Windbound Review — Stormy Seas Ahead
On the tin, Windbound offers a fulfilling and exciting survival/adventure endeavor but when delved into, I was left with an empty and exhausting experience.
5 Lives Studios
Stadia, PC, Xbox One, Xbox One
Review copy provided by the publisher
Survival games, in general, can be a little hit or miss, sometimes circulating the same formula over again in a rinse and repeat fashion. Windbound, however, promises to offer players a “one of a kind experience” and “unique gameplay interwoven with a complex but subtle narrative.” Unfortunately in my playthrough, I struggled to find many unique aspects or complexities.
What I did discover, though, was a beautiful and potentially great game on the surface but once I peeled away the stunning graphics and mesmerizing music, I was left frustrated, bored, and craving substance. As much as Windbound would like to portray itself in the same boat as the likes of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, I found that it needed a lot more work if it wanted to sail into the sunset with greatness.
“I found that [Windbound] needed a lot more work if it wanted to sail into the sunset with greatness.”
Windbound is a third-person survival game with roguelike elements and a subtle environmental narrative. No words are spoken so you gage the gameplay by what you see, learn, and discover. Thankfully, you have a choice on how you want to play the game and that’s always a great start to any title. I chose the Storyteller difficulty setting which would let me enjoy more of the Windbound tale and retain items I acquired if I happened to die. The Survivalist is obviously a little harder meaning that if I died, I would be taken straight back to Chapter one again without any of the held items in my inventory. Since this particular copy of the game was a pre-order bonus, I was equipped with the Ancestral customer pack for Kara, Windbound‘s main protagonist.
I was saddened to see that other than being able to change in and out of the Ancestral outfit, the standard Hunter gear, or any other outfits maintained throughout the game, I wasn’t able to customize Kara. Even though this wasn’t a deal-breaker for me, I think it’s important, to a degree, to allow the player to feel like they identify with who they are playing, especially so when the title offers up to 40 hours of gameplay. There could have been some very basic settings like being able to change Kara’s hair, shape, or skin color but, unfortunately, that wasn’t available and I feel for the immersion value, this option would have been welcomed.
Jumping into the first chapter sees you spalled out on an island in the middle of a vast ocean after being shipwrecked and losing your clan in the process. Left with nothing but a knife to your name and a will to live, you must survive and find your way back home. Since you are completely stuck and surrounded by water, crafting some kind of boat is probably a smart move. Luckily, everything you need to build one is right there on the sandy archipelago. You’ll also be able to add things like a sail, storage, and other customizable parts to your boat as you progress throughout the game.
As a word of advice: don’t get lazy and think you can swim from one island to another, as tempting as the crystal waters look, because you will most certainly drown (this is taken from personal experience). Once you have constructed something that resembles a canoe, you’re able to sail the seas but make sure to keep an eye on it as I found out later on.
“The combat mechanics are sluggish and in need of reshaping.”
The ocean really is a beautiful and inviting feature in Windbound. When you approach other islands, you’ll notice the wonderful color scheme of the game’s coral reefs made up of striking blues, reds, and a host of other shades. As the waves lap against your boat and gently sway you accompanied by an unbelievably relaxing score, you will want to stay there forever. Unfortunately, you do need to eat in order to survive so getting yourself onto the next island is a must. This is also where the game almost immediately lost its appeal for me.
Arriving on the next island you’re greeted with some rich pastures, trees, creatures like boars called Gorehorns, and cute little rabbit-like critters called Bleenks. Of course, in order to get food, you’ll need to hunt these animals for things like leather, horns, and meat. To do so, you’ll need the proper equipment. Going around the land you’ll find the items you need to craft items like a spear and other weapons. Whilst taking on a boar is relativity simple, going up against a Gorehorn is a lackluster and frustrating experience.
The combat mechanics are sluggish and in need of reshaping. For example: tackling the horned beast is slow and moving out of its way sometimes can see you getting its business end up your butt, knocking you across the grass. The best way to encounter a Gorehorn, in my experience, is to get enough materials to craft a bow and then shoot at it from a distance because getting up close and personal isn’t a thrilling endeavor at all. I found that all of the creatures I came across on Windbound‘s islands pretty much followed the same behavioral patterns and even though you do stumble across new and interesting to look at animals – on land and sea – they lacked imagination.
When you’re not getting distracted by the animals of the island, you’ll notice tall towers with a ball of blue light enclosed at the top. Climbing these towers is your main objective and again, it’s a rather cumbersome ordeal. As I said in my preview of the game, I would have liked to have more of a challenge here to obtain the blue energy that mysteriously gets soaked into Kara’s necklace. Maybe a puzzle or the need to decipher some symbols, but simply pushing myself up some stones to reach the top without any effort and just pressing a button felt like a major missed opportunity. From my time with Windbound, there were no puzzle elements to speak of other than, at most, pressing a symbol or inserting a Nautilus key you also pick up from these shrine-like towers. This lead the game to become dull and extremely repetitive.
“For me, Windbound could have been an incredible game if more care was put into it from a gameplay perspective.”
At one point in the game, I ended up dying by falling through the map which brought me back at the very beginning of where I started. Granted, I was still within the same chapter, but this meant that I had to get the materials again to craft a boat and make my way around the island again. I found that this happened sometimes and then other times, not at all. By this I mean that when I died, it was a toss-up whether or not I would start on the same island or if I would come back on the very first island. I was under the assumption that by choosing story mode, this meant that I would retain my items and not have to go back to the beginning of the game but that wasn’t always the case. This became understandably annoying and if I wasn’t playing it for review purposes, I would have absolutely quit the game.
There was a moment of respite while I was gliding my boat across the waters to the next island, soaking in the beautiful weather system that turned from day to night and from bright sunny skies to dark, thundery clouds. All of a sudden, I was dying quite rapidly but having only just made a fire at the previous island and cooked some meat on it to bring my health bar to full, I was confused. Almost being at death’s door, I finally found an island to jump off at and realized the reason I was fading away was that my boat was in need of repair. On further inspection, I did see some straw bits sticking out from my boat but you needed to be a mind reader to figure out that was the issue initially. As much as I understand the aspects of a survival game and that at times hand-holding defeats the objective, I think in this instance, subtle indicators are needed.
On the same note, a compass system would also be helpful as there were a few times I didn’t have a clue where I was going and ended up sailing into an area of the game that demanded that I turn back. The sea got rough and the waves almost capsized the boat which meant having to go back to where I was to figure out how to get to the next stage of the chapter.
For me, Windbound could have been an incredible game if more care was put into it from a gameplay perspective. Everything was right there from the stunning weather system, gorgeous oceans and colors, and a solid gameplay idea but, in my opinion, it was let down due to a lack of innovation, excitement, and repetitiveness that made my playthrough more of a chore than it needed to be.