Squish or be squished in this shrunken backyard survival game from Obsidian Entertainment
After two years in Early Access, it’s time to check back in with Grounded now that it’s been fleshed out with more bugs to battle and harvest, more impossibly large backyard sights to seek out, and a fully realized story — complete with an eventual ending — to uncover.
Having only dabbled in the early build, back when there were hardly any threads to follow, I’m surprised how far Grounded has come thanks to ongoing updates and a big final push for the 1.0 launch on PC and Xbox. Originally, the familiar yet creative-up-close shrunken world was its biggest asset — and it still is to this day. But now, the whole survival loop feels cohesive, with plenty of thoughtful touches you’d expect from a passion project.
Since the game’s work-in-progress debut, some players never really left, and they’ve got magnificent (and painstaking) home bases to prove it. As for me, I started fresh with a new save file and got to exploring. Little did I know I’d be in for a 30-hour adventure.
Even with familiarity from my Early Access playthrough, this is still one of the most interesting worlds I’ve gotten to know in a survival game, right up there with Subnautica.
Chopping down towering blades of grass and hauling planks like a lumberjack, scurrying through ant tunnel labyrinths with a torch in hand, scavenging for half-buried scales in a koi pond with water fleas nipping at your feet — it’s an unforgettable lens for such an established genre. And the more I play Grounded, the more I’m weirded out looking down at my own backyard. What tiny creatures are out there, and just what are they up to?
It’s an absorbing game, in other words — the kind you can keep coming back to session after session whether you’re “mostly here for the story” or you’re ready to settle in and get cozy as a miniature architect. I’m far more in the former camp, and admittedly, Grounded has an overly drawn-out pace at times. But in the end, I’m glad I stuck with it, and I’m excited to thoroughly investigate every area, from the toxic trash heap to the children’s sandbox to the smoldering spilled grill and creepy crawlspace under the shed.
So much of the game is getting to know the land, its surprisingly ruthless inhabitants, and the resources that’ll keep you alive day-to-day and rarer finds that can help you find a way out of this conundrum. With that knowledge base (and smartly positioned hand-made shortcuts), you can cut down on a lot of the back-and-forth tedium. Wiki refreshers help, too. But either way, Grounded is not a game to rush through without proper preparations.
Early on, I was shocked by how hard-hitting and dangerous Grounded can be, even when I was trying to mind my own business and keep a low profile. The early game is harsh.
With makeshift armor, no permanent stat increases or perk-like Mutations unlocked yet, and a puny “weapon” that big (and even medium) boys can shrug off, you shouldn’t go picking fights. You’ve got to be ready to book it, then bandage up as needed. Spiders are ferocious, of course — more so than any arachnids I’ve seen in a game before — but the same goes for bombardier beetles, mites, larvae, and mosquitoes, among many other threats. Several foes can even gang up on you, sometimes to a comical degree.
In one-on-one fights, there’s a distinct rhythm to bouts, including “perfect blocks” that open up your opponents. Combat is fun once you’re strong enough to have more margin of error. Each enemy has a memorable personality and particular “tells” that you can master, which I liked — but skirmishes started to feel less engaging the longer I played. Expect mashy chaos from time to time. There’s also ranged combat with bows and a huge assortment of arrow types, as well as bombs. Crafting gear out of your prey is entertaining in that Monster Hunter sort of way, and pieces have different perks and weight ratings. Certain sets are needed for navigating fumes and underwater caves.
With more excursions under your belt, a stable place to call home and craft at, and better gear sourced from the bugs you are able to pummel, Grounded gets easier over time. Bless the life-steal weapons. With the exception of a few boss battles (some of which are optional) and a late defend-three-points-and-pray mission that got really dicey, most of my struggles were frontloaded. Things might’ve been smoother in online co-op, which is the ideal way to play — but I got through it all alone, and with patience, you can too.
Thankfully, Grounded has multiple autosaves to fall back on, death isn’t the worst (more of an inconvenience), and you can freely save outside of combat. I’d recommend doing so often. It’s possible to set a respawn point at (easily built) shelters, and if you’re taken out, it’s a matter of fetching your lost backpack to regain your on-hand items. That said, this is an exploration-heavy game with a lot of running around — avoid any repetition you can.
