When Grounded was first revealed in 2019, it had that modest look of a side project – something being worked on between major titles, perhaps by a smaller team. Three years, ten million players, and one animated series deal later, Grounded stands tall as a fully-fledged release. Far more polished than its peers, this is a game bursting with creativeness and ingenuity, and it’s easy to tell the lengthy early access period was spent listening to player feedback.
The concept is simple yet pleasing, being the initial draw. Taking cues from A Bug’s Life and Honey I Shrunk the Kids, it sees a group of shrunken down ‘90s teens traverse a scientist’s backyard. Following worn paths, they soon discover tiny research centres and labs before stumbling across a malfunctioning robot. To access the robot’s memory banks and discover how to return to regular size, our neon-clothing-clad heroes must gather computer chips from far-flung areas.
They’re located in precarious places, with one wedged in a tree’s branches and another submerged in an oriental-themed pond. Finding and retrieving each is a significant undertaking, requiring preparation, research, and some outside-of-the-box thinking. Playing in a team lightens the load, this being best experienced with a friend or three in tow. On your lonesome, progress can be slow and cumbersome.
As a survival game, Grounded bears familiar trappings. There are thirst and hunger gauges, a day-to-night cycle – with limited visibility and more enemy encounters at night – and all manner of resources to gather. The gauges drain fairly slowly; every morning sees clean drinking water appear via dew drops, while mushrooms and other foodstuffs are common. Poor visibility at night is perhaps the biggest irritant – especially when in the final stages of a quest and there’s no torch at hand.
Then there’s the constant threat of danger. This, mostly, comes in the form of spiders. If you don’t have a strong dislike for these eight-legged freaks prior to playing, you surely will after spending an hour or two in Grounded. Fear not, arachnophobia sufferers – the option is there to tone down detail. Regardless, spiders are a real menace, and even when starting out, appearances from a colossal Wolf Spider are common. They do play a part in the food chain, however – other enemies can become tangled in their webs, resulting in three-way battles. Or two-way struggles – not every insect is hostile, and there’s something pleasing about seeing a ladybird going about its day. Taking down your first large enemy feels quite satisfying as there’s a long build-up to that point.
See, Grounded is centred upon self-improvement. The vast majority of the experience entails chopping grass and weeds, crushing acorns, destroying rocks, and collecting the remains of insects after near-death battles. Gross. These can then be carted off to the nearest research centre and examined – requiring a cooldown after three uses – which in turn unlocks new blueprints. It’s vital to improve armour and weapons to increase chances of survival. It’s no less vital to spend time creating shelters – HQs with workbenches, stash chests, dew collectors, and lots more. It’s even possible to decorate your grass-covered homestead.
Lean-tos (read: beds) act as respawn points, and in the absence of checkpoints, it’s down to you to learn the importance of setting up a bed for the night while on a quest. Upon death, your backpack is dropped – only on-hand items remain. Attempting to retrieve lost backpacks can be a time-consuming process, especially if dropped in an area that required daring feats to reach initially.
Considering Obsidian worked on the Fallout franchise, it isn’t a huge surprise to notice similarities. The presentation is quite similar to Fallout, and it’s also possible to ‘discover’ new locations which are duly added to the map. Strolling around the game world is vastly compelling – the backyard is larger than you may expect, featuring different sights, objects, and terrane. Even though the visuals rely heavily on distance blurring, it’s still possible to make out far-away landmarks. We found ourselves stopping to take in the sights often – this is a surprisingly good-looking game, with alluring lighting – including a gorgeous sunset – realistically murky underwater effects, and incredibly detailed textures. Discarded items, such as juice boxes and cans, feature a lot of intricate detailing.
Accessibility options are well-considered too. It’s clear Obsidian wanted this to appeal to a wide audience, and so they’ve taken the time and effort to implement a colourblind mode, ‘read to me’ text options, subtitles and larger text. Controls aren’t wholly intuitive – it takes time to learn the shortcut menu, mapped to the d-pad – but it is at least possible to completely rebind controls. The camera can be set to third-person and first-person too, automatically switching to third-person when caught in a web.
If you try to play Grounded like an RPG, chances are you’ll become flummoxed before long. It has some RPG elements, this much is true, but this isn’t about dusting off and trying again straight away. It’s about resource management and planning ahead, setting up temporary bases next to main mission objectives and accumulating stockpiles. You may even need to scout ahead and see what dangers lurk in the next mission area, just to see if you’re prepared enough.
Sounds like your jam? Grounded is well worth investing time into, especially if you can find online friends to play with. For Microsoft, this is a valuable addition to the Xbox library and one that they can be truly proud of. From a small acorn of an idea, something mighty has emerged. All that was required was attentive care – something Obsidian was clearly given ample time to provide.
Now out of early access, Obsidian’s Grounded is available on PC, Xbox One and Xbox Series.