Sometimes a videogame comes along with a premise so perfectly obvious, you can’t help but wonder why no developer has done it before. Case in point: Obsidian’s Grounded. Now in full release after two years of early access, Grounded is a survival/crafting adventure game with a hook delicious enough to set it apart. Beyond its concept, though, will Grounded snare you in its web?
Pixar, Meet Grounded
Survival and crafting games — whether set in Conan’s Hyboria or a post-nuclear wasteland — all have something in common. They share a grindy gameplay loop of explore, forage, craft, fight, and advance through a tech tree. Sometimes it’s the player versus the world, sometimes it’s against other human enemies. While the game’s narrative might have an endpoint, the pleasure comes from the potentially endless loop and dopamine drip of constant progress.
By and large, Grounded doesn’t stray too far from the template. The narrative helps move you forward, pushes you into new zones, and tantalizes you with new stuff to build. You play as one of four, pre-rolled teen characters (Max, Willow, Pete, or Hoops). Your character awakens into what they think is a dream world, shrunk to tiny size and plopped into the wilds of the backyard. Aside from survival, your goal is, naturally, to both find out why you have been miniaturized, and how to un-shrink. While you can customize your avatar with new armor during the game, there is no character creator. It’s a bit disappointing, but since most of your time will be in first person mode, it’s probably not critical.
Generally, your progress through the narrative arises through a steady, linear stream of missions, environmental, and mechanical puzzles. Completing one quest opens up the next. At any time, though, there are lots of side quests and tasks to complete. Of course you’re always free to ignore the story and quests and simply explore, gather resources, and craft. However, completing story missions is necessary to keep opening new items on the tech tree and to level up your character.
It’s a Small World After All
While the narrative and environmental storytelling keep the player moving forward, the undisputed star of Grounded is the world and gameplay loops that it generates. Transposing very familiar survival mechanics to a backyard where blades of grass tower like evergreens and wolf spiders are apex predators is genius. Sure, we’ve seen this before in films like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids or A Bug’s Life, and the developers cop to those influences. Grounded’s world is so meticulously imagined, though, that the usual parade of survival tasks feels something close to brand new.
The map is expansive, thanks to two years of frequent updates and the final release, which adds a significant number of new zones, enemies, weapons, armor, and bosses. The backyard world turns drops of dew into life-saving water, ant tunnels into dungeons, and tiny mites into nourishing meals. Grounded’s imaginative environments are consistently surprising. Despite a few small liberties taken with insect behavior, it’s obvious the developers paid close attention to their entomology. Ants are curious until attacked. Spiders appear out of nowhere and end the fun pretty quickly unless you have a good weapon, armor or traps. For the arachnophobic, there’s a setting that makes spiders less fearsome. I will say, Grounded is the first game where giant spider enemies actually make sense!
The mechanics of grinding for materials and crafting aren’t as unique as the world. If you’ve ever played a game in the genre, you’ll catch on to Grounded’s version of scavenging, hunting and building. Everything works well and the controller implementation is generally painless, if not perfect. As with your favorite zombie game, night is particularly dangerous. Grounded doesn’t let you sleep through it, however. You can rest, but only for a limited time, so you will be fighting nighttime’s world of creepy crawlies.
Death Hides the Grass
Grounded looks like a Pixar animated film, though maybe less detailed. The art is stylized but highly evocative and effective. It does a fantastic job of establishing scale and bringing the microscopic world to life. The various insects are authentic and range from adorable to terrifying. Grounded has limited — but well done — voice acting, and its musical score is subtle, mostly emphasizing moments of action. One area in which Grounded shines is environmental audio. The insects’ chirps, chatters and scuttling sounds are both important to your survival and to populating an unfamiliar world with sound.
I mentioned earlier that controller implementation is well done. That’s certainly true when it comes to negotiating through the game’s menus, submenus, crafting systems, and basic operations. Where Grounded loses a little, uh, ground is in its melee and ranged combat. There’s not much weight or precision when dispatching bugs in first person, and things are even less satisfying in third person.
Grounded looks and plays like a family-friendly game, but unlike Disney’s recent Dreamlight Valley, the adorable tweens of Grounded can die. They can starve, die from lack of water, be poisoned or perish in the pinchers of a deadly insect. Nights are very dark and genuinely terrifying with or without a torch. Aside from a lot of gloppy insect guts, there’s no gore, but there’s definitely moments of tension.
The Required Pun: Is the Game Buggy?
Grounded has a range of accessibility options to adjust the challenge, modify the world and on PC, optimize the visuals and performance. The biggest issues I ran into were a lot of floating objects, texture pop in, and things like thrown or dropped items getting stuck in scenery. Grounded can be a fairly hardcore survival sim, especially played solo. Played with up to three other people in co-op mode, some of the more repetitive tasks can be expedited, and combat is more fun and less risky.
Although it doesn’t reinvent survival game mechanics, Grounded’s setting goes a long way towards making the familiar seem new. The world is great fun to explore. It’s easy to lose yourself for hours in the game’s satisfying loops and creative environments. The narrative does a good job of giving you direction but not a rigid path, so you’re always free to take your time and enjoy. Slightly tepid combat and a few minor technical issues aside, Grounded is one of the most engaging survival crafting games I’ve played in quite a while.