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Impressions: Grounded

Grounded is a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids survival game from Obsidian, which recently graduated from Early Access. I played it for about a dozen hours during Early Access, but decided to wait until full release before diving in for real on Game Pass.

What I have discovered is… well, a fun albeit highly incongruent survival Soulslike.

To start out, the world of Grounded is amazing. You wake up in a small cave that opens out into a forest of grass and weeds that towers above you. Although there are giant juice boxes and other items to hammer home just how tiny you are, they are really unnecessary – everything about how you move around the yard, the distances involved, and of course the creatures keeps everything front and center.

Your first experiences with the yard fauna is usually benign. Aphids, Weevils, and Gnats are basically mobile food and resources. Red Worker Ants are curious about you, but only go hostile when you hit them. Same with the lumbering Lady Bug, although they will quickly one-shot you in the beginning when attacked. Mites are typically your first hostile mob, and they are only really dangerous when you’re distracted or get surrounded. But it doesn’t take a lot of exploring before you encounter the apex predators of the backyard: spiders. Orb Weavers relentlessly patrol their territory and Wolf Spiders are the terror of the night, ranging far and wide through the yard from dusk till dawn. Daylight does not offer much comfort once you journey further afield though, as you encounter Larva, Stinkbugs, Mosquitos, and more.

And this is where things go a little off the rails for me. Grounded has all the trappings of survival games, including a huge map where you can build bases just about anywhere, resources needing to be gathered, and so on. But what you are actually doing to progress at all is a series of escalating Souls-like melee encounters. I say “Souls-like” because everything revolves around performing Perfect Blocks against insect attacks, then counter-attacking. You can technically just regular block attacks (with a shield made out of Weevil meat), but you still take a significant amount of damage, can get debuffed, and eventually stunned depending on the frequency of attacks. Meanwhile, you completely block all damage even with a Pebble Axe from any enemy if you Right-Click your mouse at the correct time.

In games like ARK, there’s no Perfect Blocking a T-Rex bite. But, you can still take out a T-Rex through clever terrain and/or structure use. In Grounded, most enemies ignore most terrain that otherwise slow you down, e.g. grass stems. And even if you happen to engage from on top of something they cannot reach, your (early) ranged attacks with the bow don’t deal much damage. Indeed, since you cannot block while using the bow, the game seems to discourage any realistic use of it outside first-strike or fleeing bug scenarios. “What about flying bugs like Mosquitos?” Yeah, sure, try to get a few arrows in. But you will 100% die if you don’t perform Perfect Blocks with a regular melee weapon of some sort, even if you have the clunkiness of having to toggle between it and the bow.

The worst part, IMO, is how there isn’t much of an escape from the bug-based progression. I guess I cannot claim that it is impossible to complete the game without learning each bug’s song and dance, but it is a fact that several crafting stations require bug parts to be constructed. Again, in ARK the dinos are “soft” required because nobody has time to collect 10,000 Stone and Iron to build the goodies you want. In Grounded, you simply aren’t building a Drying Rack without Bombardier Beetle parts. I haven’t made it into any of the later Lab story areas yet, but there are plenty of bugs between me and where I think the front door is, so… yeah. Prepare to “git gud” or die trying.

(Or play on a lower difficulty, I guess.)

Overall, though? I’m still having fun. The first dozen or so hours had me running from everything more powerful than a Solider Ant, but I’m basically approaching Tier 2 equipment and a general level of confidence to take on most things. Had it not been for an Orb Weaver Jr joining the fight in defense of its momma, I would have taken one of those down already. Luckily, the game features both the default survival “fuck you” of dropping all your gear on death AND the ability to Save your game at any time. Which… is weird. I’m assuming you don’t get saves while playing Multiplayer and that’s the difference. In any case, saves won’t, er, save you from getting owned by spiders or whatever, but it at least affords you the opportunity to practice Perfect Block timing as many times as necessary to get the last bug part to craft a new Hammer or whatever.

The Outer Hype, part 2

When I started playing The Outer Worlds back in December, I was not impressed. Having just completed the game yesterday, I can report that the game did not particularly redeem itself.

Dystopian dark humor only works when the rest of the game is dystopian, guys.

To be clear, the game may have been rigged from the start, so to speak. This was Obsidian, makers of Fallout: New Vegas! With a brand new IP! Like some kind of Mass Effect x Fallout space western! Except it wasn’t. At all. Like not even remotely close.

