There are plenty of fears that come from being small. I was afraid of the dark when I was little – not for any of the normal reasons, but because some helpful older child told me I’d turn into a werewolf if moonlight touched me – but as you get older you tend to replace such things with worries about the mortgage monster and the noise coming from No.11 down the street.
Grounded reminds you of those fears your smaller-self experienced. Quite literally. You think that your garden is a peaceful place, a square of solitude that is wholly yours and an extension of the safety of your home. Grounded will show you that it’s not. This is a place that’s wild, alien, and dangerous, and having been shrunk down to the size of a Rick Moranis feature film, things like mites, ants and spiders are suddenly the most hostile creatures you’ve ever met.
Having entered Game Preview on PC and Xbox One at the end of July, Grounded runs the familiar path of many recent survival games in Early Access. It drops you in with the fundamental components and tools of the game in a sandbox arena, while holding back the main body of the narrative as Obsidian continue to tinker away with it.
Difficulty in Grounded runs from Mild, where the yard is still a hostile environment but the game is otherwise pretty easy going, up to Whoa!, where the game is designed to beat you down even further than ground level you’re at. There’s also a Creative mode, where there’s no stress, no creatures trying to kill you, and no need to manage your resources, and you can just explore the garden to your heart’s content. Even on the standard difficulty, a careless jaunt too near to the wrong creature will have you scurrying back to your last save point.
You didn’t just magically shrink down to the size of a thumbnail. Much like the movie classic Honey I Shrunk The Kids there are obviously science-based shenanigans at work, and this opening narrative section really only hints at the wider picture that’s going on.
Despite being an insect-sized person, expecting to find nothing more interesting than forgotten Lego blocks and surprise ‘treats’ from your pet dog, you fairly swiftly come across a Field Station, a tiny little scientific base. There’s no explanation of where it comes from or what it’s doing, but it is kitted out with a Resource Analyzer that your small personage can put to use.
In classic survival game style, you can pick up a host of things along your garden travels, from pebbles and clover leaves through to sap and mushrooms. Using the Resource Analyzer you’ll unlock new crafting recipes that use those items, starting out with the necessities like a torch and axe, before making a start on armour to protect yourself against the more vicious bugs, and the components needed to construct your own home base.
There are more tiny installations and mysterious machines hidden amongst the grass, and in one of these you come across BURG. L, a friendly grilling/flipping/monitoring robot. The lab that he’s in has suffered from a power-based disaster – I’m only mildly sure this wasn’t something to do with me – and while there are a few further glimpses of the underlying story, the Game Preview effectively just dumps you here, leaving you begging for more.
There’s still plenty for you to do. BURG. L gives you three daily tasks to complete, forcing you out into the wide world, and pushing you to learn the game’s systems and see more of the hideous/cute menagerie. Ants, mites and aphids are smaller than you, cute even, and while ladybugs bumble along with their merry colours belying an ability to crush you in moments, there’s one creature that will have some players shivering with horror in real life, never mind on their TV screen: spiders.
The spiders in Grounded are terrifying. The sight of a series of webs strung between blades of grass will have you taking a hugely circuitous route to steer clear of them, while holes at the centre of their nests are worth staying away from for… well, forever. I don’t doubt that BURG.L will eventually send you down one – there’s something nefarious about that burger-flipping bot – but for now they are an immediate, skin-crawling, terror that remain a constant presence at the back of your mind. The game does allow you to alter their appearance incrementally until they’re just plain deadly blobs, though I’m not sure how much that will help some people.
There’s some lovely little details though, amongst the arachnophobia. From your way-point marker working in centimetres instead of metres, to the way that your expanding list of craftable items pushes you further and further from safety, Grounded has all the bases covered for a unique and enjoyable survival experience. It also looks quite lovely, with bold, stylised visuals and some great depth of field to draw you into the idea that you’re an inch tall.
The music successfully fulfils all of those 80s movie vibes too, with some fantastic synth-led tunes giving things more of a horror vibe, a la Stranger Things, while the chirps and rustles of creatures as they go about their busy lives lends the garden a life of its own that’s a delight to take in.
Despite Grounded being in Game Preview, it feels agreeably solid and fully formed, at least in terms of the mechanics at play. The narrative setup is intriguing, and told with a wry sense of humour that should win over even the most hardened of hearts. Thanks to its launch on Game Pass as well, this is one mini adventure with a huge amount of potential.