Platforms: PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S
Release Date: September 27, 2022
If nothing else, you have to admire Grounded for taking a chance. The game’s developer, Obsidian Entertainment, has delighted players for decades with deep, inventive RPGs, such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II and Pillars of Eternity. By contrast, Grounded is a survival/crafting game that’s light on story, heavy on repetition and pretty much devoid of role-playing elements.
One thing that Grounded has in common with Obsidian’s other titles, however, is that it’s likely to entrance some players just as strongly as it alienates others. Crafting game aficionados may adore Grounded for its clever setting, deep gameplay systems and huge variety of gear. At the same time, gamers who expected Obsidian’s signature deep story and robust character customization are out of luck. This is a game where you will gather resources to craft items to gather better resources, to craft better items, and so on, but the game won’t really tell you how to do it — or why you’d want to.
It's tough to determine whether Grounded is a frustrating experience with a few brilliant touches, or a brilliant experience buried under a lot of busywork and tedium. Read on for our full Grounded review.
Grounded review: Gameplay
If you’ve played a survival/crafting game before, then you should feel right at home in Grounded. You play as one of four interchangeable teenagers, who find themselves shrunk down to the size of an insect and stranded in a suburban backyard.
To survive, you’ll need to gather materials, create a shelter, build weapons and tools, explore a variety of biomes and slay every aggressive insect that crosses your path. When you’re not actively crafting something you need to survive, you’ll be out finding the resources for your next big project, either by traversing the environment or disassembling a deadly enemy.
Roughly speaking, the gameplay in Grounded has three main elements: survival, crafting and exploration. (There’s also combat, but it’s essentially just an outgrowth of the crafting system. You can hit enemies with either melee or ranged weapons; that’s about it.) These three activities give the game a healthy amount of variety, although none of them is quite strong enough to stand on its own.
In terms of immediacy, survival is the first thing you’ll have to figure out. Once you select which teenager you want to play as (they look different, but offer exactly the same playstyle), you’ll need to gather food and water, quickly and frequently, or risk an untimely death.
At first, figuring out what you can eat and drink feels rewarding. Raw insect meat is a no-go, as is stagnant water you find lying on the ground. Roasted meat and fresh dewdrops work much better, particularly when you find a way to store additional supplies and carry them with you. But once you get past the initial thrill of discovery, gathering food and water is simply a bit of busywork that you have to do every day.
Crafting is the most substantial part of the game, but whether you find the process engrossing or tedious depends a lot on your tolerance for the genre. Just about everything you find in Grounded — plants, pebbles and insect parts, primarily — is part of at least one crafting recipe. You can analyze the resources you find to gain “Raw Science” (essentially experience points), which teaches you new recipes over time.
In theory, crafting is a virtuous cycle. You craft a few basic resources, such as a pebble ax and some clover armor, then go out exploring. Slaying tougher insects nets you tougher hides; going further afield can get you more exotic plants, such as blueberries or dandelions. You come back to your base (which you can also build up and customize via crafting), make better items, and repeat the process. Improving your gear, shelter and survival skills over time can feel rewarding, especially since newer items often offer a substantial benefit over older ones.
The trouble is that in practice, crafting is often an aimless and haphazard experience. The game doesn’t tell you where you can find any given insect or resource, so you’ll have to explore. Fair enough. But you can encounter enemies and terrain that are way too tough for you right from the start, so which way to go is never clear. As a result, you can waste an awful lot of time and resources on a fruitless gathering mission, assuming you don’t just die outright. Then you can respawn without your hard-won loot, or reload incessantly. Neither one is much fun.
Even when you know where you need to go, exploring the map can be a joyless slog. After a rare plot mission directed me toward a hidden lab, I sought it out — only to find that the entrance was on a completely different side of the map, hidden behind dozens of impossibly tough insects, and requiring all sorts of traversal items that I didn’t have yet. I didn’t mind the difficulty, or having to overcome obstacles; I did mind that the only way to learn this was through a grueling trial-and-error process that cost me hours of progress.
Grounded review: Story
If you’ve ever seen the 1989 comedy Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, then you pretty much know the story in Grounded as well. Four teenagers get shrunk down and thrown into a suburban backyard, where they must match wits with environmental hazards and belligerent insects in order to survive. The major difference in Grounded is that the “how did we get here?” mystery plays a big role in the plot, and you’ll have to track down a series of tiny laboratories to unearth a slightly satirical “science-gone-wrong” story.
From a narrative standpoint, there’s nothing really wrong with the story in Grounded. It’s not quite as deep as what Obsidian usually puts out, but it’s charming enough, particularly the game’s strong sense of aesthetics. Grounded takes place in 1990, and everything from the superhero-laden juice boxes to the chunky computer consoles to the goofy character outfits feels like a love letter to a nostalgic era. The aesthetics aren’t as cloying as in Stranger Things, either; once you’re out in the field, substance trumps style every time.
The trouble is that the gameplay and the narrative never intersect in any meaningful way. You survive by crafting shelters and tools; you advance the story by seeking out laboratories. While you need to do both, the “survival” part of the game seems largely unconcerned with the “story” part, and vice versa. It’s a huge missed opportunity, particularly since Grounded does not do a good job of introducing players to the general gameplay loop, or the myriad systems therein. It’s easy to imagine a slightly more directed version of Grounded, where the story complements the gameplay rather than just providing a distant carrot and entirely too much stick.
Grounded review: Visuals and sound
The most striking part of Grounded’s visuals is its use of color. Grounded is a vibrant game, with verdant greens grass, deep brown dirt and crystal-clear dewdrops, contrasted against harsh purple soda cans and angry red ants. While the visuals themselves get repetitive pretty fast (you’re going to see a lot of dried grass and dirt mounds), Grounded uses the full spectrum to support its “sideways angle on everyday objects” art style.
The sound design, on the other hand, is unremarkable. While the voice acting from each teen is fine, the character quips get repetitive fast. There’s also little music to speak of, and the insectile chittering starts to feel grating rather than immersive after a while.
Grounded review: Verdict
There’s probably an audience of inveterate crafting fans who will love what Grounded has to offer. But unless you’re already deeply entrenched in the genre, Obsidian’s latest game is a tougher sell. Grounded is repetitive, punishing and aimless, and the central story and charming art style are not strong enough to warrant the slog.
On the other hand, there’s a hidden upside to every one of the game’s drawbacks. The crafting system is deep, conquering the game’s many challenges feels satisfying, and the story provides just enough of a hook to get out and explore the big, unusual world.
Grounded isn’t for everyone, and perhaps that’s part of the game’s appeal. This small-scale adventure has the potential to provide big fun — or big frustration.