While hunger and thirst meters are a consistent threat, for the most part, fresh water is plentiful — just smack a blade of grass to release a high-up droplet — and food doesn’t strictly have to be cooked, though roasted aphid is far better sustenance than a handful of plucked mushrooms. If you neglect these needs for too long, an ominous countdown will begin. This timer was only a problem for me once, when I was stranded deep in an uncharted area for story reasons. But generally, out in the open, everything’s in reach.
Big picture, the main considerations are scouting out a good central location for your home (or homes), since you’ll keep coming back to unload your backpack and craft building-dependent creations, and also maintaining a healthy reserve of materials. Armor and weapons degrade and can be repaired with the right ingredients, but it’s possible to strategically upgrade them (using rare but not finite stones) when they’re almost kaput.
It’s worth noting that Grounded has three primary difficulties — I’d honestly recommend the lowest, Mild — as well as a Creative build-cool-shit-stress-free mode, Creative with Bugs, and Custom modes with lots of granular you-do-you options. There were times when I thought about bumping my save to a custom game due to obnoxiously aggressive insects and stamina constantly running low, but I resisted; it’s a one-way conversion.
If you’re struggling, gameplay-based Mutation unlocks are a fun RPG-like touch, and changing your build on the fly can go a long way. You’ll also want to smash giant teeth (Milk Molars), which award points to permanently benefit your max health, stamina, hunger/thirst burn rate, and max item stack sizes. There’s never enough inventory space!
I’ve gone long enough without getting into the story, haven’t I? I’ll keep it light.
The storytelling gives meaning to your exploration, and it’s sufficient motivation to see where things go (there’s a “good” and a “bad” animated ending), but the writing is better viewed as a playful, funny, clever bonus than as your sole reason for playing. Expect a lot of audio recordings but minimal interactions with NPCs and some scattered flashback cutscenes — the vast majority of Grounded is everything I’ve described up until this point.
Without spoiling anything, I’d say that if you’re usually survival-wary and are only interested in Grounded because of Obsidian’s well-established name, be cautious. There was enough narrative substance here for me as a survival fan, definitely, but you might not feel the same way. I liked the central abduction mystery and the opposing sides.
In the beginning, you’ll get clues about several labs with chips you need to recover, and if you’re brave, you can go “out of order” — I love that sort of freedom.
Much later, you’ll be funneled toward the upper yard, above the retaining walls. You can do your own thing as long as you want, but it does pay to explore these labs to the fullest for resources and other goodies. Eventually, the limiting factor was less “where do I go next?” and more “where do I find these highly specific parts to craft a high-tier hammer to smack something and progress the story?” When I mentioned a pacing slowdown, this was it. Even though the next section seemed tantalizingly within reach, getting geared up was a seemingly small roadblock that snowballed out of control for hours. So many errands.
I get it — this is classic survival gating — but in these moments, I longed for a more organic approach, as seen in Subnautica. With quicker traversal (or even a one-way “warp home” ability), there would’ve been much less busywork in my playthrough. If I could do it all again, I would build more “waystations” to supplement my main base and pick better spots for my staircases that stretched up to lofty biomes. Hauling grass planks can be tedious as a solo player, especially if you don’t have the most efficient armor equipped.
I should say, I love the way Grounded handles blueprints — it’s a step above most of its peers. You can analyze materials to unlock related recipes, sure, but that’s not the only way. There are also quests to take on, collectibles to find, and points to spend. With all of these methods in play, it’s a steady blueprint rollout that never feels overwhelming.
And while I’m not a builder at heart, it’s worth stressing that you could conceivably get into Grounded just for the construction side — it’s intuitive, and the backyard sprawl makes for a great setting. To that end, even though I wish combat and traversal went a bit deeper given the scope and length of this game, I was so invested in this charming and surprisingly fresh miniature world that I didn’t mind too much. There’s a certain finesse.
With its 1.0 release, Grounded has so much to discover, and enough of a hook to justify the dozens of hours you might invest. Whether you’re an exploration-minded player in search of landmarks and tucked-away treasures, or a castle-building fiend with a vision, you should ideally bring friends along for the ride. Still, playing alone, it was hard for me to walk away from Grounded, even in its slowest moments. I wasn’t satisfied with my end-of-game score, so I searched for secrets and kept going, boosting my grade in the process. Even now, there are still more bugs to catalog and, inevitably, squash. Nothing personal!
While Obsidian isn’t known for survival games, it ended up making a great one.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]