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Grounded is a Charming, Accessible Take on Survival Games

Obsidian's latest cuts the fat without sacrificing depth.

by Brandon Adams

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I’ll be upfront with you: until Subnautica the survival genre as a whole did nothing for me. I bounced off of Rust, I couldn’t stand Ark, and every other imitator had me rolling my eyes in disdain. But Subnautica – oh, sweet Subnautica – how you won me over. It then comes as high praise for me to claim Obsidian’s Grounded reminded me of Unknown Worlds’ breakout hit in all the right ways.

In Grounded you play as a child who has been shrunk down to the size of an insect. You find yourself stranded in some stranger’s backyard, where a patch of grass is as expansive as a forest. You need to survive long enough to restore yourself back to your normal, human-sized self, but with all the aggressive bugs skittering about you have your work cut out for you (though, if you suffer from arachnophobia Obsidian has provided a slider to ensure you can enjoy the game without suffering a panic attack).

It’s a charming concept, and if you grew up with “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” it’s hard not to feel somewhat nostalgic. Wandering around the demo I stumbled across a tin of mints the size of a truck, a jug of juice larger than a house, and camera bipods that towered well above everything else. It’s a subtle, yet appreciable change of scenery when compared to similar survival games, even if cutting down a blade of grass is functionally no different than felling a tree. By and by, the fundamentals are nothing new in Grounded, but the presentation and easy to parse crafting menu help elevate the experience above its peers.

See, what endured me to Subnautica over all the other survival games out there were two things: the wonderful biomes, and the simple yet complex crafting system. I was constantly tugged along by my innate curiosity and sense of exploration, and the streamlined survival mechanics kept me engaged without being off-putting or overwhelming. Factor in the ever-evolving story, a mystery that grew more and more compelling as you dove deeper into the depth, and I couldn’t put Subnautica down.

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Obsidian has clearly taken notes from Unknown Worlds’ playbook. When you’re shrunk down to the scale of an ant a normally bland backyard becomes a whole new exciting dimension. A tuft of weeds is a sprawling exotic forest, a benign pond becomes an intimidating ocean, and an innocuous ant hill shifts into a harrowing maze where a torch is absolutely required. Throw in oversized Tic-Tacs, baseballs, and walky-talkies and it’s hard not to be possessed by wanderlust.

Then there’s the mystery surrounding how our plucky cast of teens found themselves in this situation in the first place, which slowly reveals itself the further you explore. Grounded has taken the mundane and made it magical. Even in the demo, where the game is clearly a work-in-progress, the cartoony art-style helped exaggerate the sheer difference in scale, making every discovery awe-inspiring.

The crafting is pleasantly streamlined, but don’t mistake that for simple. Even within the meager thirty-minutes provided by the demo I found myself unlocking a dizzying array of recipes. These were the usual suspects – torches, hammers, campfires, etc. – but there’s something to said about the morbid satisfaction that comes from building a chair out of ant limbs. There’s even a hotkey dedicated to basic survival equipment that makes building critical items such as shelters, waymarkers, and baskets easy enough to do in a flash. The dedicated crafting menu itself is broken apart into simple to understand categories, and if an item requires a separately crafted component you can easily create that component without leaving the recipe.

Grounded cuts out the tedious menu-management and recipe memorization found in other survival games without sacrificing the depth fans expect. Every item gathered will unlock a new recipe, and there’s even a research scanner that’ll reveal even more complex recipes when you use it to scan objects (though it is on a lengthy cooldown). There’ll be plenty to collect and create, and thanks to the slick crafting interface it’ll be simple to keep track of it all.

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It also helps Grounded keeps its survival mechanics simple, much like Subnautica. You have health, hunger, and thirst to contend with, and they’re all easy to maintain at a basic level. Sleeping at night has nothing to do with keeping some arbitrary bar filled, but is instead tied to a simple gameplay conceit: it’s dangerous to explore at night, yet more rewarding. Grounded ensures the micro-management inherent to survival games remains tolerable. You’re concerned with finding food and water, sure, but it isn’t balanced to the point of oppression.

The foundation within Grounded is solid, and its clear Obsidian understands what makes a survival game compelling while cutting out the obtuse bullshit. The core concept of being shrunk down to centimetres has allowed Obsidian to create a unique world you’ll want to see more of, and the intuitive crafting and simple survival mechanics ensure you won’t be bogged down with too much minutia. You’re able to explore and engage with the game on your terms, which is largely what I loved about Subnautica. Add in four player co-op and robust base-building, and it’s clear to see Obsidian has a recipe for success.

There’s clearly work that needs to be done: voice-acting is missing in the demo, performance needs improvement, and some hotkeys don’t seem to work at all. Combat is a touch floaty, and certain interactions are entirely devoid of sound. But, what’s here already works and works well, meaning Obsidian can spend most of their time polishing the game instead of overhauling the systems driving the experience.

Grounded will enter the Xbox Game Preview July 28th on both Xbox One and PC, meaning plenty can change in the lead-up to launch. That said, what’s here is compelling, and with a little bit of work Grounded could become one of the best survival games on the market. As someone who normally avoids survival games I can’t wait to see what Grounded looks like when completed.

- This article was updated on:June 18th, 2020

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