Grounded starts out as most survival games do: You’re plopped into an unfamiliar, unfriendly environment and must gather resources to survive, scrounging for food and materials, fending off the occasional enemy or two. But what sets Grounded apart from other games of its ilk are its setting, premise, and design subtleties that make it a distinctly approachable and enchanting entry in the survival genre.
The developers at Obsidian Entertainment, known for sprawling exploration-heavy RPGs Fallout: New Vegas and The Outer Worlds, seem to have settled comfortably into the survival genre as far as I can tell from playing the game’s just-released time-locked, 30-minute demo for a couple of hours on PC (it’s available as a part of Steam Game Festival, as well as to Xbox Insider members on Xbox One). In short, the demo signals a level of depth to the gameplay that had me itching to see more.
You play as one of four teenagers who have been shrunken down to the size of bugs and must explore a suburban backyard not just to survive but to figure out how the hell they found themselves in such a bizarre predicament in the first place. The first thing that struck me about the game was how easy it was to pick up and play. A lot of survival games are predicated on a sensation of disorientation and confusion, forcing the player to learn the ins and outs of gameplay by trial and error, or even by repeated, abject failure. The genre can be brutal and intimidating, but Grounded is tutorialized in a way that’s straightforward and illuminating.
When you collect resources like peblets, beads of sap and dew, grass fibers, etc., you’re shown in the game’s crafting menu what those resources are used to craft, and how much more you need to make any given item or weapon, provided you have the recipe for it. Recipes are uncovered as you collect resources and make other environmental discoveries, so the crafting progression feels organic and acts as a motivating force, urging you to scour the environment for new resources, which will inevitably unlock more recipes.
Another nice touch is the fact that, when you approach a resource that can only be harvested with, say, a chopping tool, the game simply informs you that you need a chopping tool to harvest it. It’s a simple, little detail, but it makes playing the game feel much more intuitive than other survival titles.
What’s nice about this simplified approach to survival mechanics is that it allows you to enjoy exploration without feeling overly focused on figuring out the game’s mechanics. The game certainly presents challenges, including health, hunger, and thirst meters to manage, as well as towering (relative to you) insects and arachnids that will absolutely demolish you should you encounter them underprepared. Even in the short amount of time I spent with the game, I could tell that Obsidian is taking extra care to make it a balanced experience.
Due to the brevity of the demo, I wasn’t able to experiment much with the game’s base-building mechanic, but I’ve seen enough to know that it has the potential to be the game’s greatest strength. Built by combining planks of grass, grass fibers, and pretty much anything else you find in the world, bases can be constructed anywhere you like, even inside manmade landmarks like a gigantic, empty soda can (a beneficial location when accounting for the armies of bugs that will inevitably storm your stronghold).
The foundational gameplay feels solid so far, which is essential because it allows you to really drink up the wondrous world the artists at Obsidian have conjured up. On a cosmetic level, the backyard setting looks spectacular from the unique perspective the game presents. Blades of grass have the grandeur of redwoods in a forest, the scale of the rocks and soil feels exactly right, and when the landscapes are bathed in sunlight, it’s simply breathtaking. The insects look and move in a way that isn’t accurate in a National Geographic way but captures the essence of the critters perfectly. Stylized realism, if you will.
The backyard literally buzzes with life, and it’s one of the most unique visual presentations I’ve seen in a game in recent memory. But the glossy visuals aren’t mere eye candy. For example, almost all of the flora in the game is physically interactive, which means that when a gigantic, formidable foe like a wolf spider is stalking in the distance, you’re able to see blades of grass swaying and buckling as the critter crawls by them, giving you a warning — if you’re alert enough — that you probably shouldn’t head in that direction.
A lot of the environmental components are awe-inspiring and fun to look at, but on a deeper level, many of the manmade items are placed in the world as subtle storytelling elements that slowly and elegantly unveil the game’s central mystery. At one point, I came across a science station that allowed me to analyze up to three items in my inventory, which yielded new recipes for me to forage for. At first, I thought it was just there to aid me in my crafting journey, but then I thought…why the hell was that science station shrunken in size like me? Who put it there? Are they still around?
After playing such a small snippet of Grounded, I’m left with the impression that this game could be something special. I can’t wait to play through more day/night cycles, unravel more of the narrative, and spend more time exploring the backyard, not to mention the four-player co-op mode. I knew going in that the game looked appealing, but now that I’ve tried out the gameplay loop, tinkered with the crafting and survival systems, and seen more of the world first-hand, I’m certain that Grounded is one of my most anticipated games on the horizon.
A preview build of Grounded releases on Xbox One and Steam on July 28, with the full game planned for release sometime in 2021.