Monday, Dec 11, 2023

Review: Grounded

Obsidian Entertainment's shrunken backyard survival game allows you to squish or be squished

Two years of Early Access has passed and it's time for Grounded to be relaunched. It's now richer with more bugs to harvest and battle, larger backyard sights to find, and a fully realized plot with an ending.

Although I was only able to play with the initial build back in the days when there weren't many threads to follow up, I am amazed at how far Grounded has come. Thanks to constant updates and a huge push for the 1.0 launch on Xbox and PC, I'm now a regular user. The familiar, yet creatively-up-close shrunken world was Grounded's greatest asset in the beginning. It is still to this day. The survival loop now feels seamless, with all the thoughtful touches one would expect from a passion project.

Some players have remained in the game since its initial work-in-progress launch, while others have stayed put and built impressive (and often tedious) home bases. For me, I began fresh with a brand new save file and started exploring. It was a 30-hour adventure that I didn't know I would be on.

Grounded has an elaborate Arachnophobia mode that includes multiple comfort thresholds.

Grounded (PC [reviewed], Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S), Developer: Obsidian Entertainment Publisher : Xbox Game Studios Publication: September 27, 2022 MSRP $39.99

Even though I know the world from my Early Access playthrough, it is still an interesting world. It ranks right up there with Subnautica.

It's amazing to see such an iconic genre through the lens of chopping down tall grass blades and carrying planks like lumberjacks, running through ant tunnel labyrinths holding a torch, searching for scales in a Koi pond with water fleas nibbling at your feet, and scouring for them. The more I play Grounded the more I find myself in a strange place looking down at my backyard. I wonder what tiny creatures might be out there and what their plans are.

It's an engaging game. You can come back to it session after session, whether you're here "mostly for the story" or if you just want to get comfortable as a miniature architect. Grounded's slow pace can make me feel a lot more comfortable in the former camp. I am glad that I persevered and will thoroughly examine every area of the site, including the toxic trash pile, children's sandbox, and smoldering barbecue and crawlspace under the shed.

The game's core is about getting to know the land and its inhabitants. You can reduce the amount of back-and forth tedium by having a solid knowledge base and smartly placed hand-made shortcuts. You can also use Wiki refreshers. However, Grounded is not something you should rush through without making the necessary preparations.

Obsidian doesn't waste space and makes the most out of its backyard theme from the '90s.

Grounded was a hard-hitting, dangerous character that shocked me early on. This was even though I tried to keep my head down and maintain a low profile. Grounded is a tough opponent in the beginning.

You shouldn't pick fights with makeshift armor. There are no permanent stat gains or perk-like Mutations yet. It's important to have the ability to quickly book the spider and then to bandage it as necessary. You have to be ready to book it, then bandage up as needed. Spiders can be ferocious -- I've never seen them in a game before. But the same applies for mites and bombardier beetles, mosquitoes, and many other threats. Sometimes, several foes will even join forces to attack you.

One-on-one combat has a unique rhythm. There are "perfect blocks", which open up your opponent's eyes. Combat can be fun if you have enough margin for error. Every enemy has a unique personality and "tells" you can master. I enjoyed this aspect of combat, but it became less enjoyable the more I played. You can expect mashy chaos occasionally. You can also engage in ranged combat using bows, a wide variety of arrow types and bombs. It's fun to make gear from your prey in a Monster Hunter-like way. Pieces have different weight ratings and perks. You will need certain sets to navigate underwater caves and fumes.

Grounded becomes easier with more adventures under your belt, a safe place to call home and craft at and better gear sourced directly from the bugs. All life-steal weapon are to be blessed. With the exception of a few boss battles (some of which are optional) and a late defend-three-points-and-pray mission that got really dicey, most of my struggles were frontloaded. Online co-op is a great way to play, but it was not the best. I made it through it alone. You can, too, if you have patience.

Just by doing things every day, you can unlock beneficial Mutations. Keep an eye out to see a D20 and a 4-leaf clover.

