As someone who played it during its early access period, I was immediately surprised by how much Grounded has evolved for its 1.0 launch. It feels like it’s not only fulfilled the potential of its “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” survival premise, but exceeded nearly all of my expectations of it. Even though it’s still plagued with mostly harmless bugs (the software kind) that can annoy, I enjoyed practically every minute of the over 100 hours I’ve played so far of this stunningly creative and consistently funny adventure, and it easily stands shoulder to shoulder alongside some of my favorite survival games.
Grounded is a survival game first and foremost, but draws a ton of inspiration from Obsidian’s history as a team of RPG wizards as well. You’ll split your time between scavenging the charming backyard setting for materials, crafting awesome items from the corpses of your enemies, building badass structures to protect yourself and your stuff, fighting giant bugs that gave my co-op partners nightmares, exploring extremely difficult dungeons, leveling up your character’s stats and equipment, and more. Numerous character progression mechanics, an enemy weaknesses and resistances system that had me poring over data in the menu, the elaborate boss fights, and NPCs and dialogue options that break up the action all make it feel more like a roleplaying game than most of its survival peers. Admittedly, there aren’t very many NPCs to find and most story development is either told via collectible audio recordings or locked behind hours of survival gameplay and a bit of grinding, but Grounded strikes a great balance between making you feel on your own in a hostile backyard and meeting quirky characters, most of whom inevitably try to maim you.
Grounded’s tale of shrunken children in search of a way to return to their normal size isn’t always front and center; you might spend a dozen hours gathering supplies and improving your base without that goal ever coming up. But when it does take the spotlight, it shines by being utterly ridiculous and laugh-out-loud funny. One of your main allies is a fiercely annoying, spatula-handed robot who’s programmed to cook burgers; the bad guy’s name is Director Shmector; and you spend a lot of time running around collecting a currency called Raw Science – Grounded just never takes itself seriously, to hilarious effect. In fact, one endgame reveal was so over-the-top and wonderfully stupid that it caused both of my teammates to remove their headsets for a few minutes to “walk it off” as I howled with delight. I wouldn’t trade that moment for anything, and Grounded’s remarkably idiotic story is positively chock-full of them.
Even with memorable characters, though, the star of Grounded is hands-down the backyard itself, which is completely beautiful and oozes personality from every blade of grass. One inhospitable and extremely rude area of the yard has an overturned charcoal grill that acts as a volcanic mountain range, while another has a leaking bug bomb that fills the area with a noxious gas and mutated insects. A child’s sandbox becomes a hysterical, hostile desert where staying out in the sun for more than a few seconds causes you to burn up, so you’ve gotta dart between patches of shade for cover. A koi pond becomes a terrifying and deadly game of cat and mouse as you explore the water’s depths and avoid the oppressive gaze of the pond’s gilled master. Every tiny patch of grass acts as its own distinct area, with its own host of increasingly dangerous creatures, things to discover, and obstacles to overcome, and the attention to detail and creativity born from that never stopped making me smile – even small things, like how you have to collect drinkable water from blades of grass that carry a single drop of dew, are excellent little touches.
And although you and your friends have been shrunk down to the size of an ant, Grounded is anything but small. That’s because the handful of main story quests are gated behind your character unlocking perks to get stronger, gathering materials to upgrade and maintain your equipment, and making improvements to your base to make life easier, like by creating ziplines to travel quickly across the massive map. In the over 100 hours I’ve sunk into it so far I never came even close to running out of things to do, and although I now feel like I know the yard like the back of my hand, it’s still overwhelming just how big the place feels. I feel like I’ve still yet to scratch the surface in a lot of ways.
Part of what makes Grounded so immensely addictive is the fact that it gets so many things right with its sandbox, from building and resource management to exploration and combat. What starts out as a pretty straightforward set of building blocks with base building quickly proliferates into downright insanity that goads you into unleashing your creativity with multi-story buildings, ziplines, trampolines, and housing for your pets. This alone can soak up hours of your time as you work to perfect your tiny dwelling with all the modern accommodations a miniature child might want, like a cooking station for making delicious insect-based foods, a comfy leaf bed for a night’s rest, or a garden for growing your own mushrooms and the like. In my group’s case, we built our home into the side of a massive oak tree, and over the course of our playthrough our structure steadily climbed up the twisted roots and branches until it felt like a proper fortress. Placing items and getting the spacing just right isn’t always perfect and sometimes the finicky controls for placing structures can result in wasted time or resources, but it’s flexible enough so that you can build around most environments or else tear off what’s there to make it your own.
When you aren’t building your micro utopia, you’ll venture out into the hazards of the comely backyard in search of adventure and supplies to bring back to your fort. This part of Grounded feels much more like a proper RPG adventure than a standard survival game, with melee and ranged combat mechanics that often require precise timing or that you make clever use of equipment, smoothies (Grounded’s potion equivalent), and the environment. In my case, I sought to become a proper melee tryhard who used perfect parries to swat away incoming attacks, wear down the enemy’s stamina, and stun them into oblivion, while my party members dealt death from afar with an arsenal of elemental arrows.
