A veil of darkness has overtaken the backyard. The day’s journey has just about come to an end. Suddenly, unbeknownst to the geeky teen Pete (or you, truly controlling him), a shady character takes immense interest in him. Before he sets up camp for the night, Pete is lunged at by this mysterious creature behind him. He screams in agony, but knows now is no time to cower. It’s not the time to fight either. No, Pete runs like hell, as this vicious creature bites into his back, and screeches the most awful sound. Pete knows not to turn back, for it will only spell his doom. Within an inch of his life, Pete finally finds shelter in a small tape-deck, the door of which is too small for the creature to get through. He looks back and sees the faint outline of a giant wolf spider staring him down. It’s no matter, for there is nothing it can do. Finally, the spider dejectedly walks off and Pete bandages his wounds, sets up camp and prepares for the surprises the next day will bring.
This is an example of just one of the many frightening and exhilarating experiences that await you in Grounded, the latest title from Obsidian Entertainment, and their first to be released as part of the Xbox Game Studios family (Private Division released The Outer Worlds due to a pre-existing contract). While it is a definite departure from some of their other work (a fact Obsidian is not afraid to hide), it is not missing the quality, humour and polish we have come to expect from the studio in recent years. Yes, while Grounded may not be an RPG in the conventional sense, it is still undeniably an Obsidian experience.
Before we jump into the many facets of the game (such as gameplay, story, performance and presentation), it is of the utmost importance to note that this title is in early access (or Xbox Game Preview on console). The team at Obsidian plan for monthly updates, and have committed to listening to fan feedback. You can even submit a feedback report in game.
With that being said, let’s first address the premise of Grounded. Like Rust, State of Decay, ARK: Survival Evolved or Minecraft, Grounded is a survival game. However, since it is from Obsidian, there is a little twist. You play as one of four teens and can team up with up to three of your friends to make shelter, hunt and survive. This all sounds familiar thus far, but easily Grounded’s most appealing aspect is its setting. Whereas in other survival games you might be off on some deserted island or trying to fend off zombies, in Grounded a science experiment has gone wrong and you have been shrunk to the size of an ant. You now have to get your bearings, explore the backyard and (eventually) try to get back to normal size, all the while fending off the local fauna, many of whom are not too happy with you encroaching on their territory.
Beginning with the gameplay – Grounded is a survival game through and through. Firstly, you will have to chop down blades of grass or oversized clovers like you would trees in other survival titles to build shelter. Secondly, you need to monitor your health and thirst in order to stay healthy and safe. Thirdly, you will need to face off against vicious creatures in order to gain important resources and save your skin. Fourthly, you need to explore the world (currently three major areas of the backyard are available, with more on the way) for rarer resources and calmer base-building sites. Finally, you will need to craft the necessary resources to improve your character’s stats and survive the night.
All the main aspects are here, and all are fairly well-executed, with combat being the most surprising. While I love Obsidian’s other games such as The Outer Worlds and Alpha Protocol, I can’t say the melee combat was anything more than functional, but here it can be incredibly satisfying. You need to make the most of your weapons, maintain their durability, and take unique approaches to fighting larger enemies such as throwing weapons for additional damage or timing perfect blocks. While the combat isn’t as good as Sekiro or even Hellblade, it is still a lot more engaging than I was expecting. A creative mode exists as well for those who want to explore and build without the fear of being a spider’s supper, but it needs to be selected as a difficulty mode when starting a new game.
Moving on to story, and there is not a lot currently available (apparently only 20% of the story is available to play right now), yet what is there is promising. A lot of Obsidian’s signature humour can be found, and the few story details we have are very intriguing. However, it should take skilled players no more than an hour and a half to clear through this content (less if you played the demo back in June and know how to solve the first puzzle), so don’t play this game in its current state solely for the story.
The aesthetics of the game are great as well. The particle effects are intriguing and the lighting is surprisingly strong. Justin Bell, composer of The Outer Worlds and the Pillars of Eternity duology, returns here with a more atmospheric score that fits the world nicely. The game is primarily voice-acted, with many great one-liners and a nice surprise appearance from Shazam himself Zachary Levi as a mysterious mad scientist named Wendell. While the game does look cartoony, the detailed, realistic animations for the various bugs in the backyard, and the considerable attention placed on the proportions of everyday things compared to your character (i.e. a giant hot dog), really adds a level of immersion to the game. Also worth noting is the Arachnophobia mode which tames the appearance of the spiders, making the game more accessible to everyone (although it is a bit of a double-edged sword as it can make hitboxes harder to detect).
Finally, I’d like to briefly touch upon the performance. I personally encountered little in terms of frame drops on the Xbox One S. Grounded is stuffed with bugs, but 99% of them are the insects you face off against; visual glitches and freezes kept at minimal. I did encounter some issues resuming the game after turning the system off, but these issues have seemed to have gone away recently.
All in all, I think Grounded is shaping up to be a strong addition to Obsidian’s gameography, and from what has been revealed so far, it seems to be a sleeper hit in the making. Recently, the director of the game, Adam Brennecke (who I erroneously mixed up with Obsidian Director of Communications Mikey Dowling in a previous preview – sorry dude), revealed that the game has been played by over 1,000,000 players in only 2 days. The game also seems to be performing quite well on the Steam and Twitch charts. I cannot wait to see how Grounded shapes up, and I think it has the potential to truly be something special.
For now though, as Mr. Brennecke so succinctly put it in his recent video, stay happy, stay healthy, stay Grounded!
We’ll be following this piece up with full review as and when Grounded comes out of Game Preview status.