Grounded has many autosaves that can be used to save you from death. It's something I recommend doing often. You can set up a respawn spot at easily built shelters. If you are taken out, it is as simple as retrieving your backpack to retrieve your items. This is an exploratory-heavy game that requires a lot running. Avoid repetition.

Although hunger and thirst meters can be a constant threat, most people have access to fresh water. You just need to smack a leaf of grass to release a droplet. Food doesn't necessarily have to be cooked but a roast aphid is better than a few plucked mushrooms. If you ignore these basic needs, an alarm will sound. This timer was not a problem once for me, when I was stuck deep in an unknown area because of story reasons. However, most things are within reach.

The big picture is that you need to find a central location for your home or homes. This will allow you to come back often to unload your backpack, build-dependent creations, as well as keep a supply of materials. Although armor and weapons can be repaired using the right ingredients, it is possible to upgrade them strategically (using rare and not finite stones), when they are almost useless.

It's worth noting that Grounded has three primary difficulties -- I'd honestly recommend the lowest, Mild -- as well as a Creative build-cool-shit-stress-free mode, Creative with Bugs, and Custom modes with lots of granular you-do-you options. Sometimes I considered moving my save to a custom-game due to the obnoxiously aggressive insects and low stamina, but I decided to resist. It's a one way conversion.

You can change your build quickly if you are struggling. Smashing giant teeth (Milk Molars) will give you points that can be used to increase your max health, stamina and hunger/thirst rate as well as your maximum item stack size. There is never enough inventory space.

Keep a spare torch handy in case of darkness.

I have had enough of the story. I'll keep it simple.

It gives meaning to your exploration and is sufficient motivation to go there (there are "good" and "bad" animated endings), but it's better to view the writing as a fun, funny, clever bonus and not as your primary reason to play. Grounded will have a lot of audio recordings, but very few interactions with NPCs. There may also be flashback cutscenes scattered throughout the game.

It's important to mention that you should be careful if survival-wary people are only interested Obsidian's name. I found enough narrative material here to satisfy my survival-loving nature, but your feelings might be different. The central abduction mystery was my favorite, as well as the opposing perspectives.

You'll find clues to several labs that have chips you need to recover. If you're brave enough, you can also go "outside of order" -- I love this kind of freedom.

You'll find yourself in the upper yard above the retaining walls, much later. While you can do what you like, it is best to make use of the labs and find all the resources. The limiting factor became less about "where should I go next?" but more about "where can I find the highly-specialized parts to make a high-tier tool to smack some stuff and advance the story?" This was the reason I mentioned a slowing pace. Although the next section looked attainable, getting ready was a small obstacle that grew into a major roadblock that lasted hours. There were so many things to do.

Although this is survival gating, it was a classic example of the genre. However, in these moments I long for an organic approach like Subnautica. My playthrough would have been more efficient if I could traverse faster or had a one-way ability to "warp home". I would make more "waystations" and choose better locations for my staircases, which lead up to high biomes if I had to do it again. Solo players may find it tedious to haul grass planks, especially if they don't have the best armor.

A utilitarian base is a good option for those who aren't skilled at building.

I have to say that I love how Grounded handles blueprints. It's an amazing tool. There are many ways to analyze materials and unlock related recipes. There are many other things to do, such as collecting collectibles and spending points. It's a gradual blueprint rollout that doesn't feel overwhelming with all these options.

While I am not a builder, it is worth mentioning that Grounded could be used for construction. It's intuitive and makes for a wonderful setting. I found this world charming and fresh, and although I wish that combat and traversal were a little more detailed given the game's length and scope, it was still a great experience. There is a certain finesse to the game.

Grounded's 1.0 release has so many things to explore and enough hooks to make it worth the hours spent. You should bring your friends, regardless of whether you are an exploration-minded player looking for hidden treasures and landmarks or a castle-building enthusiast with vision. Even though I was playing solo, Grounded was difficult for me to leave, even during its slowest moments. I was not satisfied with my game score so I continued to search for hidden secrets, increasing my grade and my overall score. There are still many bugs to catalogue and squash, even now. It's not your fault!

Obsidian may not be known for its survival games but it did end up creating a great one.

[This review is based upon a retail version of the game that was provided by the publisher.]

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