We've explored a garden in the phenomenal Grounded, an adventure that gives a whole new meaning to the term "big challenges".
This seems like the dullest and most predictable way to start a Grounded review, but let's talk about the 1989 film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. In the very simple premise, a half-witted scientist accidentally managed to shrink a group of kids to microscopic size, whereupon they suffer the challenges of being tiny in a normally safe and familiar environment.
This is exactly (minus Rick Moranis as the scientist) also the setup for Grounded. Without further explanation, you - and some friends if you want to - have become tiny and find yourself in a rather cosy backyard of an equally picturesque house. The only problem is that everything we normally don't care about is now suddenly deadly. Straws of grass have turned into almost alien-like forests, small holes have become exciting caves, and the creepy crawlies need not be mentioned.
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Sure, we've been small before in many games, but never in this elaborate way. Here, every single aspect of the title relies on you being ultra-mini and the world feels huge as a result. How are you going to deal with this, especially since you don't really know why it's like this either?
I've actually been following Obsidian's development of Grounded since it was released into Early Access and Game Preview in the summer of 2020. Even then it was an entertaining game, albeit buggy and a bit hard to get into, as well as feeling a bit bare-boned. But now, just over two years later, it's been officially released, and it's been quite a gripping journey, with Obsidian Entertainment continually adding content as well as having an astonishingly good dialogue with their community.
As a result, a very complete and polished gaming experience awaits you when you press start to wake up and give new meaning to the term 'tiny'. You see the house far away, but how will you get there? And most importantly, how will you find food and water and make sure you have enough health and stamina? Grounded is generally a game in what is now commonly referred to as the survival genre, and how you tackle the challenges you face is really up to you. There are very good opportunities to vary your gameplay.
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As I wrote above, Grounded was a bit tricky to get into during the early testing period, but while much has improved on that front, there's still a bit too much force feeding initially when the various systems and how they relate to each other are presented to you. I'd like to state right here and now that it's well worth the effort to take it all in though, because this is one of the most fun game worlds I've visited in a very, very long time.
The greatness comes from the fact that the garden you inhabit is free to explore - but incredibly inhospitable. It's quite obvious that insect-sized humans have no business here. This is in stark contrast to the fact that I'm actually adventuring in the back of a house I'd love to live in. It's so cosy and nice with bright, bold colours as well as a fancy design. The world really lives and breathes too, with lots of animals moving about everywhere in what feels like a believable ecosystem. It also feels elaborate, something we're not used to from the survival genre, and runs smoothly along in both 4K and 60 frames per second on the Xbox Series X.
However, most things are really dangerous no matter how beautiful they are and often I am forced to rethink when something proves to be overwhelming by either giving up or trying something radically different. As well as crafting better equipment so you can be in any environment (like killing a Stinkbug to make a gas mask). There's also the unexpected thrill of exploring mysterious ant tunnels, wrestling with insects, dodging carp in fishponds and building shelters for the night. What's more, there's actually a story baked into the finished game, which hardly carries the product, but which nonetheless proves to be far more interesting than I anticipated and makes it worth exploring thoroughly. Sure, it's basically about you regaining your normal size, but there's actually a bit more here than that.
Grounded is perfectly fine to play alone, and I've probably spent half my time with the game doing just that. However, it's when you play with others online that it really shines. Being able to do things together as a group makes everything more fun, and I find myself feeling that many of the hardest challenges are designed to be played multiplayer and are better balanced this way, as well as the fact that there are so many different elements that it's really possible to do something as a group. The latter especially includes the base building where you can create some really creative giant forts instead of just having a few piled up walls with the most important things inside them as cover for the night.
Grounded has really matured like a fine wine and has gained a lot from spending two years in Early Access and Game Preview. Thanks to this, we've got the fantastic product we have today, a survival adventure that beats the competition from the start in terms of both content and technology. Sure, the difficulty level is a little uneven at times and I still find the introduction a little too steep, but in the end it's a game that once again transforms a 45-year-old old man into a carefree teenager with adventures in a wonderful sandbox that could, and should, be explored as many times as you like, both alone and with a team of happy friends.
8 / 10
Wonderful game world. Superb co-op. Lovely design. Lots to discover. Huge replay value. Encourages creativity.