The delightful garden ‘home-grown’ adventure Grounded officially released into Early access late July and manages to scratch an itch I didn’t know I had. Grounded as a survival experience is a delight to play reigniting that same wonder and excitement I had as a child watching Honey I Shrunk the Kids for the first time. Ever wondered what would happen if you were the size of an ant in your own back garden? Well now Grounded lets you live out that weird fantasy vicariously through tiny human children.
In Grounded you play as one of four young teens running around the back-garden building, crafting and surviving in a hostile world while being the size of a pea. The game itself is a blast to play, unfortunately, I was only able to experience the single-player experience as I had no one else to team up with that owned the game so bear that in mind going forward.
When you start the game you pick one of four characters and are immediately thrown into the game. No opening cutscene just opening your eyes in a small tunnel with some sort of briefcase behind you. Your character (in my case Pete) makes a comment and you head on out. Then it’s game on. There are a few brief story missions and tutorial tasks (which like most open-world sandbox games you can completely ignore), but you’re more or less left your own devices.
The game is described by Obsidian as an “environmental and narrative-driven” story. However, due to early access, the story is far from complete. As it stands there’s maybe an hour/ an hour and a half, of the story if you power through it. What there is of the story is compelling and the decision to forgo long full-on cutscenes and tell the story through brief voice clips and the environment really does its job well. There is definitely a sci-fi element going forward past the end of the story where you are introduced the only NPC in the game – BURG.L a fry cook robot reprogrammed for science! You find the robot in a tiny laboratory after trying to fix a machine to make you full size again. You can ask the odd question and gain science points, which in single player are a bit less interesting as completing tasks set to you by BURG.L can get tedious having to run back each day to get more (or you could just build your base near the lab like a smart person which I am not). Through these science points, you manage to unlock (mostly building-related) upgrades.
Speaking of crafting, this is another element I really enjoyed of Grounded. It has a self-motivated sense of progression and I spent hours collecting items to slowly unlock more possible crafting recipes. I personally ignored any existing guides and went in blind to the game to get a genuine look at how the game plays in this regard and for the most part, it’s fairly straightforward. Although I did go many hours without realising I could collect clay to build a foundation for my base and now all my furniture is lopsided.
Any item you collect can be analysed at one of several different research posts dotted over the map. These posts allow you to unlock more crafting recipes that can be made with said scanned item. Much like any survival game, you get gear, fight to survive, build more gear to survive longer and so on until you become all-powerful or die trying. And boy, is dying easily achieved at the start.
In a world where you are tiny, bugs suddenly become these gargantuan beasts and more than once I jumped out of my skin being unintentionally jump scared by a spider (one of which I thought was dead and went to investigate before it pounced on me, well played Obsidian). You can craft weapons and armour out of materials you collect but combat remains a very strong element regardless of your gear. There are various different armour sets which all offer different levels of defence as well as buffs. For example, armour made from Ant parts allows you to carry more and armour made from acorn shells boosts your max health (and has a large defence boost for early game).
Combat comes through the melee and ranged combat through makeshift spears, hammers, tools and bows. The game features a blocking mechanic which allows you to significantly lower damage if you perfect it. Hitting enemies on the head also confer the chance to stun and gives you often much needed extra seconds to get another hit in or heal up. All of this is balanced with a stamina bar so you can’t just spam jabbing that spider with a spear and many times you have to ration stamina in case you want to retreat quickly. When you break it down into its individual elements it sounds complicated but the systems all blend together in a surprisingly complex combat system that I wasn’t expecting from this kind of game.
But don’t worry if you’re an expert combat master you can still experience the pleasure of dying in this game thanks to the handy dandy hunger and thirst gauges. Early on in the game, you spend considerable time looking for food shoving every mushroom you can find into your mouth to survive. Water is even harder to come across; clean water at least. There are plenty of pools of dirty water but these quickly drain your hunger bar so for the early game I tended to just stock up on food and worry about clean water second drinking from pools if I couldn’t find any. Both of these quickly become non-issues as you continue through the game with items like the dew collector and canteen that can allow you fresh drinking water daily. The cooking spit also allows you to cook the remains of some of the insects you kill (I personally mostly survived on gnats because they are just as annoying in-game as real life).
Once you tire of fighting spiders (or dying) you can retreat to your home. The game offers a base crafting system as well as tools and materials. This element for me seemed a tad on the buggy side as walls and roof tiles didn’t always slot together the way I wanted but this is to be expected from an early access title. I did spend a long time building my grass fortress but unfortunately couldn’t afford to buy the upgrade to build second story houses which I needed to finish off the roof. But it did its job for the most part despite looking like the world’s weirdest looking pillow fort. The building is also very time consuming as one wall requires four grass planks, the maximum you can carry is five (default without armour buffs). This is an element that really shows this part of the game is meant to be enjoyed co-operatively as this would really have sped up the process.
An element the game excels in is its abundance of character and atmosphere; you genuinely feel tiny and it’s amazing when you come across a huge hotdog or empty Cola can. The developers really managed to capture this feeling of being small and vulnerable, exactly what you need for a good survival game (especially one where you are literally tiny).
The graphics really enhance this experience with a semi cartoonish realism that really fits well with the game’s atmosphere. This game absolutely oozes charm and I cannot wait to see the new additions they add to the game going forward with new plants and wild-life. This is only further amplified by the absolutely wonderful sound design. Each creature has its own character which is shown clearly in its sound effects. The ambient music that plays blends smoothly into the background and only becomes noticeable when it suddenly shifts to a tense dramatic score when you are in immediate danger. You soon are able to recognise the various sounds of the wilderness and work out how safe you are in your given position. The voice acting is top-notch with a brilliant host of talented voice actors at the helm that adds a splash of colour and voice to the often tense and quiet garden.
The game can be played with either a control or keyboard and mouse, personally, I prefer controller due to being left-handed and it making keyboards a living nightmare to play most games with. The controls are tight and I had relatively no issues with them being very responsive. The arachnophobia option is also a nice touch for those deathly afraid of spiders. There was the odd game bug (and plenty of the regular kind) but nothing game-breaking, I did shoot up into the sky randomly once while chopping down a dandelion but I managed to survive. Even if I had died there’s a lovely little backpack pick up mechanic which shows you where you died to collect your things.
Despite the short story, there are tonnes of hours you can get from the game just exploring building and crafting. The game is currently on game pass so if you’ve already got access to it I highly recommend giving it a shot. However, I’m not sure I’d recommend it as a straight-up purchase right now if you’re looking mainly at it for a story experience until the game has been more fleshed out later down the line. But as for its other elements, it’s definitely a solid purchase for a survival sandbox in a unique setting. The game is available as a game preview through Xbox Game pass for both the console and PC and Steam Early Access for £24.99.