A lot has happened for Obsidian Entertainment since releasing Grounded into Early Access over two years ago. In that time, the developer has announced The Outer Worlds 2, a first-person Pillars of Eternity RPG named Avowed, and Pentiment, a historical narrative adventure due out November 15, 2022.
Release date: September 27, 2022
Platform(s): Xbox Series X, Xbox One, PC
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
That's a lot of plates for one studio to keep spinning, so you could be forgiven for seeing Grounded's transition into a fully launched product as a case of Obsidian putting its small-scale, experimental survival game out to pasture – closing the books on development in order to move onto bigger things.
Far from it. Grounded 1.0 not only celebrates all that Obsidian has achieved with the game over the course of Early Access, but points to a hopefully long and fruitful future for this quirky, yet unabashedly charming cocktail of survival-based storytelling. Grounded may look small at first glance, then, but don't be fooled; this latest iteration cements its status as a mighty addition to the Game Pass Catalogue.
Honey, who shrunk the kids?
While Obsidian has always pitched Grounded as a blend of survival-crafting and classic role-playing, the game has spent much of its time in Early Access leaning more towards the former, as narrative threads fell away the further you sunk into the adventures of its miniaturized teens trapped in a mad scientist's backyard. Grounded's full release finally changes all of that, offering a complete campaign that will let you unearth the mystery of who shrunk them, learn about the true nature of their perilous habitat, and finally go big and go home.
It's a mystery that's absolutely worth pursuing to the end, as this is where both Obsidian's well-known knack for world-building most successfully intertwines with its clear, unabashed adoration for Amblin-esque '90s nostalgia – it feeds the story's blend of light-hearted humour and coming-of-age themes. The questing hums along at a decent tempo, too, rewarding your engagement with Grounded's survival-crafting systems via steady drips of narrative beats to enjoy, as well as sights to uncover as you explore the backyard and its many secrets.
While it's still a far cry from the kind of deep, role-playing simulation typically seen from an Obsidian title (NPCs remain frustratingly few and far between), the Grounded campaign finally feels like a story that lives up to the studio's reputation, in spite of the compromises made in sustaining the game's foundations as a survival-crafting experience.
That survival-crafting foundation is stronger than ever in Grounded, too, not least because this latest update sits atop a heap of new features and improvements that have been added to the game (and carefully iterated on) over the last two years. Whether playing alone or with up to three other friends online, the urge to explore, conquer, and invest yourself into the Grounded ecosystem remains ever compelling thanks to a vast wealth of progression paths to engage with.
Better yet, this sense of immersive adventuring is particularly palpable whenever Grounded leans into the horror of what it means to be running around at the bottom of the backyard food chain. Much has been said about the game's arachnophobia mode, which helpfully offers a "spider slider" for customising the appearance of Grounded's most fearsome foes. But when you run into your first eight-legged apex predator for yourself, its fangs bared and eyes reddened, the temptation to head straight to the settings menu is palpable.
For all of its creativity, however, Grounded doesn't do much to avoid the familiar trappings of its genre either, occasionally falling into the humdrum of the survival-crafting grind as you invest hours into gathering up heaps of resources to build your shelter or simply keep your hunger and thirst at bay. These gameplay loops are popular for a reason, of course, and some of you will happily cycle through them for all their merit. For those who aren't as taken by such genre staples, it's worth emphasising that Grounded merely builds upon, rather than subverts or transcends, the prosaic rhythms of the survival-crafting template.
In that same vein, Grounded's user interface could also benefit from further streamlining. The crafting, building, progression, questing, and inventory systems are all fairly extensive, but Grounded's awkward menu management doesn't make the navigation of those systems as simple or straightforward as it should be – actively resisting against player intuition at its worst.
And then there's combat, which could be best described as more function than form; a perfunctory means to an end (that end being resource harvesting) rather than an enjoyable experience in and of itself. The addition of new boss fights, such as the fan-requested praying mantis, do bring some welcome diversity to the action, and there's plenty of choice when it comes to weaponry, but fighting the many bugs and beasties of Grounded still lacks the dynamics and inventiveness found in other Obsidian titles like The Outer Worlds, and I would love to see the studio bring more of that combat flavouring here going forward.
It's not a bug, it's an enemy
There's no mistaking that Grounded's visuals have impressed from day one of its Early Access launch, executing a cohesive artistic vision with creative flourish and some genuinely fantastic lighting effects. That's no less true today, especially on the Xbox Series X, where Obsidian takes full advantage of the consoles' capacity for 4K resolutions and higher frame rates.
The backyard, once a limited playspace that struggled to fully live up to its winning conceit, is now an immense jungle of diverse biomes and points of interests. The locations range from a murky Koi Pond patrolled by its own unique bestiary of underwater predators to a literal sandbox that resembles its very own microcosmic desert sahara. Grounded's ability to find the awe-inspiring in the everyday is, and always will be, one of its greatest achievements, rivalling the most epic fantasy settings in spectacle without ever leaving its own backyard.
Obsidian has also addressed the majority of bugs that were so prevalent during its first year, too; insects no longer clip in and out of the ground, crashes are now an infrequent occurrence, and much of the quality-of-life improvements that have been added up till this point make for a smoother, more sophisticated experience overall. That's not to say that Grounded is entirely error-free, but it has certainly earned its way out of Early Access, and with Obsidian remaining committed to further updates down the road, it's only going to become more optimised over time.
The most promising feature of Grounded is that there's always room to grow, then, but even if Obsidian decided to call it quits now, it could do so proud of what it has accomplished here. This small game with a big heart is ultimately a successful experiment, and while the tension between its two identities of role-playing and survival-crafting results in some noticeable tension points, the marriage between the two remains a happy union overall.
Like its motley gang of playable teens, Grounded is gutsy, a little awkward, and still going through some growing pains, yet Obsidian's pocket-sized odyssey is so bursting with personality and imagination, you simply can't help but root for it.
Grounded was reviewed on Xbox Series X/S, with a code provided by the publisher.