Windbound (PS4) Review – Boaty McBoatface
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Windbound was a Zelda-like RPG with lots of sailing. It’s got the cel-shading and sailing of Wind Waker and the crafting and cooking of Breath of the Wild. But buyer beware, this may not be the game you think it is. This is a survival crafting game with rogue-lite elements far more closely aligned with games like Subnautica and Grounded than Nintendo’s hallowed RPG series.
Fair warning – I really think some players will come to Windbound expecting something different. Developers Five Lives are at pains to let you know it’s a survival game, because it’s easy to misjudge the package on offer. What we have is cel-shaded and cute-looking, sure, but it’s a brutally punishing survival game, where you need to find food, craft weapons and items, manage your hunger, and slowly but surely build up a trustworthy boat, that will take you to the next island. Windbound proudly consists of what I suppose technically is an infinite number of procedurally-generated islands, in a pseudo open-world and remakes it’s world after every chapter.
Imagine you were shipwrecked for real. You would need to think like Robinson Crusoe, get your Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs seen to ASAP; you need sources of food, water, and shelter before hunger and thirst and the sun kill you long before you manage to make a boat.
The game starts with almost no explanation at all. There’s a scattered flashback of some ships in a storm and Kara floating limp in the blue abyss. Kara wakes in the surf on a beach on a tiny island, with no real knowledge of who she is, how she got here, or what to do. She doesn’t have a hair out of place, and she clearly has an inexhaustible skill for making stuff. Ropes, bags, weapons, boats, pots, you name it, Kara can make it.
But that’s it. You are on your own. Survive or die. The narrative from this point is subtle to the point of nonexistence, and relies on basic visual storytelling at best, such as finding a graveyard on one of the islands, or a smashed up bunch of village huts. Were there islanders here before? Was this your tribe’s home before something happened? If you want tangible answers you are going to be disappointed. This is one of those cases where there’s more explanation on the game’s store page, than there is in the game.
It’s a piece-it-together backstory, but it rarely even has any lore. A couple of bits of poetic text come up every now and again, explaining nothing. Each time you complete one of the five chapters needed for a run, finding the lighthouse-like towers and setting off the beacons, you will then find a Nautilus-shell temple, looking like a skull on the horizon. Kara has a small Nautilus necklace that interacts with these, and each time she is transported to an auditorium space where pictograms try to explain the story of what I assume are her people and the Nautilus. The pictograms are interpretive at best, and could mean anything. It read to me like the Nautilus killed everyone, and the survivors began to worship the Nautilus, but you could interpret it completely differently. It’s all exceptionally opaque.
So it’s a story of survival, you say. Give it a break. Well, yes, but a story without any of the normal parts of a narrative. Kara doesn’t talk, she never encounters another person. Apart from animals and your own hunger, there’s no conflict or tension to speak of, and the game quickly becomes dull.
It could have been so easily remedied. Had they given Kara a voice, she could have become a real tangible character, rather than an avatar. Even her just making sarcastic remarks about how tired or desperate she is, or remarking on the mystery of the graves and shrines, trying to piece it together with us, all would have helped.
We know that visual and silent storytelling can work, like in GRIS for example, and there have been many silent protagonists, but here it left me cold. Usually there are other characters to pull up the slack, or a more deftly handled magical mystery. Windbound’s narrative left me sorely disappointed.
I had so many questions. Why was she shipwrecked? How? What were they doing out at sea, when they got into trouble? I took to creating my own narrative, and injecting it with some sorely missing dramatic tension. How’s this? Kara was out at sea, alone and far from home, adventure hungry, resourceful. Against her father’s orders she ventured into the forbidden islands, and witnessed not a group of dead islands, but an armada hidden by the rocks getting ready to invade her tribe’s islands. There we set up a premise and give Kara more personality and backstory. We just need an inciting incident. She’s caught and escapes, or a storm rolls in, blowing her miles and miles off course, into the uncharted forbidden islands that she should have avoided. Now you have a plot. Now Kara needs to get home, as soon as possible, to save her people. And there’s the dramatic tension. Alas, not a jot of any of that makes it into the game.
Of course wishing for all this is exactly the issue. It’s exactly what I was warning you against. This is not Zelda and it’s not a narrative game! It’s a crafting survival sim.
