Early Assess: Grounded Is a Miniature Breath of Fresh Air With Room to Grow

@Merlin13Fallout: New Vegas by Obsidian Entertainment was one of my first open-world games. Seeing the silhouette of two men shaking hands on the horizon, then crossing (what felt like) a vast expanse of desert to stand under that now giant statue stuck with me — even as reaching distant mountains on video game horizons became rote.

But Obsidian’s latest, Grounded, changes the formula. It’s a survival game about four teens shrunk down to just a couple centimeters tall. With grass, mushrooms, and discarded juice cartons looming over them, they have to find and craft food, water, and shelter while perhaps investigating just how they got to be so tiny.

You can either pick your teen during up to four-player co-op, or, playing alone, switch between them at will. They each have some flavor to their individual voice lines, but no fundamental differences, so it’s not a problem if your pal poaches your fave. Instead, it’s the garden that bears all the personality. Many open-world games contain big stretches of nothing. At best there might be roaming enemies to break up the travel. But by turning the scale way, way down, Grounded gives a new perspective on a familiar formula.

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It does more than just swap trees for grass. It makes the space fundamentally different. For example, there is no flat land in Grounded. How could there be, when any pebble or small bump in the soil is suddenly a hill to be crested? Instead of a skybox, behemoth oaks blot out the light — out of focus and incomprehensible when you’re this small.

It gives the bugs that roam the garden alongside you their own weight, too. Big spiders are  a dime a dozen in video games, but Grounded’s are skin-crawling even with the helpful arachnophobia mode turned all the way up. They impact the world just by being, parting the canopy of grass as if it’s nothing. A large video game spider is overdone. A normal spider that is proportionally giant is somehow psychologically different — and genuinely terrifying.

Every other insect interaction appears up close and personal, too. Ants fight beetles, but they’ll leave you alone unless you attack… At which point they’ll swarm and you will die. Aphids scatter at your approach, perhaps (unfortunately) into the path of a tranquil but hungry ladybug. There is both an immediacy of space and a kind of nonchalance to how the biome carries on, unaware and mostly unbothered by its new, tiny human inhabitants.

Which makes it all the more mysterious when you find things which are clearly manmade, yet appropriate to your new diminutive size. Grounded doesn’t have much of a story yet. It’s more of a tutorial and a tease at what might come as the game develops through early access. Yet it’s enough for me to be curious. It promises an Obsidian feel, too, by which I mean there is at least one quirky robot.

The survival elements are less Obsidian-like, but more fully implemented, with plenty to craft to make things easier (and presumably tackle scarier bugs, though you won’t see me going near a spider voluntarily no matter how strong my spear is). It’s relatively standard stuff for the genre. Food spoils but can be cooked; bases can be improved but take damage from insect attacks; there are ways to smooth over repetitive tasks like collecting water.

The UI is worth noting, though. It allows composite parts of complicated builds to be made right away. For example, when crafting an axe, you need woven fibers, which come from regular plant fiber you find on the ground. But instead of having to remember that and take an extra step in the menu, it’s prompted within the axe options. It takes a lot of the headache out of needing to memorize crafting flowcharts that underpin many of these sorts of games.It will likely help out a lot as things get more complex, too.

Having only spent a relatively short time with Grounded, I can’t say how long these loops stay satisfying. Without a main questline there’s not a lot of direction. Though a robot pal will give you radiant quests for some sort of structure. Multiplayer will likely carry many players. It’s an easy framework for casual chatting with friends while foraging and such. The game being in early access may also be a boon, bringing players back to check out updates in short bursts without too much complexity to forget and relearn. I do hope that’s the case. Shrinking down into the dirt of Grounded gives an enjoyably fresh perspective.