Editor's note: This review evaluates Grounded based on its early access state. We plan on reviewing Grounded again once it gets a full release.
Think about your favourite survival games. Think back to how they launched. Think of their initial public showing. If your favourites are like mine, you'll notice a trend: None of them were very good when they first launched to the general public.
Subnautica had me on the edge of my seat at launch, but it ran terribly. Four years later and its 1.0 build was one of my favourite games in a year that included God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2. The Forest, similarly, launched a mere shadow of the terrifying adventure it would eventually become. No Man's Sky was near-universally criticised at launch, but it eventually reached its potential and went beyond. Grounded, from Obsidian Entertainment, is currently in the early part of the aforementioned Early Access phase, and is lacking in many respects. But, like the games mentioned above, it has what feels like the potential to grow into something much, much greater.
A co-op survival game like many others, Grounded puts you in the shoes of one of four tween explorers and challenges you to live. Instead of sending you to a stranded island or an ocean-covered planet, Grounded plonks you in a suburban backyard. The twist? You're one two-thousandth your regular size. You get to live out a situation that is pulled straight out of things like Honey I Shrunk The Kids, The Magic School Bus, or Anatomy Park, and if you have any affinity for those things, getting to take part in the situation is very cool.
You awaken with no memory of how you landed in this situation, and your goals are twofold: work out how to return to your normal size (maybe even a little bigger, for basketball reasons) and, more pressingly, to survive. Neither objective is all that simple.
In its current state you can actually wrap up the story content of Grounded in under 30 minutes. Once you know what you're doing and where to go, there's little stopping you from completing the steps necessary to "'finish" the game. From there, you're able to complete rudimentary quests, and you can continue to explore and build within the backyard world, but you won't be achieving any story goals.
Of course, the story is far from finished in its current form. You aren't "big" again after you finish what's available; the rest of it simply hasn't been implemented yet. That's not surprising--other story-focussed survival games like Subnautica and The Forest were the same when they launched. After a short period, then, you're left with really just one goal: survival.
Survival games are about priority management. The good ones are a series of checklists, vital tasks for you to tick off each in-game day in order to eagerly start the list anew tomorrow. But the thrill of playing an outstanding survival game comes from the way that priority management leads to unexpected storylines.
Grounded starts out deceptively easy--you need food and water or you will perish. Day one involves working out what is edible and what isn't. You can eat mushrooms and you can reliably find water dew dangling from blades of grass. Unfortunately, because you're the size of a Lego figure's hand, you discover that mites will try to eat you.
Suddenly, your priorities change. Now you need food, water, and something to defend yourself. Grounded features a great system in the form of SCA.B OS, which helpfully details crafting recipes. Unluckily, while hunting for the Pebblet, Sprigs, and Plant Fibres you need to make a spear, you might get stuck in a spider web. And again, your priorities change. Grounded has those compelling survival game hooks.
While progression is superficially tied to the "scanning" mechanism, wherein you feed objects into a computer to learn new recipes, the real growth comes from your own internalisation. The better you understand the world, the better you're able to manage your wants and needs. And that knowledge leads to the ability to alter your management strategies. Even in its larval form, Grounded provides you with an array of methods for negating the pressures of survival. You can build canteens to carry water and tanks to store it. You can cook food, build walls, and craft armour, weapons, and more.
And knowing these things allows you to adjust your task list further to enhance efficiency. Even when you're a miniature Bear Grylls, the second-to-second narrative is continuously changing because there's always something you can't account for just around the corner (thankfully, the game features a mode to cater to arachnophobes). While the map layout is fixed in each run, much of the resource and enemy placement is not. So even when you know exactly what you're doing, there's an air of inevitability in the knowledge that things are always just moments away from going terribly wrong.
At one point in a successful run, two giant Wolf Spiders--nasty jumping beasts about the size of a Range Rover compared to the player character--decided to leave their homes and destroy my group's base. We'd done nothing to provoke the attack, and being unable to defeat two Wolf Spiders at once, we were forced to simply sit and watch as our base was demolished. Or so we thought. We were saved from certain death when two lady beetles showed up and started attacking the spiders.
What makes survival games special is that nobody else will have that exact same story. And Grounded nails that emergent element in a way that's natural and consequential. It's the same feeling you get when mutants raid your base in The Forest, or when Leviathans attack your Cyclops in Subnautica. These are common occurrences, but the circumstances surrounding them make them endearingly personal.
What brings Grounded back to earth is the sheer lack of depth in its priorities. The survival loop in the game as it is right now is simply too short, too easy to manage and get a complete hold of. And apart from doing quests for BURG-L--the helpful grilling robot who marks the end of the game's current story content--there's little reason to extend your reach beyond their grasp.
In fact, in its current form, building giant bases in anything but Creative mode is a Sisyphean effort. While the dual Wolf Spider attack story is my own, it's not exactly a rare occurrence and many players in the community have spoken about the overly hostile wildlife and its base-wrecking desires. The tapes you find--yes, audiotapes are a primary narrative device--hint at the wildlife suddenly becoming unusually hostile, so we might eventually find out why the insects are so aggro. Until that can be dealt with, though, you're generally better off building your base into a permanent structure, like a soda can--and even then, you're only keeping out the biggest of baddies.
And while Grounded definitely has plans to expand--there is "under construction" tape in some areas of the map--the world feels, overall, a little small in early access. Puns aside, the map doesn't feel like it has square footage to feel vast. You move around it quickly, you jump high and suffer little fall damage, and you can even get a dandelion to allow you to glide. The game has a cartoon adventure vibe, so the arcade-style movement makes sense, but the extra speed effectively shrinks the map once you come to understand it fully.
Strangely, there's no radial compass in the game, which initially makes finding your way around difficult. It's easy to get turned around in the grass stalk forests of some litterbug's backyard because it can be tricky to spot any landmarks. And until you get your bearings (and add some trail markers) the only thing that really slows you down as you bunny-hop across the map is the need to tap M to work out where you're going.
Grounded has the foundation needed to turn into a great survival game, but it has a long way to go yet. The titular term comes from aviation--when a pilot finds themselves, for whatever reason, unable to fly, they are Grounded. It's a pretty apt name for the current state of Obsidian's foray into the co-op survival genre. But like a balsa wood airplane, Grounded sits at the outstretched tension point of a strong rubber band. It is pure, unadulterated potential energy, and all we can do is sit back and wait to see if that rubber band snaps or if the game achieves take off. I think it's gonna fly.