It's been just under 11 months since Obsidian launched inch-high garden survival adventure Grounded into early access for Xbox and PC, and as its one-year anniversary approaches, the team is readying Hot and Hazy, its "largest update yet", for a 20th October release.
Since Grounded's stellar launch last year - it attracted a million players within two days and 5 million within four months - the team, still relatively small at only 20 people, has continued to expand on its appealingly diminutive premise.
Grounded's sandbox tale of 80s kids shrunk to the size of ants and forced to brave the perils of their now jungle-like backyard - exploring, battling bugs, and scavenging resources to fashion handy items along the way - has received a host of new additions since launch, including flying and aquatic bugs, a majestic koi pond, boss fights, new building items, pets, and more.
Hot and Hazy, though, promises to be Grounded's biggest update yet, expanding the sandbox map with a literal sandbox that introduces new weather-based mechanics, adding the game's first dungeon in the form of the black ant hill, and delivering a host of gameplay revisions and improvements for some of its core systems.
It's the sandbox - a cheery, bright red plastic turtle complete with its own sandcastle and succulent-studded oasis - that's the focus of the update, however, cleverly introducing what's essentially a new desert biome to the otherwise green and verdant yard. Here, players will need to contend with a new gameplay mechanic known as the "sizzle", which steadily increases player temperatures to the point where they'll simply drop dead.
Luckily, there are various ways to mitigate the threat of the blazing sun; taking on the sandbox's new ant lion enemy will provide the materials needed to craft armour that's impervious to sizzle, but until that point, players wanting to venture into the sandbox during the day will need to stay cool by retreating to the shadows - all shifting dynamically as the sun rises and falls.
Visiting the sandbox at night will, of course, mean players don't need to contend with the sizzle, but they'll potentially miss out on another new addition: treasure. Useful items are buried all about the sandbox and can be dug up using the new space tool and the sun's reflected light will cause them to glimmer from afar during the day. Treasure can still be located at night, but with no form of guidance, it's likely any discoveries will be accidental.
Grounded's new expansion doesn't just stop at the sandbox, though, it spills out into the surrounding areas. A new picnic table and rubbish pile will give players more scope for platforming, puzzling, exploration, and resource gathering, while the new black ant hill takes fearless explorers deep beneath the surface.
Accessible via a giant tunnel in the sand, the "really big and massive" black ant hill is pitched as being the equivalent of Grounded's first dungeon. Here, players will be able to take on enemy ants, scout out special crafting materials which can be used to make new gear, and even tackle the game's stab at a mini-boss, which will need to be challenged across different phases.
Beyond the new, new stuff, Hot and Hazy also sees the team at Obsidian revisiting some of the game's older areas and systems for revitalisation and rejuvenation. For instance, the haze biome - which was actually introduced last March but 'didn't quite hit the mark' in Obsidian's eyes - is being completely renovated.
This spooky, fungus infested corner, perpetually covered in a thick and deadly cloud of weedkiller (requiring a mask to penetrate safely) now features an overhauled research lab and an expanded selection of infected creatures - weevils, larvae, lady bugs, and gnats - all with different behaviours, including a propensity to explode, caused by a strange spore creature.
And that's not quite it for new faces either; players might also encounter a troublesome pill bug or two (Obsidian refers to them as "roly polies" for a reason). Interestingly, these are ultimately planned to be Tier 3 armour creatures but as this third tier is still to be implemented, roly polies will initially be sickly and weaker than the version seen in the final game.
As for deeper changes, Hot and Hazy leans into Obsidian's RPG heritage with new upgrade systems for stats and weapons. Players will be able to acquire Milk Molars (an in-game brand of multivitamins) and hand them over to robotic companion BURG.L in order to upgrade either personal or party wide stats. Weapons, meanwhile, can be augmented using different types of discoverable candies - mint globs, spicy globs, and salty globs - each of which will imbue existing weapons with different stats.
There are also changes to Grounded's armour system, which now categorises all armour as either light, medium, or heavy. Medium armour remains as it's been previously, but once Hot and Hazy arrives, player will light armour improves the speed at which stamina regenerates, while heavy armour increases regeneration time. Additionally, all armour that don't belong to part of a larger set has now been given damage resist buffs.
Finally, Obsidian continues to tweak the new player experience, and has introduced a Brain Power system revising how recipes are rewarded to players. Rather than requiring waiting for players to stumble across recipes on their travels, they're now disseminated as players reach a new Brain Power rank - levelled up by analysing objects around the yard. The idea is to create a more understandable structure for recipe discovery during play.
Grounded's Hot and Hazy update will be available to all early access players on 20th October, but impatient sorts can explore a test build featuring the new content from today, 6th October. Grounded may still have a way to go before it's finally ready to leave early access but the future sounds bright. As Grounded director Adam Brennecke tells us, "[it] feels like we're finally at a place where we can just make content", so expect to see plenty more on the way.