Room to Grow is the sort of puzzle game that will, almost at the same time, make you feel both incredibly stupid and like some sort of genius. Building of a deceptively simple concept, it doesn’t take long at all to reach the point where each new puzzle seems genuinely impossible—until you finally have a breakthrough moment, when you can bask in the sheer brilliance of your solution and hang your head in shame for struggling so much something that, in hindsight, is obvious.
The basic goal of each level in Room to Grow is to find a way to push some cacti back into their pots. The catch is that you’re a cactus too, and the only way to move is by growing along the lines of a square grid, and using walls to push yourself around. If you’re next to a wall and grow towards it, you’ll push your entire cactus in the opposite direction—but only if there’s space to do so.
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Room to Grow, then, becomes about figuring out the right series of moves to navigate around obstacle-laden maps, creating abstract shapes with your cactus that’ll allow you to go where you actually need to. The other cacti sometimes sit on the gridlines, meaning you can push them directly by growing in their direction, but more often than not, they’re in between the lines, and the only way to move them is to grow past them, creating a wall or “enclosure” (for want of a better description), and then finding a way to move that whole fixture as necessary.
It’s hard to explain in words alone, but the trailer above gives a good overview, and the game itself is good at explaining itself, both in terms of a tutorial and early puzzles that teach different puzzle-solving techniques in practice. Again, it’s a simple concept, but taken in fiendish directions as you try to find the obscure solutions that’ll let you actually move the way you want and need to.
With each new area, new tricks get introduced, too. The icy mountain area has iced-over gridlines that you’ll automatically grow along as soon as you touch one end, sometimes even splitting your cactus into different branches that you can alternate between. Later levels mix things up with half-size grid segments, diagonals, and puzzle space that you can’t grow directly into. Across some 100-odd puzzles, there isn’t a single one that doesn’t feel like it’s building meaningfully on what came before and adding something new—be it a new mechanic to deal with or a different approach to finding a solution.
For better or worse, there’s no hint system; if you get stuck on a puzzle, the only way to solve it is to figure it out yourself. Typically, that will start with just some random movements to get a feel for the new map and what you can and can’t do, before trying to narrow those options down to something that’ll get you somewhere close to success. Puzzles that seem impossible at first become clear with a bit of practice, a bit of trial-and-error, and sometimes a bit of taking a break until the answer suddenly hits you in the shower.
In lieu of a hint system, however, Room to Grow gives you the option to freely skip any puzzle (with the exception of some extra-challenging bonus puzzles). You obviously won’t solve any puzzles this way, but whenever you get stuck, there’s always the option to move onto another one and come back later. In a similar vein, you can freely undo any action, which comes in especially handy when you’re exploring a new puzzle and figuring out what exactly you’re dealing with.
If you want to, you can even use the skip system to catch a peek of the ending. Room to Grow isn’t exactly a story-driven game—in short, the cactus you control is trying to find its way home—but the ending is adorable all the same. Even if you don’t go all the way to the end, if you get truly stuck, it’s worth skipping through to see all the clever new ideas that get introduced, just to appreciate the brilliance of the late-game puzzle design in particular.
As challenging as Room to Grow can get, the cute, colourful art style helps keep the frustration from ever getting too intense. Simple shapes, heavy lines, and bold colours all come together to create a striking look and feel to the whole game, with a whole lot of personality baked into the visual design. The little animations and sound effects that the cactus makes when you push against a wall or box yourself into a corner are too cute for words, and without so much as a single line of dialogue, this cactus becomes something precious that we must protect at all odds.
Its no-frills nature means Room to Grow probably won’t have much appeal for anyone who doesn’t enjoy the sort of eureka-moment puzzle design that it lives by. But those who enjoy going from being completely stumped by something that seems genuinely impossible to wondering how you could have missed something so obvious, there’s something brilliant here.
Room to Grow is developed and published by Mischka Kamener. It’s available now for PC (reviewed).
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.