So, what is Windbound really? Well it’s about survival. And it’s not survival like survival horror, its hunger, food, fire and crafting type survival. It’s survival, barked at you by a drill sergeant, with a little bit of sailing between survival sections.
You have a health bar, but the main thing to start managing is your stamina, or hunger, bar. Stamina is a big factor, no matter which difficulty you choose. That stamina bar will be the bane of your world. You can’t run constantly or swim for more than fifty or so metres without drowning when its depleted. And every minute or two a little chunk will drop off the maximum. This means you must manage hunger constantly. Every island you visit, you must look for food first, to keep yourself topped up. Food is scarce, especially at the beginning, and it doesn’t last long against the punishing and probably pretty realistic onslaught of hunger. I died even when all I was looking for was food. There are mushrooms and truffles, and you can kill and cook the animals you find stranded on the islands. To add salt to the wound, you can take food items with you if you find too many, but usually they will then degrade before you’ve had need of them, and they make you sick.
You can also gather resources that aren’t food. Sticks, rocks, bones, grass, bamboo and wood, all are necessary to craft items to survive. You can craft weapons to hunt more efficiently, or use sticks combined with rope made from grass, to made digging tools, or an axe. And all these things degrade with use until they break. It took me a while to work out I could cure skins over a fire to make leather, which then gives you the ability to craft a host of new things. But chief among them is the axe, to chop down trees, and get wood. Wood is the highest tier of the crafting system, and necessary for the really good boat, but we’ll come to boats in a minute.
The game is about survival, but I take issue with the stamina hunger mechanic. This structure actually makes the game into a race, rather than a test of endurance. Each chapter for me started with having enough stamina to go gathering and building, upgrading my boat and making leather for an axe etc. You hunt and kill some food, but by the time you need it the meat has degraded. Then you’ve run out of prey animals and resources, and suddenly it’s a race to find the last of the beacons before you keel over from stamina exhaustion you can no longer do anything about.
Crafting in Windbound is a contradiction. The tiers of items are kept simple, and you won’t be overwhelmed with items to manage. Once you’ve made the largest bag, you’ll be fine. However that same simplicity meant that the system grows old and dull even before you are halfway through a single run for the end. You will have probably managed a wooden boat by chapter three, and there are five chapters. Believe me, chapter four and five, well, they are just there to give you more chance to lose it all. Nothing new is introduced once you have upgraded to wood.
The world of Windbound is certainly pretty. The procedurally generated islands all look nice and it’s amazing that they all look different, and also naturally formed. There’s some interesting coding and rules going on underneath to make the islands work, and they really do.
During each chapter, as you work your way through the survival requirements, you are also looking for lighthouses, only they are rock formations with beacons at the top rather than anything man-made. Find three, set off the light and you can then head for the Nautilus shrine on the horizon, if your boat and stamina can get you there. Islands that don’t have lighthouses are still worth visiting, because they often have stamina and health upgrades, both of which will restore that gauge fully.
I don’t think the graphics are anything to shout about, but I have a soft-spot for cel-shading and its not a bad example. But it does suffer from a lack of detail. Cel-shading can cover a lot of sins, but you will still notice the game is pretty simple.
In terms of sound design it’s again a very simple, and for the most part, silent adventure. There are a couple of repeated refrains that accompanying different activities. Find a shrine and Mongolian throat singing adds a brooding and lonely edge. When you are sailing, there is a nice wistful piano theme that sounds like the Nujabes, without a hip-hop beat. There’s a great sounding klaxon that goes off when your boat is under attack, or a shark is approaching.
Where sound is glaringly lacking is in Kara being silent. Her silence makes everything lonely and empty. I wanted her to talk to herself, make snappy asides and comments about what she needed to do next. I wanted to invest in her, and I never could.
I’ve saved the best part of crafting until last. You use grass to make ropes, to secure together grass to make a boat. You upgrade this to a bamboo boat when you find some, and you can reuse the items because the game let’s you dismantle things. Then things get awesome. You can make a deck, and lash it to two hulls and you have yourself a clipper. Oh boy, is it satisfying when you get to a bamboo clipper.
