Aground is a hard game to pigeonhole. The developers, Fancy Fish Games, describe the game as a “Crafting/Mining RPG”, with an overarching story and a goal to work towards. While this is a functional description, the actual game is a lot deeper than this rather dry summary. First launched back in April 2020 on PC through Steam, it has garnered a lot of positive feedback in that time, and now it’s our turn to see what the fuss is about on Xbox. So, come with me to the end of the world, and let’s get our survive on.
As Aground opens, we seem to be in the midst of some kind of accident; either a shipwreck or a plane crash or something similar. We are in mountainous seas, and as we start to black out, an island looms in the darkness. We awaken on the beach, a sole survivor… or are we? Luckily, it isn’t long before we stumble upon a wrecked hut, and with a bit of fixing up it becomes a shelter for the night. Luckily (or not, depending on how you feel about other people) there were other survivors of the crash, and even more luckily, it hasn’t gone all Mad Max yet and they are quite a friendly bunch. There’s a Builder, a Miner, a Farmer, a Trader and many more people to meet and greet – and that is just on the first island. They all come with tasks that they would like you to help with too, and by helping people you can unlock new technologies and options; even other places to visit. As an example, you catch someone filching your hard-earned goods out of your storehouse, and she turns out to be the Trader. Follow her quest line and not only will she bring in traders to buy and sell things with, but she will also build a dock, allowing you to sail off to other islands. And that’s just one character: the others all unlock new things as well. It must be said that Aground is very in-depth indeed, with no shortage of things to do.
Now, the mining and crafting part of the game’s description cover the majority of what you will be doing. To build things, you generally need wood, easily obtainable by chopping trees down, and then metal, which has to be smelted from ore in a furnace. And where does ore live? Deeper underground, of course. Crafting a pick, first out of stone, then iron and steel, will allow you to dig down into the ground and find resources, which in turn lead to new structures, which again need resources and so on. The gameplay loop in operation here is pretty sophisticated, with flavours of Minecraft and Terraria coming through very clearly.
Further, there are bosses and regular creatures to either fight or tame, and if a creature is captured it can be made into a familiar, helping you out in scraps. At the moment I have a cat called Peri as my familiar and it is lethal, seeing off wild boars before I can even draw my gun. Captured animals can be fed and will grow, so when you are exploring underground and find a wyrm, try dropping a net after injuring it and you’ll be able to capture it, then feed it up until it turns into a baby dragon. There may well be someone who will be very happy to see a baby dragon, which can open up an entirely different route through the game.
This approach to boss fights and encounters is very refreshing, as there seems to be a different way of dealing with things if you look for it. As an example, on the second island you are given a quest to “deal with the Mirrows”, and you can go to their hideout and fight them, should you so desire – just be aware that they are very strong. If you choose not to fight them, a new path opens up that will allow you to win them around to your side, and then open up a new stream of quests and equipment. So I guess my top tip for Aground is not to be in too much of a hurry to lay the smack down on enemies. Actual combat in Aground is pretty tough too, with ranged and melee options available depending on how you feel like playing. Crafting armour if you’re going to be using sword or an axe is a good idea, and a shield will be invaluable. On the other hand, if you prefer your danger at slightly longer range, you can make guns, like a revolver or a shotgun, or a bow if you like to keep things quiet. Sneaking up and hitting enemies from behind results in a critical hit, and it’s this that may make the difference between success and failure, especially as the game goes on. Popping up in between two of the little cyborg guys and getting them to shoot each other never gets old, either.
So, there’s a whole load of things to do, from raising dragons to building spaceships, and the way Aground opens out as you go along is fantastic. It’s also pretty great the way that new concepts are introduced, new structures, new materials and craftable items are really really intuitive, and while there are annoyances (I’m having real trouble fueling up my Patrol Boat, for instance, as there just doesn’t seem to be any way to put the coal and oil I’m carrying into the petrol tank) by and large the game just works. For the most part, if you find you can’t do something, like win a fight, it’ll be a simple case of going out to gather materials, do a few quests, get better gear and try again.
And above all else, in Aground you’ll want to explore. On the second island, I couldn’t drill through a mountain, and so got it into my head that I had to build a ladder up and over. It wasn’t until I had nearly built enough steel ladders that I realised I could build a drill, that made getting through the mountain child’s play. In fact, the game is so deep that it’s almost impossible in the scope of this review to tell you all the things that you can do, but the standout things that seem to be possible to me are deep sea and space exploration, and the chance to build a car and go for a little drive. It really does seem like everything has been shoehorned into Aground. Even levelling up, spending skill points in one of many categories, is a pleasure; a bit more health or stamina is always welcome. There is even – wait for it – a fishing mini game to really just put the cherry on the top of the cake.
In terms of visuals, if you’ve played Terraria, you pretty much know what to expect from Aground. It’s a side-scrolling 2D affair, with cute and appealing pixel art-style graphics. Terraria with a slightly zoomed view is a pretty good description, actually. Some of the enemies are really cool-looking, especially the adult dragon that you can find and make friends with, and if there’s anything more Game of Thrones than riding your own dragon into battle and laying waste to your foes, I don’t know what it is. Sound-wise it is all perfectly adequate as well; gunfire and swishing weapons, roaring monsters and so on. All in all the presentation of the game fits the gameplay perfectly, and while it may be easier to play on PC with a mouse and keyboard, the mapping to a controller has been done well, which is always a bonus.
Aground on Xbox is a game that starts off simple and rapidly gets more and more complicated, with a massive amount of different things to do and objectives to achieve. These objectives lead you to new discoveries and paths to explore, and this isn’t a game that will be finished quickly. The sheer amount of things to do can be a bit overwhelming, but even if you just fancy wandering around and getting materials for crafting, it’s always engaging. With the exception of minor annoyances, I have no hesitation in saying that Aground is a game that you should play – it really is that good, and certainly has the gaming X-factor that is increasingly rare these days.