Windbound (NS) - ReviewJacob James , posted on 21 September 2020 / 1,449 Views
Windbound is a survival adventure game with rogue-like progression and procedurally generated islands. The main focus is centered around gathering and crafting items to help you and your raft survive as you sail from island to island. Unfortunately, Windbound feels more half-baked than it does a wondrous island hop. Riddled with game-breaking bugs, an uninteresting storyline, and repetitive game design, I had difficulty even finishing Windbound, let alone being able to recommend it.
Upon starting your Windbound journey you're asked whether you would like to play on Survivalist or Storyteller difficulty. Survivalist is the recommended “full Windbound experience.” If you die on Survivalist, you only keep the items you're holding (not in your bag or on your raft) and are returned to the start of chapter 1. Storyteller difficulty allows you to keep your full inventory and chapter progress, and it also has reduced combat difficulty. It should be noted that, on either difficulty, when you die you lose your entire raft and any supplies built onto it. This can be especially painful when you've worked to build and upgrade your raft well into chapter 4, only to die (or encounter a game-breaking bug) and start again with no boat at all, not even a grass canoe.
You play as Kara, an abandoned warrior who washes up on shore after getting separated from her tribe when her boat goes down in a terrible storm. Waking up alone, on the wet sands of a forbidden island, you have no food, no gear, and no help. It’s up to you to scour each island for food to stave off hunger and gather materials that will enable you to craft a means of escape back to your tribe.
Story-wise, that’s about all you get. Broken up into five chapters, you receive some hieroglyphic revelations at the end of each chapter, but it’s pretty difficult to discern any real meaning from them. I suppose this lends added weight to the mysterious element of the journey, but it feels like a missed opportunity to really build up any lore, and mostly leaves you with the feeling of a throwaway checkpoint before the next chapter.
Taking your first real look around the island you awaken on, you can’t help but feel excited. Excited to explore and find what secrets the islands have to offer. Excited to start gathering resources, which at first are nothing more than thick grass, rocks, and sticks. But that’s ok - it’s only the first island, and you’re just starting out, so it’s to be expected. Islands are procedurally generated, so each new island and/or death brings about fresh opportunities to find new materials, unlock more crafting recipes, and varying creatures to fight off. While the gameplay loop sounds enticing, the execution and supporting game design fail to pay off.
After a fair bit of scavenging you’ll be able to craft your starter raft: a grass canoe. This makes reaching further islands possible, and opens up what will ultimately be the rest of the game for you. There’s no objective indicator at all, but you eventually learn that each chapter has three magic shells that need retrieving before you can progress to the portal leading to the next chapter.
This is where the formula becomes disappointingly clear, and the repetition sets in. The cycle goes: gather supplies and upgrade your raft, sail from island to island in search of three magic shells, sail to the portal for the next chapter, view the uninteresting and uninformative hieroglyphic story wall and sail to the exit portal. Repeat these steps four more times to finish the game. This alone is a pretty big knock against the game, and the fatigue sets in pretty early on in chapter two when you realize that this is all there is.
Each element in Windbound holds the promise of something great, but it's ultimately squandered. Even the idea of sailing the open seas on your custom crafted raft is spoiled, as the act of sailing is a gruelling struggle. 5 Lives Studios designed sailing to feel believable and react realistically, and they nailed it in the worst way. It's a good idea in theory, but it quickly becomes a nuisance to navigate, sucking all the joy out of the journey. When you’re fighting against survival elements like a continually dropping hunger meter, and your food is degrading and putrefying, the last thing you want is to be stuck in the middle of the ocean with no wind to push you to the next island, or perhaps even pushing against you. And more often than not you'll be flipping and tipping over in your meticulously crafted uber-upgraded raft; not a good feeling after working so hard to gather and craft the best boat you can possibly build. Instead of feeling like an accomplished survivalist, you end up feeling like you’re being unnecessarily punished.
The islands all look vaguely similar too, and the platforming to scale the rubble surrounding the magic shells is underwhelming and identical for every retrieval in each chapter. Once you reach a new island, hunting, crafting, and upgrading is the core loop on offer. Hunting is rather simple and straightforward. By holding the left trigger down you automatically target the nearest enemy and can either attack with your weapon or dodge roll. Weapons include knives, spears, bows, and slings, with slings being my least favorite and almost wholly ignored due to a bizarre and unintuitive targeting mechanic. Crafting is initially hindered by a severe lack of inventory space, though in the later chapters you can discover recipes for larger bags, which address the problems of storage space and food degradation.
The exploration to locate magic shells becomes monotonous, and the story provides no incentive to keep trudging on. Hunting and attacking is a similarly unimpressive experience, and can be largely skipped entirely if you just make a beeline for the magic shells and portal. And why wouldn’t you if you’re just in a race against the clock (or hunger meter) to reach the next chapter? While crafting and upgrading can be fun at times, it ends up feeling like wasted effort as persistent and untimely game-crashing bugs send you back to square one. Even on Storyteller mode you lose your boat, all of its upgrades, and everything on it (like additional bags and their contents).
The two best features of Windbound, for me, are the art style and music. The cartoony, cel shaded visuals are inviting and lend to the overall appeal of the game. This design choice keeps things from feeling overly harsh and it's truly a pleasure to take in. While the music is generally low key and goes unnoticed while on an island, that all changes once you hit the open water; sailing on your raft provides the most serene and melodic piano score you can imagine. These peaceful vibes serve their purpose well, lowering the tension levels from the prior island and encouraging you to strike out for yet another one.
My time with Windbound left me wishing the game had focused on either a rogue-like journey or a survival one. The combination of the two felt like they were constantly working against each other, hampering any real enjoyment. The crafting, music, and unique art style are the bright spots on this voyage. However, they get lost among poor design choices, repetitious progression, and recurring game crashes that result in major loss of progress and an unwelcomed sense of futility. Whatever potential Windbound had went down with the ship.
Jacob James grew up in the golden era of 8- and 16-bit games, forever shaping and molding him as a life-long gamer. Some favorites include: Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy and Super Mario RPG. Jacob graduated FullSail University with a degree in Computer Animation, so he has a working knowledge and understanding of what it takes to make these imaginative and immersive games he spends so much time playing and reviewing. You can follow him at www.LiveLootLevel.com
This review is based on a digital copy of Windbound for the NS, provided by the publisher.