Grounded Early Access Review – IGNAugust 8, 2020
When we first saw Grounded less than a year ago, the pitch was to adapt Obsidian’s signature RPG style into the survival genre. Having recently launched into Early Access on Steam and Xbox Game Preview (plus Game Pass), it’s currently much more of what you’d traditionally expect from the latter than it is influenced by the former. But what’s here so far is entertaining enough and, despite a few stumbles, clearly has a lot of room to grow.
While Obsidian had previously said Grounded would incorporate strong story and RPG elements alongside the survival aspect, and while you can see hints of that, there’s not much to speak of yet. With no ongoing story beyond some collectible audio logs – I hit an “End of Story Content” message after less than an hour – it’s the “Honey I Shrunk the Kids”-style setting that’s currently doing most of the heavy lifting.
It doesn’t really diverge from the traditional survival game structure in any particularly meaningful ways – you pick an avatar from one of four teens who’ve been shrunken down to ~1 inch tall and spend your time exploring and gathering plants, rocks, and bug parts to craft items and build your tiny home. You can collect daily activity bounties like visiting specific locations or researching specific items from BURG-L, the only NPC – who handily provides the most Obsidian-esque material throughout – but beyond that your adventures are all in the pursuit of no hard goal beyond the ones you set for yourself.While it surely plays a little fast-and-loose with the relative sizes of certain objects and creatures, Grounded’s mega-sized take on a suburban backyard is fascinating to explore. From puddles turned into lakes to twisting branches under a garden hedge that more resemble the framework for an elven or Ewok village than “that place you quietly stuffed your beer can because you were too lazy to throw it out,” I was always intrigued to discover a new landmark or Easter egg that helped flesh out the world and my role in it. This is due in no small part to the fact that Grounded looks great. The miniaturized world you inhabit is rich and verdant, and it benefits heavily from some especially gorgeous lighting effects (although some of the depth-of-field effects lose their luster when you emerge from beneath the canopies of mushrooms and clover and realize the kid you’re playing as must just be incredibly nearsighted). Sunlight filtering through the branches of a tree in the early morning or bouncing through the chitinous exoskeleton of an ant the size of a German Shepherd were constant reminders to stop and savor the beauty of the environment, and the way moonbeams pierce through the light fog that blankets grass-blade forests (coupled with some truly great sound design) added a ton of eerie atmosphere to nighttime exploration.
“Eerie” might not be the right word, though. “Terrifying” is probably more accurate, because Grounded is, at times, just as much a survival horror game as it is anything else. And it’s not just the 12-foot-tall spiders, either – though they’re far and away the big winner of the “scariest thing in the yard” award, even with the much-discussed Arachnophobia slider turned all the way up (WHO THOUGHT LEAVING THE EYES ON THEM WAS A GOOD IDEA?!). There are also plenty of other mini monstrosities out to get you, from other large bugs like acid-spraying bombardier beetles to the tiny mites that spring towards you from the ground like furious, fuzzy versions of Half-Life’s headcrabs. Exploring at night and running into a pack of pincered larvae or spelunking into an old anthill just to run into the spider who’d made its nest there provided some hair-raising scares and instilled a sense of tension that carried over into every step I took.
There isn’t much variety in terms of weather, though. I’ve been running around for more than two in-game weeks and every day has been warm and sunny and every night mild with light fog around 3 am. It would have been interesting to experience a rainstorm at this size, or see Obsidian work in some of the other tropes of the “tiny-sized person” experience – though maybe “The Attack of the Kaiju-Sized Toddler” update is still to come. The sound of a car stereo blaring as it rounded a nearby corner or a jet engine passing overhead were some nice touches that remind players they’re still in the modern world, but it would have been cool to have some more dynamic threats that weren’t just the indigenous backyard wildlife.Of course, that doesn’t make those insects any less deadly. To not end up just another bug snack, you’ll need to make use of your superior human intellect and do what we do best: destroy the world around you with zero consideration for its delicate ecosystem and use what’s left to build cool stuff. A robust and interconnected crafting system is the hallmark of a solid survival game, and Grounded’s early-access offering definitely has a lot for players who enjoy the endless grind of harvesting materials to convert into other materials that you can then turn into a house, or a trampoline, or armor made from the carcasses of defeated enemies.
Where Grounded stumbles hardest is that this process has trouble remaining continually enjoyable. It’s certainly satisfying to tear off the final piece of an ant you needed to complete your armor set, but the battles required to get all those ingredients stopped being particularly fun after I killed my fifth ant. Combat essentially boils down to circling around an enemy while it attacks, then darting in to chop, stab, or club away some of its HP and repeat. Sure, there’s a parry system that can help boost your chance to stun a creature, but even then your armor still takes damage so it was almost always more efficient to just keep strafing. Of course, you can always just climb up on a rock and fire an endless barrage of arrows at an enemy, too (though be prepared to bring a lot of arrows – I once trapped a wolf spider and unloaded 50+ arrows into in, only to knock off about 45% of its HP). Hostile AI seems to have little-to-no sense of self-preservation, which, while true to their insect brains, made all but the most stressful of battles a fairly boring affair.
I also lost count of the number of times I made mental notes to use the “Submit Feedback” button when crafting new items or building up my base. It seems crazy that a game so heavily focused on crafting in 2020 wouldn’t have the foresight to feature a ‘Craft Max’ button, the ability to craft at a workbench using items from nearby storage bins, or an auto-craft function that automatically consumes the raw resources required to create something. Similarly, I realize inventory management is a key part of any good survival game, but it felt a little odd not to be able to craft more mobile storage, or at least build items that would let me create stacks of previously un-stackable items (like a sling to bundle spears together, for instance). Between the tools needed for harvesting and the weapons/armor needed for self-defense, it felt like my inventory was always at least half-full before I even left home base. None of these things are particularly awful, but it felt like a lot of minor inconveniences that added up to a decent amount of frustration.
Adding friends to the mix doesn’t lighten the load, either. Since one player has to serve as the host, that means anyone joining their game will be starting from absolute zero every time. Progress doesn’t transfer back to your game world, either [clarification: it didn’t work in our experience, which was cross-platform between Xbox and PC] meaning if you want to have a consistent experience with friends you either have to be the group’s permanent host, or be totally fine doing all your building in someone else’s save file for the entirety of your game (and even then you’ll need to make sure you leave all of your gear in one of their storage bins before logging out). On top of all that, Grounded is – please forgive the pun – pretty buggy. There’s nothing that I would consider particularly game-breaking (though I did experience a couple of hard crashes on my 2015 Xbox One that caused some minor progress loss) but I ran into some pretty noticeable jank throughout my time with it. Bugs – particularly larger ones like spiders or ladybugs – often get stuck in, on, or against geometry, if you’re hunting a bug and it gets too far away after taking damage, its HP will often fully reset, and placing foundational elements of my bases (walls, stairs, etc.) often came down to me having to actively glitch the system to get them where I wanted them.