Hands-on: Grounded is a fun, lighthearted survival game

Availability: Xbox Game Preview (played), Steam Early Access

There’s a major realization you’ll come to within your first hour playing Grounded, the new survival game from Obsidian Entertainment. That realization is that Grounded is able to almost perfectly walk a fine line between accessibility and depth. For folks who don’t play survival games very often, it provides one of the smoothest transitions and a low barrier to entry. Meanwhile, there’s a level of depth and customization that’s really cool to tinker around with if you’re a survival game enthusiast.

It’s like a late-80s/early-90s family comedy

The setup of Grounded is very reminiscent of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and it gives the game somewhat of an old school Saturday morning cartoon or family film vibe. The whole thing is set in a big — or rather massive, compared to the playable shrunken kids — backyard. You’d think that would be limiting, but because of the tiny size of the player characters, it makes for a huge world to explore with plenty of fun areas to discover and secrets to find.

You can pick from one of four kids to explore the game world. Currently, there aren’t any real differences between the characters. There are no character-specific attributes or special abilities. They’re all pretty much identical, and the choice comes down to which avatar you prefer. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it would be cool if at some point the developers add stats or unique abilities to differentiate the characters and appeal to people with different play styles. Not to mention it would also allow for a bit of gameplay diversity if you’re playing co-op mode.

Surviving the elements… and the giant spiders

Do you like spiders? What about ants? Oh, and what about stinkbugs? Yeah, I don’t either. Well, too bad, because Grounded is all about being lost in the elements — that means giant flowers, clovers, blades of grass, and, that’s right, bugs.

Most of the insects in Grounded are pretty reactionary — they’ll usually walk around, minding their own business, and they typically only attack if you throw a rock at them or poke them with a makeshift spear. This isn’t too big of a deal if you’re taking on a mite or gnat, but if you’re not careful, you could potentially anger a whole army of ants. If you’re going it alone, chances are you’ll be done for unless you can run away fast enough. If you’ve got a couple of co-op buddies, though, your chances of survival go up significantly.

Oh, yeah, the spiders. Those things are bad news. You don’t even have to look at one for it to behave aggressively. If you so much as walk past its line of sight, it’ll be right on you. Early on, when you don’t have any armor, this means nothing but trouble. Oh, and word of warning: If you see a spider bunched up, it isn’t dead, so don’t throw a rock at it like I did.

Interestingly, Grounded opens with a disclaimer for players who struggle with arachnophobia. This may or may not cause you to chuckle, but even though it has its cartoony moments, the game’s depiction of insects is pretty realistic. I’d say I’m about a three or four out of ten as far as my level of insect uneasiness goes, but there’s just no denying that the spiders in Grounded look super creepy. If it’s too much for you to handle, you can always adjust the in-game arachnophobia slider and tone down the appearance of these eight-legged monsters.

Sticks and Stones

Aside from all the bug encounters, Grounded also features some really cool crafting and survival gameplay. You can pick up plant fibers, cloverleaves, mite dust, sap, and all manner of backyard garden debris. You can even collect insect bits and body parts. You can then use these items to craft a shelter to create new respawn points, a fire pit to cook up some bugs, and massive walls to keep aggressive insects at bay. You’ll want to try and do this early on because, like any good barbecue, ants will show up and try to steal your food.

In the game’s current state, the crafting menus could definitely use some cleaning up as they’re a bit clunky. Crafting items, armor, and weapons are easy but hardly straightforward. In other words, you’ll fumble through the menus and likely have to do a bit of digging before you find what you’re looking to craft. When you do, though, it’s as simple as the press of a button. Of all the game’s features, hopefully, the crafting menus get a bit of a makeover. As it is now, the crafting mechanics in Grounded are functional but sloppy.

That said, it’s the crafting that will really rope in survival game veterans. There are so many items to scavenge and loot from dead insects. This allows you to craft all sorts of things, from armor that spans multiple tiers to fun little decorations for your shelter (like stuffed insects).

Hit the Ground Running

Right from the get-go, Grounded is all about getting you settled in as quickly as possible. As you roam around the backyard setting and start tackling the game’s objectives, you’re introduced to its deeper mechanics. The game doesn’t ease you into its world and gameplay slowly, but rather smoothly. This is a great approach as it allows newer survival game players to pick everything up at a steady pace — meanwhile, veterans who already know the basics in these types of games shouldn’t feel alienated as there’s a lot to dig into.

As far as the game’s objectives go, they’re fairly basic and revolve mostly around exploring the backyard and crafting items. Early on, you’ll investigate a strange machine and try to get it to work properly. This leads into the crafting, exploration, and giant insect encounters in a way that’s fun and feels like it’s out of an old school sci-fi family film.

There’s a lot of fun to be had in the colorful, Pixar-esque world of Grounded. I played a bit of it alone and genuinely had a good time. Then I jumped into the co-op mode — which is identical to the single-player — with two other players and had an absolute blast.

It’s pleasantly surprising just how smoothly Grounded plays, even in its early access state. I didn’t encounter any major bugs — as in glitches, not to be confused with the actual insects in the game — while playing. The only issue I found was a revive glitch that didn’t allow me or my teammates to revive one another from a downed state unless we positioned our characters directly behind the fallen character. It wasn’t a big deal, though it should be addressed.

Whether you’re playing Grounded solo or cooperatively, there’s a really solid foundation here. In its current state, the game is already a great deal of fun. There are a few issues that need to be ironed out, but nothing that will destroy this early access experience. If you’re looking for a survival game to play alone or with friends that offers a vastly different thematic experience from your usual zombie or post-apocalyptic fare, Grounded is where it’s at. The game thus far is really good, and with a little bit of fine-tuning and world-building, it could be a great hit.

Grounded is currently in development, and it is available on Xbox Game Preview for Xbox One and PC, as well as Steam Early Access on PC. In addition, the game is available as part of Xbox Game Pass.