Was that Obsidian’s fault? Probably not, but they suffer the consequences of the hype just the same.

Parvati made most things bearable.

Regardless, the game did not improve. I was playing on Hard difficulty and the combat was just a mess from start to finish. Companion AI is tough to get right in any game, but here they are glorified abilities that you press once per combat, as they typically die immediately after they use them. Exploration was pointless, rewarding trash consumables or weapon mods you never have need of using. The whole Tinker/Upgrade system for level-based gear starts out as a promising way of keeping unique weapons (etc) relevant, but the escalating cost of doing so spirals out of control. When it’s easier and cheaper to just buy guns from a vending machine rather than try to upgrade the super-special gear you spent time exploring/questing for, you know things have fallen off the rails.

Quest-wise, things did not improve either. If you treat the game overall as a comedy, things might play out better from a tone perspective. And indeed there is some witty dialog to be had. Aside from that though, there was precisely one moment towards the end of the game in which I was surprised at the visual impact of a particular decision. Arguably though, it was surprising precisely because nothing else was ever taken seriously.

Kind of like this game, amirite?

Overall… well, I was going to suggest to give this game a pass, but I myself played it for a whole dollar via the Game Pass, so… do what you want. If you get past the first planet and aren’t feeling it though, don’t feel bad about moving on. It’s not going to scratch a Fallout itch, a Mass Effect itch, a BioShock itch, or any itch beyond a bizarre one for BBB Unreal engine comedy games.

And if you have one of those, you might want to see a dermatologist instead.

The Outer Hype

I have been playing The Outer Worlds via the Xbox Game Pass lately. And… I am not impressed.

People have been gushing about how this is Obsidian’s return to form, how it is a non-Fallout Fallout game, and so on. From what I have seen thus far though, having completed the first major area? It’s a slap-stick snooze-fest generic Unreal Engine title. That might be a controversial impression, so let me unpack it a bit.

First, it’s slap-stick due to the comically evil corporations in charge. One of the very first side-quests you get is to collect the grave fees from the families of those workers who have died. No payment, no continued burial. Another NPC mentioned how one of their workers committed suicide, and if anyone found out, the family would be fined for destruction of company property. All the words were there to evoke a sense of capitalist dystopian hellscape… but the tone wasn’t.

Every single quest or conversation is accompanied by a wink and/or eyebrow waggle. This isn’t Deus Ex or Syndicate or Blade Runner, this is Rick and Morty-level irreverence. And while there are certainly outlandish elements to the Fallout lore and in-jokes aplenty, the actual post-apocalypse piece is taken seriously. That isn’t the case with the Outer Worlds. I don’t know if that was done intentionally or not, or if perhaps things get more serious later on. I just know that when I completed a recent quest in which a NPC was sold as an indentured servant to pay off her debts instead of being assassinated, it did not even remotely register as a moral quandary.

Second, the snooze-fest piece refers both to combat and the non-combat pieces of the game. Having heard that Normal difficulty was actually quite easy, I went ahead and chose the next level up on the slider. And while I have indeed died several times in routine combat, there was never a sense that it was due to skill or anything. “Oops, there was a melee guy there, and he deals increased damage because the difficulty level is higher.” Indeed, combat feels disjointed most of the time, especially when you have companions who essentially teleport around when you trigger their special abilities.

Outside of combat, things are so formulaic that I don’t even know why Obsidian bothered with exploration elements at all. There are three ammo types for all guns (light, heavy, energy); there are multiple damage types (physical, corrosive, etc) but they map 1:1 in a cookie-cutter resistance way; 99% of everything you find is either currency, unnecessary food, and more copies of generic guns/armor to break down for generic parts to repair the guns you chosen to use; mods for guns/armor sound important but are again generic nonsense (your melee weapon deals plasma damage now!) that just ticks the customization 101 box. Even the Perks are boring.

Finally, when I said “generic Unreal Engine title,” you probably know what I mean. NPCs look basically the same, enemies look the same, you can look at a room and immediately understand where you might be able to go and how you might interact with the space. For all the bugs and shortcomings with the Gamebryo/Creation engine that Bethesda uses, going from that to this game is like going from an Erector Set to Mega Bloks.

Like I said, I’m only past the first planet so maybe things turn around. I have heard from basically everyone on the internet already that the game doesn’t though, and it’s only a 20-hour trip besides.

Suffice it to say, I’m not impressed. And I’m starting to think Fallout had more to do with Obsidian’s success than the other way around.