Grounded fulfills a glorious childhood dream — and a terrifying nightmare
This isn't really a game for children after all. Here's our early impression.
When I first stepped foot in Grounded, my first impression was that it looked a bit childish.
In some ways, I was totally right, but Grounded is so much more than just a cutesy sandbox. Grounded looks and feels like an unofficial Honey, I Shrunk the Kids game. Though they're unaffiliated, it's impossible to ignore the influence the 1989 family classic has on it. Grounded fulfills a very specific childhood dream of mid-Millennials like myself who have fond memories of watching goofy scientist Wayne Szalinski (Rick Moranis) shrink his children.
I've always had a peculiar, fear-based obsession with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, probably because I have an overactive imagination and my dad looks like Rick Moranis if he did pushups and never wore glasses. There's something uniquely scary about upending the power struggle between humans and the bugs they often carelessly step on.
Grounded will make you feel like a kid again. But while the overall style and aesthetic looks very kid-friendly, there's enough complexity and terror on offer that even hardened adult gamers can find a great deal of excitement here. The gradual progression as you become master of this microscopic yet strangely familiar world feels satisfyingly earned in a way that few games accomplish effectively. You become better equipped to handle these horrors at a faster rate than the difficulty increases. That's always a tough needle to thread in game design.
Grounded perfectly encapsulates what it's like to feel overwhelmed by your sudden tininess in a massive world. Like Minecraft and No Man's Sky before it, Grounded's repetitive survivalist gameplay loop involves collecting resources to craft items of increasing complexity, and its gimmick has enough charm to keep you enthralled. But the whole experience wasn't quite enthralling enough to hold my attention.
The current build definitely has an "early access" feel, missing the mark on some obvious UI elements. I consistently found it hard to figure out what I should be doing. Tutorial-based objectives like "Find fresh water" would pop up, so I'd follow strips of moisture that looked like dried-up streams until I found a small pond — or tiny puddle? — and wound up drinking dirty water that made me sick. Grounded doesn't offer up a map, waypoints, or directional indicators, only a beacon that beeps as you near your first main objective, a research station. There, you can scan items to learn new crafting recipes, but I couldn't immediately grok how to actually craft.
Frustrated and alone, I got to wandering instead, harvesting plant materials and tiny rocks that could be used to clobber insects on a case-by-case basis. You'll need to follow a walkthrough or guide for getting started, or risk suffering in the same way.
There are giant landmarks in the environment like a baseball or rake, but even if you're able to climb on top of them to get a vantage point, it's hard to differentiate anything in the sea of grass. The various insect species mostly just go about their business, and it's honestly pretty fascinating seeing a small army of ants marching in single file towards some goal, or gnats casually buzzing into an electronic device. Most of the bugs are passive, minding their own business, which reminds me of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids yet again, where some of them are downright friendly. But rather than just moseying around with generic AI like I expected them to, all of these creatures behave like the real thing.
The real standout moment in the game happened when — thinking of an epic experience I once had in No Man's Sky exploring a cave — I ignored a warning that it was too dark to proceed without a light source. It was too dark to see much of anything except for shadows and vague rock-like outlines. Despite the fact that I constantly keep the brightness on my console cranked up so I can see details, the level of darkness in this cave was so dense that I found it hard to see. I got deep enough that I could barely see the entrance behind me, so I tried to walk back the way I came.
But I couldn't move.
At first, I thought it was a glitch common to early access games of this variety, but then I remembered a warning from Grounded's opening moments, something about how people with arachnophobia should consider not playing at all, or toggle on the spider-proof setting. I scoffed at the time. What do they do, turn spiders into little dogs or something? It's not like I'm a little baby! (As it turns out, the Arachnophobia Safe Mode lets you command a sliding scale that removes all spiders' legs and eyes to the point where they become mere blobs.)
I regretted not taking this whole experience more seriously when I found that my entire body was stuck in a massive wall of silk webbing. As I struggled in vain, I panicked and looked frantically around. It's so much worse when you know exactly what's coming: I saw eight spindly legs unfurl from a nearby wall. Then the wall itself scurried in a flash. The spider, perhaps 50 times my size, killed me in a flash. I'm sure my character died screaming, and he wasn't the only one screaming.
While I don't feel particularly moved to make a long-term commitment to Grounded just yet, there are a number of early game moments like this that do feel remarkable. As the game grows and improves over time, it's definitely one to keep an eye on, especially if you can rally a small group of friends to play together.
Grounded is now available in early access with Xbox Game Pass.
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