Grounded Early Access Review: Big Ambitions
Since Minecraft, survival games have become a staple of the games industry, but until now, no other game in the genre has been so family-friendly.
With Grounded, Obsidian walks back years of survival games moving ceaselessly toward dreary post-apocalyptic worlds and instead imagines a colorful little-big sandbox where insects are intimidating behemoths.
The developers have a lot to be proud of right out of the gate with the Game Preview/Early Access version of Grounded, and even as it's clearly lacking in some areas — namely story and polish — it's easy to see the small offshoot team at Obsidian has crafted something adventurous and wonderful.
Grounded Early Access Review: Big Ambitions
In Grounded, one to four players are shrunken down to a centimeter for reasons that aren't yet clear. Shocked to awaken as something smaller than an ant, the now-standard survival game ramp introduces players to its world of massive anthills, fearsome spiders, and grass as tall as buildings — or at least, that's how it all appears from your perspective.
The premise is a strong one and Obsidian wastes no time building on it. The game's open world, The Backyard, is full of interesting secrets to discover and, of course, plenty of objects to craft. The game's earliest moments will be spent chopping down blades of grass and plucking pebbles and plant fibers from the earth to make a simple axe, but soon, your toolbelt expands to include other handheld objects like spears and torches.
After that, you'll learn how to make different armor sets, each offering different stat bonuses which can positively affect things like your defensive abilities or how long you can go without eating or drinking.
The most exciting part of Grounded's crafting system is its already expansive base building mechanics. From simple doors and walls to basketball courts and reading rooms, you're free to build to your heart's content, so long as you're willing to defend what you've made.
Given that you're just a centimeter tall, insects such as beetles, spiders, and even ladybugs are transformed into wild beasts you must always account for. Enemies will attack your base, meaning how to build it is more than a cosmetic choice, unless you're playing in Creative mode. By lining spike traps and bottlenecks for home defense, players can push back against their six-legged (or more) foes.
This is an exciting part of Grounded, but combat as a whole needs some balancing at launch. Many enemies can kill you in just a few hits even when you're wearing armor. Perhaps Obsidian likes it that way to keep the threats feeling so scary, but it feels poorly balanced for solo players especially.
One of the most compelling elements of Grounded is hardly available right now: its story. You can see all of the story content in about 30 minutes in this version, as it amounts to one NPC scene and some audio logs.
As it's Game Preview, we know to expect more down the line, but given the game's sci-fi teases — it seems Obsidian plans to actually explain its shrunken survivors — I'm eager to see more, but I can't yet. If you're in it just for the story, you can safely keep waiting for now.
Having said that, I'm pretty picky with my survival game timeshare, as so many punish players with harsh conditions and obtuse menus right away. It can be pretty unappealing. Grounded doesn't have that problem. Its UI is one of the best I've ever seen in the genre. With so many menus, I expect more confusion, but I routinely know my way around my inventory, the deep crafting menu, and other helpful tools like a hotswapping UI for assigning your most-used items.
You can also switch between third- and first-person, toggle the HUD display, and provide Early Access feedback all from a radial menu. Obsidian has joked that they don't normally make this kind of game, and that's true, but you'd never know it. It seems years of building RPGs have taught them some things about helping players navigate their bulky backpacks.
Something else Grounded shares with RPGs is its abundance of secrets. Audio logs are ubiquitous in games, and though they add some light story beats right now, the real treasures come from discovering new craftable objects, or even stumbling on them whole cloth.
Things like a rotten bee armor, rarer insects, and new areas to install at your base can all be discovered with exploration. You could spoil most secrets by heading into Creative, where it's all there to see right away, but a lot of fun is had in turning over stones — literally — and finding something you didn't know existed underneath.
In my time with Grounded, I've found a basketball hoop blueprint, fungal bombs, and fun berry furniture to name a few. You can also stumble on the world interacting with itself, like when I saw a major battle between spiders and beetles. No doubt this is an area the studio will continue to expand on as well but even on day one, it feels like every moment spent in The Backyard is ripe for adventure.
If you're not one to simply build up a base or explore for secrets, there's a simple quest system in place too, which will allow you to advance your character in more quantitative ways.
Early Access means bugs, and in this case, I don't just mean insects. Most of the issues I saw were in the game's menus, where multiplayer lobbies don't populate correctly or UI items might look a bit wonky. Trying to swim with your head above water also barely works right now, and when it does, it still leaves the camera in an awkward spot.
It's not a bug, but the world map could also use some improved UI as the way it's set up currently is less than clear in some cases.
These are exactly the sort of growing pains any Early Access game reminds you of when you boot it up, though, and that's why we aren't speaking to the final experience in this review. For now, Grounded surely still needs some work, but it's already a game fans of the genre will totally dig.
Grounded Early Access Review — The Bottom Line
A strong premise will get you a great trailer, but only a strong team will deliver a great game. Even in Early Access/Game Preview, Grounded is a great game. Its youthful spin on the survival genre is supremely refreshing as it casts aside years of greyscale, slow-death misery simulators in favor of something players of all ages can enjoy.
Grounded is full of marvelous mechanics, creative contraptions, and some surprisingly scary showdowns. It has an exciting world rich with discovery; its base building already goes deep; and its imaginative, child-like spirit rejects genre norms.
The team has more work to do by adding more bug variety, expanding the story content, and balancing combat, but the foundation is certainly solid.