Teenage Fallout

Let me state before we get deep into this: open-world survival games aren’t really my thing. The most popular and often-replicated genre in the video game world for the better half of a decade has reached far and wide in ways to appease its audience. Hell, just go into the Early Access section of Steam and you’re bound to have more Open World Survival Crafting tags than you can hold in two hands. But ReviewBotand I got Grounded on Early Access and it showed some interesting premises and promises in its Alpha state. We decided it would be best to just wait until the 1.0 release and go in fresh. After a full 2 years to get to release and 63 hours of game time to complete I can say that Grounded is fun, broken, and even someone who hates the genre can see the love for the craft on display.

Obsidian Entertainment had been coming in fresh off consecutive bangers with Pillars of Eternity II and The Outer Worlds, two award-winning RPGs showing fans the promise and style that Obsidian had been known for since games like KOTOR II and Fallout New Vegas (and Alpha Protocol, but that one’s just for me). While Obsidian had nearly perfected the art of stellar RPGs, it had never reached over to the Survival genre even if Fallout had a lighter coating of that element for the most casual of fans. As a fan of Obsidian’s commitment to world building and overall writing I was excited to see what they could cook up. Welcome to Honey, I Shrunk The Kids: The Video Game.

In a suburban landscape around the turn of the 1980s and 90s, news of repeated disappearances plague the area. Teenagers vanishing into thin air and never seen again with many questions but little for answers. As four more teenagers go missing, you play as one of four kids mysteriously awakening from a giant briefcase-like area amnesic to your recent past and how you got here. Progressing into the unknown casts light on the situation: each of the kids has been shrunk to a small fraction of their normal size. With little direction and a backyard full of possibilities, the kids venture out to discover why they were shrunk and how they can get back to normal before the yard’s inhabitants do them in for good.

For all the genre’s involvement in making the biggest areas it can, sizing everything down to where a mid-size backyard and porch feels like a grand adventure is something I’m surprised wasn’t done earlier. Your first few hours into the foray is awe-inspiring: blades of grass and dandelions tower over you, the backyard pond doubles as a Gulf in terms of resources and wildlife, and landmarks aplenty give the varied biomes of a lush forgotten territory an exciting yet playfully familiar feel.

This territory will soon become your home for several days, so it’s time to build a base. Grounded starts off with basic materials like grass petals and clovers with increasingly better tiers of materials available down the road. The practice of building a base of operations is as simple as placing connected blueprints together and grabbing the necessary materials to fill said blueprints. It gives a nice visual understanding of what you’re looking to build together even if the in-game connecting of blueprints can be a little finicky to get just right.

Materials can be used to create armor, accessories, and weapons. Tools can be made to harvest resources, upgrade food and water supplies, and help ease the tension of everyday backyard survival. Armor, split into Light/Medium/Heavy categories, carry differing damage resistances and set bonuses that grant passive perks. Weapons come in all shapes and sizes: maces, swords, 2-handed clubs, bows, crossbows, and many more. There’s a very nice variety to choose from given most of the 50+ bugs in the game provide resources for some form of weapon, armor, or tool to create.

And boy howdy, the bugs you come across are the game’s bread and butter. Grounded starts you off small with ants, gnats, aphids, and weevils to get your feet wet, but the moment you come across a Wolf Spider you’ll realize where the Survival piece of this puzzle kicks in. Grounded has an amazing ability to make you feel absolutely minuscule and foreign to the habitat and lifestyle of the world around you, then gradually bring you to speed with a steady progression of upgrades to your physical tools and mental understanding of the ways of nature.

Grounded will very much take its sweet time in humbling you if you think you’re King of the Jungle out the gate. Trying to take on any spider in the early game or trying to Dynasty Warriors your way through an anthill will give you a rough time in the early stages. The game rewards progression not only through exploration with collectible Milk Molars that buff passive stats, but expanding your horizons and unlocking more passive buffs via Mutations that range from more HP/Stamina to faster run speed and resource collecting. By the end of the game you’ll have learned the ins and outs of the yard and its inhabitants, but also amassed enough buffs and higher tiered gear to take on the much tougher enemies down the road that I refuse to spoil for you.

Combat will take up a lot of your time, and for the most part it serves its purpose but not valiantly. Grounded feels very New Vegas-like in its melee combat and without the crutch of gun combat to supplement most of your fighting, the fighting feels dated.  Shields can block and parry hits until your guard is broken, but you’ll mash attacks until things fall over. There’s variety in the weapons you choose but not a lot of variety in how you use said weaponry. While it was hysterical to watch our group of 3 tiny kids just beating the living hell out of a mosquito like a pack of birds on a snake, it becomes stale after the first few hours.

But the combat can be forgiven as an A to B mechanic with a story that is so damn interesting. Obsidian flexes its muscles with authority at leaving just enough bread crumbs to paint a mysterious whodunit into the current scenario, while using those same crumbs to detail a dark and somber tale of scientific breakthroughs at the cost of everything one stands for and striving for perfection and validation severing through every strand of one’s mental well-being. There’s so much more heart and soul in this story that you almost lose the fact you’re playing a Survival game and not a weird off-shoot DLC of Fallout.

But you could be mistaking Grounded for a Fallout title due to the amount of technical bugs strewn about. Graphical glitches would have random pieces of collision laced throughout areas of the map. A patch in the game upped everyone’s durability of items but in turn lowered everyone’s durability to near zero, causing us to burn materials. Enemies would get stuck on a lot of areas that allow you to cheese them (it’s how we killed our first few Wolf Spiders). The game would crash for non-hosting players frequently and would need a full restart from all parties at times for lobbies to reappear and rejoin. Voice lines, while amicably done, have a low line count with certain lines repeating over and over again until a certain situation passes (thanks Max and your “spider hunting skills”). And we will never forget the time a patch caused 4800 bits of food to randomly spawn in one area causing frame loss all over the map and crippling performance near ground zero. For the most part Grounded is well-made given its scale, but you will run into issues and your frustration may vary.

It was a bold decision to supplement 4 years of development and 2 years of Early Access on a teenage spin to the Survival genre, but for the most part it paid off. Grounded provides a ton of content with its mountainous variety of wildlife, biomes, and creations to keep players glued to their game; they will just have to turn the other cheek to monotonous combat and a slew of technical issues that could dampen their positive experience. For what could easily be stretched into 100+ hours of content, Grounded provided a fun, complete experience that even had a contrarian of the genre having a grand ol’ time.