Grounded is an upcoming survival game from Obsidian, known for The Outer Worlds, Pillars of Eternity, Fallout New Vegas, and various other class-A RPGs.
Grounded is Obsidian's first foray into the first-person survival genre, although the firm's experience with first-person games and RPGs is pervasive throughout the small slice we experienced in the game's closed tech test on Xbox One.
Grounded was something on the periphery of my radar since its initial reveal, as a fan of survival games and Obsidian in general. I didn't anticipate, though, how far up my list of most anticipated games it would move after going hands-on. I think Grounded could be a hit, and here's why.
Pixar brought to life
There's really no other way of describing Grounded — it feels like being inside an interactive Pixar movie, cover to cover. The cutesy animation style Obsidian has leveraged is a constant source of delight. Tiny Aphids will bounce up into the air then scurry away in fear at the first sight of you, and worker ants will curiously probe you with their antenna.
I had no idea how terrifying a ladybug could be until Grounded.
Like any good Pixar movie, though, the art delivery certainly has a dark side. Grounded uses day and night cycles like any self-respecting survival game, and in the dusk, the backyard backdrop can become harrowing. Spiders go on the hunt, with red glowing eyes that scream only of murderous intent, as they barrel towards you through the grassy forest. Some of the game's story beats also call upon you to traverse underground tunnels as well, lit only by torches cobbled together with twigs and tree sap.
Indeed, the use of lighting is excellent in elevating the game's mood, from the sun rays flooding between the towering grass blades, to the comforting glow of a night time camp fire, as you cook aphid meat. Globules of water bounce around, reflecting the light as they fall. I suspect you'll see a lot of comparisons to Pixar in other previews — you can really feel the love in this game's presentation.
Grounded also has dynamic music which ramps up and down based on the situation. Being chased by a giant spider? You're going to feel that cinematic tension urging your escape through the game's music. On the flip side, there's an almost Minecraft-like tranquility when you're simply exploring, twinged with a sense of curiosity and, perhaps, potential danger.
Things take on new life when you're shrunk down to an ant's perspective
The demos timed out within thirty minutes each time you play, putting a limit on how much you can do in a single session. I have tried to explore the game's "backyard" map, running as far as I could to each corner, and I have yet to find the end. The game's story seems to revolve around some science experiment gone wrong, as the garden is filled with strange home-made aparatus, although much of it was disabled for the demo. In my excursions I found a wolf spider den, filled with webs, a giant pond swarming with gnats, towering litter landmarks, and endless hand-crafted grassy forests, full of opportunities for exploration.
I have no way of knowing just how big the game will be at launch, but the setting alone feels incredibly unique, and surprisingly underserved by the medium. The last time I can remember feeling this sense of curiosity and Honey I Shrunk the Kids-style nostalgia was playing Toy Story on the PlayStation 1, or one of Unreal Tournament 99's modded maps. It's surprising how seemingly mundane things take on new life when you're shrunk down to an ant's perspective, and that includes the threats as well. I had no idea how terrifying a ladybug could be until Grounded.
Remembering that ladybugs are predators
My very first thought when playing Grounded was that "it feels like ARK: Survival evolved without the jank." Although admittedly, I haven't played ARK for a few years, I had expected Grounded to feel less polished than it does, with surprisingly high-quality animal animations and A.I. behavior, and a robust crafting system that feels deep and ripe for expansion.
Aphids look weirdly appetizing in this game.
Although I have nowhere near fully explored Grounded's map, the game is full of all sorts of creatures and critters, each with unique behaviors. Aphids move around the map creating honeydew, fleeing vertically up blades of grass or skittering away on the ground in fear of your presence. Ladybugs generally move around hunting aphids, but if you upset them, they will come at you like a mad dog, relentlessly persuing until they can chomp you to death.
Worker ants will probe you inquisitively, but only attack in retaliation, and they'll swarm you with their friends if there are any nearby. Spiders roam around the map attacking other insects, leaving web traps around that can get you stuck if you're not careful. There also mites, stinkbugs, gnat swarms, and other creatures that will give you a bad day if you're caught off guard.
I was impressed with the general quality of the A.I. behavior, although there could be some improvements. A ladybug I was battling got very stuck on the terrain, allowing me to slowly stab it to death. I was impressed by the way gnats and other insects swarm around you, though, rather than simply chase you in a robotic line as seen in other similar games. Also the gulf in quality between the insect animations and the human animations is strangely large.
The aphids and other insects have tons of personality with their movements, but the human characters are rigid and move unnaturally. It wouldn't matter if you planned to play entirely in first-person mode, but since this is a co-op game, you'll be seeing other players strangely wobble around with their movements and attacks. This is one area I'd love to see Obsidian put more effort into.
Once you have murdered a bunch of bugs, you can take their parts and use them to craft armor and other items. The more powerful the bug, the more powerful the armor, Monster Hunter-style, with starting sets made up of ant giblets. You also need to manage hunger and thirst, as such, you'll be drinking raindrops off of leaves, or purifying your own water from puddles and other sources. You'll also be chowing down on insect meat, because beggars can't be choosers, I suppose. Aphids look weirdly appetizing in this game, though.
To round out my session, I built a small shack with a cooking stove, made from grass "planks" using the game's surprisingly-robust building system. Fortnite kids will feel right at home here, or at least, if their home has giant man-eating spiders in it.
Big things in small packages?
Grounded is being built by a comparatively smaller team at Obsidian, but it already seems to have huge potential. The building mechanics will be familiar with anyone who has ever played a game like ARK or Conan Exiles, and the art style will appeal to younger gamers who are familiar with things like Fortnite, or even Disney Pixar movies. It might not be as "hardcore" as some of its contemporaries, but I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what seems to be a far deeper game than I'd previously expected.
If Microsoft's long-tail support of games like Sea of Thieves and State of Decay 2 is any indication, I feel as though Grounded's unique setting and creative craft 'em up-style gameplay is ripe for endless expansion. The setting is uniquely under-utilized for gaming in general, and seeing things from a bug's perspective has truly endless potential. Praying mantis boss battles? Angry gecko smashing up your fortress? New crafting recipes and technologies? Tiny fishing mechanics? Truly, this came could go anywhere, and it's one I think any survival game fan should rigorously keep an eye on.
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