It’s not a secret that I’ve always been supportive of Grounded as a concept. In one of my first articles for this site, I dove deep into the implications making AA games within AAA developers could have for Xbox’s first party going forward. Then, when I first got my hands on Grounded in Game preview, I praised its potential. As I noted, I felt the game had the potential to be something special. But after my time with the game, I decided to go in with a fresh pair of eyes.
I mostly shelved it, leaving it on my SSD to update as necessary, for over a year. Now, over two years after its Game Preview release, I was able to jump back into Grounded. However, was my prediction about the game prescient, or did I put my foot in my mouth? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. In any event, let’s find out.
To cut to the chase, Grounded is a great game. In the two years since I last played it, a ton has changed, and for the better. To begin, the map has grown considerably from a novel if small survival map to what is quite easily the best world Obsidian has ever designed. I do not say this lightly. From the diversity of biomes to the emphasis on environmental storytelling, Grounded shows a side of Obsidian I feel gamers have not really seen before. Grounded’s map is carefully designed, deliberately pacing out setpieces, landmarks and biomes to exceptional effect. Exploring this map is in many ways more evocative of a game like Breath of the Wild or Skyrim than it is of the lovely (if sometimes barren) landscapes of something like Minecraft. Every square centimetre of this tiny map grown big is immersive, carefully designed and oozing with detail.
Another area where Obsidian has stepped up considerably is in the game’s combat. While still imperfect compared to some of its first-person brawling peers (most notably Chivalry and the Dishonored series), the combat here is still a notable step above titles such as Skyrim and The Outer Worlds. Blocking, parrying and throwing weapons all play a vital role in your arsenal here, bringing an extra level of depth to the game.
Also notable, the game has increased the amount of content significantly from its early access launch. New tiers of weapons and armour, refinements to survival systems, a plethora of new enemy types and at least a four-fold increase in the size of the map is just the tip of the iceberg. However, I would argue most notably here is the expansion of the story. When I last played, only 20% of the story had been implemented into the game. Now, the entire story is available to play, and thankfully, it’s quite good. The best way I can describe what’s done here is if the story of the launch release of Fallout 76 was actually engaging. There are limited NPCs, and the vast majority of the story’s twists and turns are told through audio recordings. However, Obsidian’s signature sharp writing and exceptional environmental storytelling, coupled with a delightful turn from Shazam actor Zachary Levi, make the story an engaging puzzle you want to solve. The end answers are worth the hype.
Moving on to aesthetics, Grounded is a masterclass in art direction. While not rivalling the visual fidelity of say, a Hellblade or a Last of Us, Grounded uses a striking colour palette and an exceptional sense of scale to great effect. The game looks like a cartoon coming to life. However, beneath the surface is a dark and almost horrific edge, and this is compounded through superb audio work. Justin Bell’s score (his last with Obsidian) is also appropriately atmospheric, and he leaves on a high note.
With all of this being said, there is one problem with Grounded, and it’s what holds the game back from the elusive 5/5 or 10/10: the single-player balance. In the game, I had to drop the difficulty in order to continue. But I was able to make it past most walls with ease. Even still, the difficulty curve feels overly high for the game, especially in lower settings. These issues come to a head in the final mission of the game. Without going into too many spoilers, it is tailor-made for multiple players, and the enemy and objective density is simply too high for most solo players. I’m sure with appropriate amounts of grinding and skill, some players will be able to overcome it, but it points to an overall issue with Grounded’s design. As a single-player, it’s just less fun.
Moving on to performance and value, I have very little to add here. The game is quite easily Obsidian’s most polished to date. Beyond two minor crashes that occurred during an auto-save, the only bugs I encountered were the ones you fight in the game. Between this, Pillars and The Outer Worlds, it is clear that “Bugsidian” is a thing of the past. As for value, the price is very fair for the title, but obviously as an Xbox first-party title, this game can be enjoyed with Game Pass.
Finally, Grounded has made some real strides in accessibility. While these single-player challenges are still a factor, a plethora of options (including some which will reduce difficulty at a cost of achievements) as well as a variety of quality-of-life features means that Grounded is punching considerably above its weight in this department.
On that note, in the end, like an ant in the game, punching above its weight is the best way to describe Grounded. In many regards, this is the little game that could. Despite a team the a fraction of the size of Obsidian’s overall staff, initially middling reception and a competitive genre, Grounded has been able to carve out a significant niche… and it’s not hard to see why. Above all else, the game is great. A culmination of a clear passion for the genre, strong game and world design, above-average storytelling and masterful artistic direction.
The lessons learnt from Grounded will likely help improve forthcoming Obsidian titles such as Avowed and The Outer Worlds 2, but the most important lesson I’d argue is one Xbox’s first party should take to heart. If there is a small dedicated team that wants to make a game, it is in their best interests to empower them. Not only will this help lead to more titles for Game Pass, it can also help drive innovation within the studio and the industry writ large. Obsidian’s gamble has more than paid off, and if Pentiment is any indication, they could be on to something really exciting here.
Grounded is available from the Xbox Store
- Punches well above its weight
- Superb art direction
- Good non-linear storytelling
- A small twist on the genre
- Accessibility options
- Single-player balancing woes
- Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to - Via Game Pass
- Formats - Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC
- Version reviewed - Xbox Series X
- Release date - 17 September 2022
- Launch price from - £34.99