When I first saw Grounded enter Early Access a few years ago, I (like most people) thought “Oh cool, a Honey I Shrunk the Kids thing. Kids will love that” and then immediately forgot about it. After listening to my friends at Nextlander talk about playing the game, I decided to give it a spin with my Fortnite crew and it’s basically taken over our life.
Obsidian has made something a survival game at a AAA scale, utilizing the best of the Early Access approach, and it’s really something special. The environment art was the first hook for me. As an ant-sized teenager, everything from ladybugs to roly-polys are terrifyingly large. I was hooked when a pack of breath mints provided safety during a spider attack. Blades of grass and clover make up the brunt of your early crafting materials.
At a larger scale, the suburban backyard the game takes place in provides an almost MMO sized area to explore. The loop through each area is more or less the same–they’re universally terrifying as you begin to explore a new biome, then you learn to deal with new bugs and new challenges, which gives you loot you can use to level up your equipment so you can move to the next new biome.
The game constantly reminds you of your scale, the grass isn’t just a building material, nimble players can parkour along the ends of blades of grass. There are normal sized animals in the world–you’ll see a crow within the first few minute you play, and when it sheds a feather, the impact of the feather on the ground literally rocks your world. The world is simultaneously familiar and inviting while also being full of menace. Night and day further create and release tension, make the familiar unfamiliar as the light changes and diurnal bugs trade places with their nocturnal counterparts.
And of course, it’s an open-world cliche, but “if you can see it, you can go there” applies and is hyper important in this game. There’s no mini-map or on-screen compass to guide you. If you need acorns, you can walk to the oak tree. Everything about the art design of the game reinforces your sense of scale, all the way down to distances being measured in centimeters.
Combat feels tight with some concessions that make the game more approachable. The combat loop is familiar to anyone who played Valheim or even Minecraft. Players can choose a variety of melee or ranged weapons, and simply manage stamina and aggro. Blocking cancels attack animations, which feels like the right choice for a more accessible game, but that doesn’t stop the bugs and spiders from being uniformly deadly. Even after you’ve upgraded your gear and collected skills, it’s tough to manage more than one or two bugs as a solo player.
But when you bring 3 friends with you on your adventure, the game gets very silly. Watching four teenagers romp a spider or ladybug in a flurry of tiny fists and blades and clubs is simultaneously hyper-violent and extremely silly. And at the end-game encounters, the fights work almost like MMO raid bosses, where players need to manage additional mobs and environmental threats, all while controlling aggro, helping with heals, and applying maximum DPS when the time is right.
Players have three main upgrade progressions to explore, which works really well to let players make big-upgrade/little-upgrade decisions that all feel impactful. Statuses (Bethesda style skills that trigger based on use, an in-game purchase, or quest progression), equipment, and upgrades for equipment. Each give you different options for specialization within the roles you can play and let you shift between general purpose/soloing mode and specialized raid mode easily.
The game also has several larger loops that always leave players with something to do. My group only pushes the story forward if we’re all around so we can see the raids, dungeons, etc. When everyone isn’t on, the folks who want to play can scout new areas, farm resources, work on the house, or expand the infrastructure connecting the world to our various bases.
Within those activities there are loops that reinforce each other and the game handles progression on those loops really well. Each time you get to a point where you think “I’m tired of grinding this” you find a new recipe or mechanic that lets you bypass that work.
And the building itself is sublime. The building tools that Obsidian built for Grounded let anyone make something that looks cool. At the default difficulty level, the skip the kind of reality-based building that made Valheim a bit of a challenge in favor of building ludicrous towers supported only by a single block, or centimeters-long skybridges that make corpse runs simpler.
Grounded will end up in my bucket of games that handled their Early Access periods very well. Everytime I think “it would be cool if…” it turns out to actually be cool and already implemented. (Note: I say that after having said “I hope there isn’t a snake in this game. The bird and the fish are bad enough, but a snake would terrify me. )
An extra-special shout out to the tech back end for this game. If you’re playing a MP game, you can choose to share the cloud-based save with the other folks you’re playing with. That means you can play even when the person who is hosting the game is offline, and someone else tries to hop on (or start their own server) the game pops up and says “So-and-so is already online, want to join their game”, so it doesn’t create sync problems. The upshot is that it’s a game that I can play every night if I want, making progress and grinding out upgrades so that my friends and I can get straight to the story and the boss fights on the rare nights when we all manage to be online at the same time.
This has become one of my all-time favorite gaming experiences. Part of it is always about playing with good friends, but the game creates an incredible framework for that kind of play. Mike and Trevor can go out exploring while I build a tower so large it’s an affront to god and Frank can prep heals for our next adventure. It’s literally got something that each of us finds fulfilling to do on our own that pushes us together every few days to complete the next big task. It’s highly recommended if you have friends to play with, but it’s also the kind of game that I’m confident will turn strangers from your favorite Internet communities into fast friends.