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Grounded review: Lord of the Flies (and other such backyard pests)

Grounded has come out of early access to let players survive a backyard full of creepy crawlies and mysterious science.

Image via Xbox Game Studios
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It’s been hard not to be charmed by what Obsidian Entertainment has been putting together for a few years with Grounded. The game entered early access in July 2020, offering a “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” sandbox survival experience. You play as a child that's been to about the size of an ant as you traverse a yard full of insects, arachnids, and scientific mystery. While Grounded may be rather tough for the lone wanderer and leave something to be desired in terms of equipment variety, it certainly doesn’t lack for thrills, co-op fun, and a wonderfully unique environment to explore.

Getting down to their level

The premise of Grounded is fairly simple: you are one of up to four teenagers that got shrunk down to just twice as large as a common worker ant and are now trapped in a vast back yard. You don’t have memory of how it happened, nor why, but you do see scattered science equipment around the yard in the form of both monstrously towering normal-sized gear and field labs that are as shrunk down as you are. It doesn’t take long to figure out that you need to find these science labs and discover various records from the scientist that was working on this shrinking experiment if you’re going to live to make it back to your normal size.

Those interested in a story and progression in their survival sandbox will find a lot to enjoy about Grounded. There is a main quest in the game, not to mention breadcrumbs of background information and narrative in the form of cassette tapes that serve as recordings from the scientist and their own expedition in this shrunken state. There’s also delightful storytelling in the environment of Grounded. The backyard is a richly diverse biosphere full of various territories of insects, arachnids, and various other arthropods.

A glimpse into the depths of the backyard in the game, Grounded.
Source: Xbox Game Studios

That said, Grounded is also kind of terrifying, especially in a solo run. Even on Medium setting, venturing out past the initial camping point to one of your first objectives at a tree is hard. Spiders make camp there and they are about as big as ten of you. Plus, if they spot you, they will chase you down relentlessly and they are difficult to escape without certain gear. The difficulty in Grounded feels uneven and it was hard to say I ever felt fully prepared for anything ahead in solo play. Thankfully, if you don’t want to punish yourself there’s an easy mode as well. And there’s even a Creative Mode, both with insects and without, in which you will not be attacked and can explore and adventure freely. It’s one of the first times I’m notably happy to see lighter difficulties for solo play.

Even so, the other good way to overcome the difficulty of Grounded is to bring friends. Like many survival games, the fun really blossoms in Grounded when you have other players chipping in when it comes to gathering, fighting, and exploring. After all, many hands make light work, so you move along quickly with more players to pool resources together. There are even communication options like pinging, emotes, an in-game chat, and more to help each other navigate objectives, point out threats, and generally survive the game.

My empire of dirt… and grass and twigs

As with most survival games, there is a crafting element to Grounded that takes up a very large portion of the game. There is a wealth of resources to gather either by harvesting them from the environment or by defeating wildlife in the backyard. Each living creature drops a multitude of parts when killed and harvested, some more than others. Need a better weapon? Venturing into an ant hill and picking fights with soldier ants for their giant mandibles will be your key to a deadly club. Need more defense? Acorns mixed with sap from trees and rope made from plant fiber will give you a solid defense. There’s a good mix of materials, both common and hard to find, between living and environmental loot farming.

As for the things you can put together with those materials, I was mixed about this. By bringing nearly any new item to a science center, you can have it analyzed and discover recipes for weapons, armor, building ideas, and other equipment. You’ll soon be able to use weeds and grass planks to build settlements and fill them with facilities like a workbench, cooking pit, storage containers, smithing benches, and more. You can build a formidable base filled with torches, fences, and trophies of your bug hunts. You can even upgrade your weapons and gear over time. Spiders getting you down? Making a spicy weapon to hit them in the face with fire just might be the play.

A battle with a bug in the game, Grounded.

Source: Xbox Game Studios

In this regard, it helps that combat is fairly fun and responsive in Grounded. You have a block button, and if you use it with the right timing, you can negate damage nearly altogether. You can also stun enemies by bashing them in their weak points, whether it's their eyes, butts, or other features. Some enemies are really hard to overcome, but learning their patterns is possible and then you at least have a better chance of bringing them down if you play it smart.

My main issue with the gear in Grounded is that some very early items stand out as must-haves and little else usurps them in terms of choice and variety. For instance, you can go for a weapon besides the Ant Club for the early game, but I saw little reason to unless something had resistance to bashing, in which case I would use the spear to pierce them. However, this happens with a few pieces of equipment in the game. While choice is there in terms of building variety, it felt like there was a proper armor and weapon set for most situations in the game and not using those tools made things more difficult.

Also, I really hated how quickly equipment could degrade when you were defeated. Armor in particular loses a hefty percentage of durability with each death and respawn, so I found myself spending an annoying amount of time gathering repair components for most of my gear. This was particularly the case when it seemed like at any point, I could venture into the stomping grounds of a wolf spider which would quickly run me down and chew me to bits. I don’t mind a little repair work. I just didn’t like my armor being so completely pulverized with every death.

An accessible yard

A spider in arachnophobia mode in the game, Grounded.
Source: Xbox Game Studios

It’s worth repeating that Grounded can be adjusted to suit your needs in a variety of ways. We already went over difficulty, but the game also caters to a variety of accessibility needs. It features a number of colorblind options, chat text-to-speech, environmental voice description that describes the on-screen elements, reticle and subtitle options, and even an arachnophobia mode. That last one in particular is probably going to come in handy for many players because spiders in Grounded are intense. Between their size, speed, and features, they definitely gave me a scare every time I saw them. It’s nice to be able to turn their nastiness down for those who need it. Indeed, Grounded simply has a solid suite of options for a lot of different playstyles and needs.

Life among the leaves

Two players wandering near a baseball in the game, Grounded.
Source: Xbox Game Studios

Of all the survival games I’ve played, Grounded is easily one of the coolest. The very theme of it is fun and the execution is pretty on target too. Playing as micro-sized kids in a vast yard full of pests and threats is really interesting, the story keeps exploration intriguing, and the progression, whether alone or with friends, feels satisfying. I’m not fond of how hard it is on normal difficulty alone, or the lack of variety among nearly required gear, but it really gets all the more delightful with friends helping. Even then, there’s plenty of ways to enjoy Grounded solo, too. Between Creative Modes, multiple difficulties, and a nice set of accessibility options, Grounded feels like one of the strongest entries to the survival genre in a long time.


This review is based on a PC digital copy supplied by the publisher. Grounded comes out on Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC on September 27, 2022.

Senior News Editor

TJ Denzer is a player and writer with a passion for games that has dominated a lifetime. He found his way to the Shacknews roster in late 2019 and has worked his way to Senior News Editor since. Between news coverage, he also aides notably in livestream projects like the indie game-focused Indie-licious, the Shacknews Stimulus Games, and the Shacknews Dump. You can reach him at tj.denzer@shacknews.com and also find him on Twitter @JohnnyChugs.

Review for
Grounded
9
Pros
  • The backyard is incredibly fun to explore
  • Story is great for a survival sandbox
  • Good variety of materials to discover and harvest
  • Combat is fun and exciting
  • Accessibility menu is full of useful features
  • Lower difficulties and Creative Mode lets you play with less stress
  • Co-op makes everything above shine all the more
Cons
  • Equipment variety sometimes feels lacking
  • Playing solo is hard, even on Medium difficulty
  • Armor penalty on death is a bit much
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