the floor, but this process is made uniquely intuitive thanks to an inventory with distinct and readable sections: one housing permanent items with multiple uses throughout the game, and the other displaying your “consumables;” items to be used only once before being discarded. This minor tweak to the conventional inventory system provides you with an organic sense of direction, a subtle objective marker letting you know which items you should be paying attention to right now, and which you’ll be using later. Another staple of clicky-puzzlies – moving between rooms – is handled with slightly less grace. I felt the fading transitions from screen to screen aired on the side of tedious, often lasting just long enough for me to notice. However, your player character’s swift walking speed and snappy animations help to alleviate this mild sluggishness.
Growbot’s puzzle design is one of its more interesting facets. At the outset, the space station on which the game takes place seems to operate as you’d expect. Characters and objects block various paths, and you must procure specific items in order to bypass them. Quickly though, you’re given the ability to craft melodies out of musical notes you find throughout the world represented as flowers, and to use these melodies as keys to new areas. I found this concept to be quite engaging once I managed to parse its obscure tutorial, and I was eager to collect more notes and form increasingly complex tunes. As speedily as this idea was introduced, however, so was another puzzle mechanic, and then another, and then several more still until it became clear to me that Growbot never intended for melody-matching to be the core of its gameplay, but for that core to be comprised of variety itself. New and interesting puzzle ideas surfaced at a pace that truly shocked me, and that compelled me to see what was next in a way few games manage. Some have you navigating mazes, others fitting gears into place, and all of them exude a burning creative passion. While admirable, this passion also seems to be the source of many of the game’s pitfalls. As puzzles take shape in so many ways throughout the adventure, it can be difficult to jump between them so rapidly, and this issue is only compounded by the vague text tutorials that accompany them. Ideally, the puzzles would be more visually clear, negating the need for such written instructions, but their elements can be hard to decipher, which often makes decoding what exactly the game is asking of you more difficult than overcoming its intended challenges.
In contrast to the ever-shifting chaos of its puzzle structure, Growbot’s visual and auditory presentation cohere to create a singular atmosphere which permeates every room of the game and captures the imagination in countless ways over the course of its roughly six hour play-time. Alien foliage sprouts from the floors and walls and ceilings, tiny creatures hum and buzz, and painterly brush strokes imbue this whimsical world with a sense of tactility that begs to be thoroughly explored. The sound design, too, breathes life into an already flourishing space, employing a deft combination of musical motifs, vocal work, and resonant chimes to animate a soundscape wholly unique to Growbot, one which conveys more about the fiction than all of the game’s myriad journal entries combined. I did feel that some areas of the game lacked the polish applied to its world and audio design, namely its menus having little to no feedback when opened or navigated. This small issue, however, only serves to exemplify the artistic mastery with which Growbot was otherwise produced.
While Growbot’s world is a pleasure to poke around in, this is often in spite of its story rather than because of it. The tale is a fairly simple one, following a Growbot named Nara on her quest to cure her space station from the sudden blight of mysterious blue crystals, which block doorways and encase the station’s denizens against their will. The narrative is largely well-written enough, providing context for the world and its inhabitants, but I feel this context did more harm than good. The mystical greenery and ethereal sounds each successive room treated me to frequently lost some of their majesty to needless and constant exposition. I felt driven by Growbot’s seamless marriage of steam-punk architecture and storybook wildlife to simply exist in this far-off land, pondering its mysteries for myself, and yet so often I was soured by the game’s desire to explain away all of this whimsy, leaving behind a collection of objects and characters I no longer felt the need to think about. It frustrates me that Wabisabi Play seems so intent on showering players with dense descriptions of the vibrant, deeply atmospheric setting they’ve crafted when it is so capable of speaking for itself.
Growbot has undoubtedly taken pointing and clicking to its logical extreme. Despite its modest length, this is a game that combines aspects of puzzle types from across mediums and genres to create a sense of dynamism rarely matched by others of its ilk. Its wondrous art and sound are frequently weighed down by densely-written exposition, and its puzzles tend to feel like they could’ve used a bit more time in the oven, but Nara’s musical adventure is one worth embarking on, if not just to discover that you’re tone deaf.