Like many things in Grounded, combat starts out as a fairly straightforward affair and quickly escalates into a complicated algorithm that might call for an Excel spreadsheet if you were to map everything out. Early on, you’ll mostly just be blocking, attacking, and navigating the sometimes-tricky terrain to achieve victory – all table stakes of a standard survival game. But as you’re introduced to beefier and meaner enemies, as well as the inhospitable environments they call home, you’ll have to do research, make decisions about what to craft, upgrade, and carry with you, and switch up how you bring the fight to the insect antagonists. When you enter the Haze area, for example, you’ll need to wear a gas mask to protect against poison, and prepare for things that can fire at you from afar or, worst yet, run up and explode in your face, dealing massive damage to your equipment, which may call for you to bring some ranged options of your own. In another area that’s swarming with powerful larva creatures that deal “sizzling” (essentially fire) damage to you, you’ll likely have to rely on melee weapons, well-timed blocking, and fire protection since enemies come at you so fast and in such great numbers.
And when facing particularly daunting boss fights or powerful enemy mobs, you’ll want to look up their weaknesses and resistances to know how best to approach the encounter. One enemy might be weak to slashing attacks and salty elemental effects, while another is weak to blunt weapons and spicy elements. All of these things will have an impact on the equipment and strategies your team deploys to achieve victory – and you’ll need all the help you can get because lots of areas and dungeons are downright nasty and unforgiving.
Thankfully, Grounded has a wide variety of enemy types you’ll go to war against. One area of the backyard is dominated by the foul stench of some nearby trash cans, calling for the use of a gas mask. This area becomes infinitely more deadly when you learn that a flying enemy carries around spoiled meat, which breaks your gas mask in seconds if they get too close. The sandbox area, on the other hand, is filled with antlions that can burrow underground only to emerge seconds later from beneath and deal massive damage if you aren’t prepared for it. Even after 100 hours I was still finding new enemies I hadn’t fought yet – in fact, my Pokédex still isn’t complete yet!
Most areas within the backyard present their own challenges that require you to adapt, like an underwater dungeon that forced me to swap out my trusty arsenal for equipment that would help me survive the liquidy depths, or another high atop a blueberry bush that challenged my platforming skills and bravery. Each of these dungeons have puzzles to solve and many even feature a boss battle at the conclusion that serves as an ultimate test of your preparedness and skill – not to mention fitting finales to each chapter of the campaign.
That said, while running amok in Grounded is almost always a blast, it does occasionally subject you to some painful design choices that bring the good times to an abrupt halt. Chief among these issues is the absolutely tiny inventory space you’re forced to work with in a sandbox that’s absolutely stuffed with things it wants you to loot. If you’re like me, you’ll have to stop the laughs and exploration to stare at a grid of precious items and face a Sophie’s Choice ordeal for what to bring with you and what to leave behind, and you’re given almost zero opportunities to expand your storage space throughout the course of your journey. Even worse, if something you’re carrying breaks and you don’t have space to store it, your character will drop the item on the floor with no notification that you’ve left something behind. I can’t tell you how many times I had to retrace my steps in search of a valuable piece of armor that snapped off me in the heat of battle.
Similarly, some enemies will just straight-up knock weapons out of your hands and send them sailing into the distance, with no easy way to locate and retrieve them. In one instance, this resulted in me losing my most powerful piece of equipment, which I was never able to recover. I get that I should be expected to lose my weapon if an infected insect explodes in my face, but could you at least give me a map marker to help me track it down later? Decisions like these are especially puzzling when practically every other detail has been painstakingly and beautifully executed, like how when you die and lose your equipment it’s automatically marked indefinitely until it’s recovered, ensuring you can always find and collect anything you’ve lost.
But even when I was irritated at my lack of inventory space or some lost, beloved weapon, I kept coming back for more due how much fun it is to work your way through each act of the campaign. After you’ve cleared a dungeon, for example, you immediately gain more insight into the ongoing story and unlock a whole host of new equipment to craft, areas to discover, and enemies to fight (and probably get destroyed by), and that loop is endlessly habit-forming. Just when you start feeling powerful and in control of your slice of the backyard, new opportunities and tribulations open themselves up for you to sink your teeth into, and I found myself losing entire days of my life in what seemed like the blink of an eye.
There is one area in which Grounded continues to struggle desperately though, and that’s with its bugs – and not just the type that skitter about and eat your face off. As has been the case since its debut into early access two years ago, Grounded remains extremely technically rough. In my time with it I experienced regular crashes to the Xbox dashboard, had my co-op teammates get kicked from my world randomly, saw insects and items get stuck inside of objects within the world, had my camera get knocked out of alignment so I could see right into my character’s body, and more. If there’s a silver lining here it’s that none of these issues break anything in any lasting way. Autosave makes sure you don’t lose any significant progress, the camera can easily be reset, and reinviting crestfallen teammates is usually quick and relatively painless. Still, it’s disappointing that we didn’t get a more stable final product after two whole years of early access development.
Source: IGN.com Grounded Review