Obsidian’s first game announcement as an Xbox Games Studio was not the game I think any of us expected. Grounded is not a big budget action RPG, it’s not even part of the CRPG revival of the last decade, it’s a co-op survival game played out on a miniscule scale.
This is basically Honey, I Shrunk the Kids – The Video Game, just a whopping 30 years on from when that might have been a relevant video game tie in.
As Microsoft went on their game studio spending spree over the last few years, there’s been a strange transition period. All of their acquisitions were hustling, bustling independent studios, whether taking on new IPs, working on crowdfunded games or picking up work for hire as and where they could. They also almost universally had games already in development and publishing partnerships established.
That’s exactly the case for Obsidian, whose acquisition this time last year in November 2018 came almost a year away from the release of The Outer Worlds, being published under Take Two’s Private Division label. Microsoft acquired the studio, but not the game, instead seeming content to simply have the game be inducted into Xbox Game Pass at its launch.
However, Obsidian are not a single dev team studio anymore, as we’ve seen through their crowdfunded projects like Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. While a lot of the company worked on The Outer Worlds, another smaller team has been beavering away on Grounded. Already in development before the acquisition, it’s absolutely an odd-ball game, given the studio’s history.
I hopped into the game with little to no idea what it was, but its scale was simple to grasp. You and up to three other player have been shrunk down to the size of ants, running around in the back garden trying to survive amidst the veritable forest of grass blades, weeds, leaves and rubbish. Also plenty of bugs.
As with many survival games, it can all feel a little aimless the first time you set foot in them. You have to figure out what’s what, finding your way as you seek to get a better and better run. The demo helped by starting us with a half constructed fort to finish off. Makeshift tools let you cut down grass, grabbing a few segments at a time and hauling them back to create walls and doors to your safe harbour. Within we also had a tiny little spit to roast food and a workbench to craft early pieces of armour – these made from acorn shells and fibre.
But back to the food. You’ll have to stay hydrated, which is easy enough thanks to water droplets and condensation on the leaves, but actual food is a little trickier… and ickier. Basically, you’ve got to eat bugs. There’s thankfully quite a few bugs meandering around the world, whether it’s gnats hovering over a little pool of water, or aphids that you manage to spot, but nabbing them to pop some juicy aphid steaks on the spit isn’t exactly my idea of appetising.
Some bugs are pretty neutral, just going about their business, but others are more aggressive. Ants are the little gits you’d expect them to be, coming along to try and tear down your base, their eyes lighting up red if you try to stop them – thankfully a couple stabs of a spear will kill them. You’ll also have to deal with larger and more dangerous beasts, like stinkbugs and spiders, perhaps as part of the waves of insects that you’ll need to fight off.
It’s all set to be wrapped up by a story that leads you on missions to overcome, set in a handcrafted sandbox, as opposed to a procedurally generated world. Every once in a while as we played, a robotic voice would pipe up to say that a wave of enemies was coming in, and so on.
It’s a curious game that left me a little underwhelmed. The Honey, I Shrunk the Kids influence was clear to see, and the co-op survival elements could be fun, it’s just not the kind of game that people will associate with Obsidian. It’s a fun setting for a child of the 80s and 90s though, and hopefully a longer session can reveal more of that spark of ingenuity and originality.
Grounded will be coming to Xbox One and PC in 2020, but it’s starting of with a stint in the Xbox Insiders programme, before entering into Game Preview and Xbox Game Pass in the spring.