It's too early to talk about Grounded in any meaningful way. Obsidian Entertainment's latest is a survival game in the vein of Ark: Survival Evolved, with the family-friendly veneer of 1989's Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Instead of facing off against the dinosaurs and mutated beasts of Ark, Grounded has you stabbing soldier ants with spears made from weeds, or delving into the darkness to beat up mites with a stone axe.
Grounded launched yesterday into the Xbox Game Preview program and Steam Early Access, living firmly up to the "early access" moniker. What's here is the framework of a deeper game. "Ark for everyone" is a great pitch I think, and I enjoyed parts of my time playing the game so far, but I just need more of it.
You start Grounded as one of four children: Max, Willow, Pete, and Hoops. There's no further character creation, at least not in early access, and the characters provide a running commentary to go along with the scant story being told here. You wake up among huge roots, a cavern that turns out to be a crack in a larger backyard environment. After my chosen character, Max, commented on this being an elaborate prank, it was time to go exploring.
Here the familiar survival tropes take over pretty quickly. You can pick up certain objects on the ground like pebblets, plant fiber, and sap. You can then take those over to a science field station that's also been shrunk down to your size and research those materials. Early materials can be beaten into shape, planet fiber becoming woven fiber, which you can then combine with pebblets and sprigs of grass to make an axe. That axe can then be used to chop down blades of grass or dandelions, offering you new materials and things to craft. Better tools means more resources, which means more things you can build.
In a short time I had a small lean-to to rest in, a workbench to craft myself some grass armor, and cooking stations. Then it was time to explore the wild, some of which I had already come into contact with: Worker ants would trundle past my makeshift camp, picking up errant scraps of sap or tussling with weevils. I even saw a ladybug whose eyes became an irate red upon seeing me, but didn't seem to actually attempt to cause me harm.
While your tentative explorations through the lawn-turned-forest try to sell you Grounded's conceptual hook, the towering grass blades and immense puddles aren't that interesting. It starts to shine when you look upward. In the distance you can see a large oak tree decked in golden leaves, your new version of Yggdrasil. There's a house nearby, which is shown as a massive structure that blots out half the sky. When Grounded shows the scope of your situation, it is actually pretty cool.
Grounded also does a solid job of creating terror and tension. Unlike some titles, night is positively pitch dark, as are underground locations. An early quest had me trying to figure out what was interfering with the power of a large laser that might be able to revert my shrunken state. It turned out that mites were chewing on the power wires. I was able to kill the first few with my axe, but as the power cord wound its way into the dirt, I found I could only move forward during the occasional light from the sparking wires. I wasn't going any further until I could build a torch. Even earlier on in my first session, I was missing the Clover leaves to craft a lean-to so I could sleep for the night, but it was also too dark to go foraging for those leaves. Tension is key to survival, so it's good for Obsidian that the oppressive darkness of the underground and night add that to Grounded.
It probably doesn't help that I'm also arachnophobic and I wasn't about to run into an orb weaver at night. I did try face off against a spider once I had crafted a spear and full complement of armor, but it didn't go well. The eight-legged demons push grass stalks with their passing, so you can see them coming and hear their angry hissing noises. But while exploring a fenced area of the yard where their webbed lairs tended to be, I ran into one that goddamn sprinted at me and dispatched poor Max to the afterlife in two strikes. Death isn't a huge setback, as you hop back to a respawn point and only have to worry about retrieving your held items at your fallen backpack, but I simply didn't want to run into a spider after night fell. (There is an arachnophobic mode that turns spiders into less-threatening blobs, but I went in hardcore.)
Grounded is surprisingly bug-free in its early state, with a stability that puts it ahead of Ark, The Forest, or Rust. I applaud Obsidian for nailing that this early in the process. I also prefer Grounded's blueprint system to some other survival titles: it allows you to plan out a whole structure and then slowly add resources in order to complete the building process. The base building mechanics were a bit fiddly though: when trying to put a roof on my hovel, I couldn't get things to quite line up, leaving a hole. I wish it was a bit more rigid and grid-focused, like Ark or Conan Exiles, as both of those make it more likely that your overall structure will ultimately fit together.
Right now, the biggest problem with Grounded is it's going up against other survival games with years of updates and additions behind them. In No Man's Sky you can craft bases, ride in mech suits, and customize your own personal freighter. Ark: Survival Evolved allows you to ride dinosaurs or build underwater and treetop fortresses. Subnautica has an almost alien underwater environment and a gameplay-driven story to carry you through. Even Microsoft's own Minecraft is still out there, as massive and engaging as ever. Grounded is getting in on the ground floor, pun intended.
Perhaps that's not a problem, given that Grounded is another Xbox Game Pass title. Even if the experience doesn't have that extensive depth to draw on now, it's off to a good start and Game Pass lowers the need to gain sales right now. Much like Sea of Thieves, Grounded has the chance to take its time, improve, and grow organically. And following a solid closed beta, Grounded has a groundswell of love from its community. A more relaxing, family-friendly survival experience might have a chance to succeed, especially with Game Pass at its back.
That's my ultimate takeaway from Grounded. The game itself is fine, a solid, enjoyable survival experience. But where Microsoft finds its win here is being able to let the passion project of a small team within Obsidian Entertainment go out the door, knowing that it doesn't need to make money on every download. When the developers don't have to worry about that financial pressure bearing down their neck, I think they have more room to play. Perhaps that'll lead to more creative ideas and solutions thrown into Grounded. I'm feeling the game's future is brighter than my first night that had no shelter and no firelight. And thank God for that, because I'm sure there are spiders out there.