Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch
August 28, 2020
5 Lives Studios
Setting sail across the glistening seas in a picturesque and intriguing world. Windbound is certainly a game that captured imaginations in the months leading up to release. This independent, Australian developed game was being compared to The Legend of Zelda as soon as people started laying eyes on it. Whilst the comparisons certainly aren’t completely unjustified, Windbound also manages to find its own identity too. But is the game able to sail off triumphantly into the sunset? Or does the gameplay sink as soon as you pick up that controller?
Developed by Brisbane based 5 Lives Studios and published by Deep Silver, Windbound follows the journey of Kara, a young warrior lost from her tribe and shipwrecked on a tiny tropical island. Kara’s journey will have her hunting for food and resources, crafting tools, building a raft, and setting sail across the sea.
Windbound is a survival game at its core, although it plays a little differently to many of the other survival games on the market. The game plays from the third person perspective with Kara engaging in battles, amassing and storing resources, learning new crafting recipes, and progressing through a set of chapters as she sails further into the game. Kara will have a health and stamina metre that you’ll have to pay close attention to. Hunt and cook food to help replenish both metres and be cautious of how much you sprint or perform other actions, as your stamina can drain quickly. As with all survival games you’ll start off with very little, although you’ll be able to utilise your surroundings and continue to expand and improve your arsenal of weaponry, tools and boat components.
Windbound is a solo and lonely voyage although your boat could certainly be considered your companion throughout the experience. Kara’s journey will take her to various islands that she can explore on foot, although around 50% of your play time is probably going to spent on the water. You’ll be battling the wind and currents (and the occasional threatening sea critter), all whilst searching for the next landmass that’ll help propel you deeper into the experience.
Whilst you’ll start off with just a basic raft, the game will allow you to continue to upgrade your boat with sails, rigs, armour plating, spikes, storage baskets, mastheads and more. There’s actually a lot of creative options and designs you can put into your boat! Uncovering new materials will grant access to new upgrades and stronger materials and eventually you’ll have a pretty sweet and formidable rig ready to take on whatever comes your way. I’ll be honest, I became pretty attached to my boat throughout the journey. It wasn’t just a mode of transport but it was also my home. I took it with me wherever I went, I stored my best materials on it, and I was proud of the beast I was eventually able to turn it into.
Sailing is a mostly enjoyable experience. You’ll have to raise/lower your sails as well as loosen/tighten them to help you pick up the the wind and move in the direction you want. Waves play a role in providing you momentum and it all feels rather enjoyable if a little clunky. You can capsize your boat which flings you off although Kara is more than capable of swimming back to the boat and continuing her journey. Parts of the boat can also damage and break, but if you have the materials you can always repair the damage.
Where things get a little shaky is when you aren’t on the water. Windbound has a lot of interesting ideas but it is not a game that mechanically handles itself gracefully. Combat is sluggish and unresponsive. If you run into battle with a spear equipped you’ll pretty quickly realise how awkward this game is to control. You’ll get a bow later in the game which certainly helps the combat problem, although it can never completely amend the plethora of control and camera awkwardness you’ll encounter. It’s a real shame too, because the beauty of Windbound is staggering. The game is absolutely gorgeous but the ways in which you interact with it simply doesn’t hold up. I know you’re not suppose to judge a book by it’s cover, although I feel like Windbound is the kind of game that would benefit immensely from that practice. Great to look at, but less than impressive when you crack open the cover and get stuck into the content.
If you’re the kind of person who can look past control issues then you may well find Windbound has something to offer you. The game may be a survival title but it also wants to take the player on a journey with a beginning and an end. Unlike most survival games, you aren’t in one large open world. Instead, Windbound is divided into chapters that allows the player to sail around one area, search for and activate 3 shrines, then locate the portal that will take them to the next chapter. It’s a wordless journey that has a majesty and mysticism about it. The game conveys its narrative through non verbal cues and a tapestry that slowly unlocks as you progress through the chapters. It’s definitely the kind of game intended for players to get lost within its beauty and to peacefully go on this wordless journey as you unlock and uncover more of the world.
It is strange however that Windbound tries to marry this wordless journey with survival mechanics. At times the game feels completely at odds with itself. Set sail across the beautiful seas on a peaceful journey but also watch out for that hunger metre! Enjoy the natural beauty of your surroundings and the tranquility of the wordless narrative but also stumble awkwardly into battle as you sluggishly thrust your spear around at the wildlife. Perhaps the most offensive part of this unlikely genre mashup is what happens when you die. You lose most of your stuff, you lose your boat, you go back to a previous chapter of the game, and you have to start the journey again, almost from scratch! I don’t even think you can get back to your corpse or boat to retrieve your stuff. It loads you into a new instance of the world and you’re made to start anew. The first and only time this happened to me I almost quit playing the game right there and then. I was infuriated and baffled. So much progress was lost with seemingly no way to recover. In a regular survival game if you die and lose your gear it’s usually no biggie, or at least understandable. But in a game like this, set up with multiple chapters and literal forward progression, it’s completely unjustifiable. Thankfully you can adjust the difficulty of the game to ‘Story’ mode rather than ‘Survival’ to alleviate this issue. Although on default settings the game’s death penalty seems far too big, especially considering it may well be the game’s control issues that lead you to that unfortunate death.
Death in Windbound is a massive bummer. I do not recommend it. But for those who are able to push forward there’s actually some decent things to see. I almost quit Windbound when I died but I’m glad I decided to continue my journey instead. As you progress through the chapters you’ll start seeing new creatures, new types of islands to explore, new materials and, of course, new crafting opportunities. I really liked uncovering new things within Windbound. Whilst progress felt slow, real slow, there was at least some payoff to your efforts. The Gloomharrow being my personal favourite foe to find within the game. Such a spooky and intriguing fellow to find in what is usually such a bright and colourful game. The visual design of this game is certainly on point, and that praise extends to character designs, environments, and the ocean itself.
Whilst I’m glad I continued my journey with Windbound, I have to admit, I never managed to finish the game. I came close, but when my game crashed out of nowhere and I reloaded back in, I realised absolutely nothing had been saved. All of my progress for that play session had been lost and I would have had to have replayed a considerable chunk of content. And it’s slow content too. Drifting across an ocean looking for the next shrine doesn’t end up being outrageously fun. Peaceful the first time, tedious beyond belief the second. So I gave up. Yes it was partly my fault for not manually saving. But a lack of autosave functionality in a game that more or less has you progress through a set of linear checkpoints seems absolutely absurd. Is there fun to be had in Windbound? Perhaps. But be ready to have your patience tested.
- A tranquil experience backed up by impressive visuals, audio, and an intriguing wordless narrative
- Absolutely gorgeous
- Some good boat and boat-building ideas
- A bizarre take on the survival genre that didn't always work
- Slow, repetitive gameplay
- Sluggish and awkward controls
- Huge potential for infuriating progress loss
I sailed into Windbound with hope and excitement and unfortunately sailed away with disappointment. It’s not all bad, not by a long shot. But there were enough confusing design decisions and awkward control issues to put me off this game completely. I almost wish Windbound had reduced its scope and focussed in on certain elements, disregarding others altogether. This is a game with some good ideas and clearly some great talent behind it, but it was also trying to do a few too many things and not doing them well. It all ultimately came out a little too rusty with a concept that’s lost at sea.