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Grounded review - a delightful mix of harsh survival and warm-hearted design

De-bugged. - Recommended badge
Grounded's charming, Honey I Shrunk the Kids premise is elevated by its uniquely welcoming approach to wonder.

The first time Grounded killed me, I was beaten to death by a lawn mite. You know; those teeny, tiny little red bugs that could line-dance on a head of a pin and scurry along paving stones, looking like they couldn't hurt anything? Yeah. One of those. Emphasis on the "one", too, as this lad had been alone. And yet he'd taken one look at my sassy side ponytail and (correctly) presumed I was an easy target. Was it unexpected? You bet. Scary? Surprisingly so. Embarrassing? Yes. Very.

Given I'm still on Day One of my survival journey I'd been hoping for a gentle tutorial period, but this bad boy had barrelled towards me, focused and unflinching, like a toddler locks onto a ball pit. A single thought flickers through my head: if these are the early enemies, what the hell are the strong ones like?!

The second time I cark it, I died of thirst. It wasn't that I ignored the instruction to get something to drink as much as I was distracted by the glorious wilderness – well, if you can call a suburban backyard the wilderness – and I didn't realise until the sun went down that I was missing the sap required to rustle up a torch. So, instead of creating a Lean To and hunkering down for the night, I huddled beneath the Kid Case spawn point instead – hotly aware of every slither and scuttle around me – and slowly expired of acute dehydration. Turns out that was more embarrassing than being walloped to death by the mite.

Here's a full release trailer to give you a sense of Grounded.Watch on YouTube

The truth is, if you're not killing yourself on Grounded, something else will be instead. Though it dresses itself up in a cutesy cartoon aesthetic, beneath the sun-dappled biomes is the stone-cold heart of a skilled and complex survival sim that I utterly underestimated: and it's brilliant.

You've seen it, right? The Honey, I Shrunk The Kids-esque backyard survival game that stole the XO19 show back in 2019? It launched as an early access title the summer after it was announced – and a free one at that, at least to Xbox Game Pass subscribers – and has since built up a passionate fanbase that makes me feel very, very bad about my lack of imagination and creative flair.

Grounded review - holding a club an dlooking at a pond
Grounded review - holding a club and looking at plants and red leaves

The reason I'd avoided it thus far is because of bugs, and by that, I mean actual critter bugs, not gameplay ones. My arachnophobia is epically bad, which means that even though I'd pushed the wonderful spider-safe mode slider the full distance, the gloopy legless blobs that scuttle around Oak Hill still bring me out in a cold sweat.

To be clear: just because it doesn't quite work for me doesn't mean I'm not incredibly appreciative that that arachnophobia Safe Mode exists! More games should have one, actually, for any in-game critters that trigger common phobias, such as rats, snakes, and so on. My problem, I think, is that the way the blobs move is too reminiscent of spiders. That, and the fact they hiss if you stray too close; it's a dreadful sound, almost as bad as the big boys in Animal Crossing: New Horizons… and that's saying something.

Consequently, it doesn't matter how wonderfully cartoony its presentation is; Grounded won't feel like a gentle romp in the backyard as much as it will feel like a Fear Factor audition tape for anyone with a problem with bugs, especially spiders. And sadly, it's not just a matter of avoiding their nests, either; many of the resources you'll need early on are scattered around the roots of a gnarly oak tree, which just oh-so-happens to be the preferred hangout of the spiders, too. And while you can outrun them – well, if you don't get caught on the numerous environmental hazards, that is – they're incredibly tough and difficult to kill. At times like these, Grounded often feels as much like a survival horror as a pure survival game.

Grounded review - a giant ladybug
Grounded review - standing on top of some kind of electronic device

Oh, but it's beautiful though! Big, bold, gloriously colourful biomes stretch across your miniature kingdom, stuffed with vibrant, oversized flora that itches to be explored. Forests of grass tower over you, rippling in the wind, sun streaming in between the blades and dappling the ground in light and shadow. Browning leaves litter the ground to create little makeshift tunnels that double as handy landmarks. There's a serene, sun-touched Koi pond, festooned with a carpet of lush green lilypads. Maybe it's just a quirk of my limited time with the game, but it's a shame I didn't see the weather changes, as I can imagine the world – and the things you can do in it – change significantly in colder climes.

That's not all, either. Beyond the natural splendour lies a smorgasbord of oversized sights to behold, including a special juice box and discarded cans and mysteriously miniature-sized field stations where you can analyse your findings, and critters stick to their respective homes like uneasy strangers at a dinner party, so you'll quickly learn where to find (and where to avoid) the locals.

Grounded review - the accessibility options screen

And pretty much everything you find can be repurposed into something else; grass stems can be used to build walls around a cosy little base. Pebbles can be thrown into the air and dislodge dew drops for a refreshing drink. You can just about survive by eating the world's wild mushrooms but if you want a more satisfying meal, you're going to have to build yourself a roasting spit. Use a rock and some plant fibres to fashion a little hammer, and that can be used to smash up acorns and provide a tough shell. You'll need to unlock crafting recipes as you go, and construct a workbench in order to knock up the fancier stuff.

It's such a joy to see your skills, abilities, and confidence grow with every new crafting unlock, be it an essential – say, a water canteen or a sturdy armour set – or a change to your homely base that is a fabulous but utterly unnecessary cosmetic improvement. There is a way to unlock all recipes for free at the start of the game (although the menu that sits in doesn't seem to be working at the time of writing this), but honestly, discovering these things on your own by analysing absolutely every item you come across is an absolute delight.

It can be grindy sometimes, though. Like any survival game, some of your time will be taken up by scavenging for ingredients, and some are easier to come by than others (thank the lord for the sap catcher, as I struggle to see the stuff out in the wild), but there's no race here. No time limits. The main draw of the 1.0 version will be the inclusion of the (fascinating) story elements, something players have been calling for, and whilst this new feature has been woven skillfully around its the sandbox elements, Grounded is one of those wonderful playgrounds that thrives even without a story mode; we know, because thousands of people have already invested thousands of hours doing so.

Grounded review - exploring
Grounded review - holding a rock trying to start a fire to cook a tiny bug

The desire to explore trumps every instinct to follow simple instructions, and whilst you'll soon learn that you can drop a lean-to pretty much anywhere to sleep out the night, remembering things like feeding and hydrating yourself can become mild annoyances. Dropping the difficulty can help with this; in fact, Grounded offers an array of accessibility and preference settings, enabling you to disarm friendly fire if you're co-oping, neutralise hostile bugs, or make yourself invulnerable, albeit they weren't changeable at the time of writing. But once you find your groove and build yourself a little home… well, the world's your teeny, tiny oyster.

There are a few little issues. The map's a little useless – I have the directional sense of a crumpled napkin, and thus could've really done with a handy little radar or mini-map on the HUD as I couldn't always make out waypoint icons in amongst the busyness of the game's striking environments – and it's oh-so-easy to get snared on the terrain around you. This is frustrating enough when you're exploring, but maddeningly unfair when you're trying to outrun an angry predator.

Beyond that, though, it's hard to complain about what Obsidian has delivered here. As someone who instinctively shies away from survival games, Grounded's stunning, ant's-eye presentation of the natural world and plethora of personalisation settings make me feel surprisingly welcomed… even if that welcome involves the occasional hissing spider.