Out on the open water, sailing is a wonderfully put together mechanic. You can row to start with, but who rows for long in a game called Windbound? Make yourself a sail to go on your clipper, and the game opens up from one island to a whole archipelago, the ocean becomes your game world in the same fantastic way it did in Wind Waker. You have lots of control over your little sail; you can steer with a rudder, but you also have control over loosening and tightening the sail on a kind of swivel on the mast. Loosening throws the sail outward, to catch the wind, but tightening brings it in parallel with your boat. This is for use when you want to go against the wind. You can’t sail head-on, but with a tightened sail you can zig-zag across the wind diagonally, tacking your way towards landmarks when the wind is against you. It’s not a sailing sim, not by a long shot, but sailing is the strongest part of this package, and really when the game came alive for me.
Riding on a big wave in high winds is pretty thrilling. You can pick up enough speed to lose control of your boat completely, outrun sharks, and you’ll feel like Kevin Costner in Waterworld before you know it. That’s when I start to think of a Waterworld game.
My only real gripe with the sailing is not having an option to stop relying on the wind, drop your sail and just row the last bit into land. Once you have a sail that’s it, the rowing option is removed. You have to dismantle your mast to be able to row again. I lost count of how many times it would have helped to slowly row through the jagged coral into the beach. I would have also loved a boat locator button or beacon, for when you get turned about on a large island.
Windbound is a game that comes in two different flavours. These are its two difficulty settings. But they are more than that. They are two completely different ways to ‘enjoy’ the experience. Survivalist is an all-out challenge, pitting you against nature and your hunger, to see if you can emerge victorious and find your way home. Permadeath, losing all your items, and going all the way back to chapter 1 of 5 whenever you die. That’s punishing.
The other is the one that will suit most players; being able to start again from the start of the chapter you have reached so far makes reaching the end manageable. You will still lose items, and the boat you’ve meticulously built. Dying is bad, really bad. And you will die, it’s inevitable, because the combat is really basic and barely gives you the speed and tools to do a good job, but at least on this difficulty you just might make it to the end of the game. Also, losing your life, its nothing, what’s a life? But losing your boat!? Jeez! It made me want to give up completely.
Each time you reach that chapter ending Nautilus temple, Windbound throws a storm-crashing gauntlet at you to test your sailing skills and the durability of your boat. Waves crash, rocks appear out of nowhere. You can go from a fully furnished two hull clipper, to a mastless raft in one gauntlet easily, and hobble into the start of the next chapter clinging to a raft, devoid of most of your items and having the arduous task of having to build your boat up again from scratch.
At the end of each of these sections you can use the sea coins you’ve collected to buy upgrades in the form of blessed or ancient weapons/buffs. Buying that first spear, that might actually help you hunt properly is a godsend. There’s an expensive buff for stamina depletion to be greatly reduced, that you might be able to use on a second run.
The start of each chapter means Windbound procedurally generates a new world of islands again. This means you cannot revisit anywhere you’ve been. This is what I meant by a pseudo open world. Really, it’s a new mini open ocean each chapter. This ends up making you feel like you are starting again each time, and robs the game of any last vestige of narrative cohesion it might have.
This structure isn’t rewarding. If they had done away with the chapter structure, the framing devices, the lighthouses and Nautilus shrines dumping you in a new place each chapter, then Windbound would have felt more cohesive. A real open world, without the procedural generation, a map that you can slowly draw for yourself as you go, or any personality to each island, all would have helped.
Again this is the issue. This is not the game you think it is. How could it have an open world and a map, when what they clearly wanted to design was a procedurally generated island creator. This is why you have to start again after each gauntlet section. This is why you cannot revisit old islands. This is why there is no sense of cohesion to the world.
It’s all quite short too. Without any narrative, there’s nothing to stop you racing from lighthouse to lighthouse, and sailing though the game for the first time in around 7-10 hours. Procedurals and games with rogue-lite elements rely on replayability, but at 7 hours per run, and barely any reward as you go, that replayability, for me at least, was non-existent.
There were some fun glitches as I played Windbound, and some not so fun ones. Two come to mind. One was when a Plainstalker, a kind of antlered lion, jumped down from a high rock to prowl his island, and got caught in his jumping down animation, so that he landed but stayed on his two front feet from that point on. He circled my hiding place sliding about in a glitch animation, ass in the air, until a minute had gone by and suddenly he was able to walk normally. That’s the silly one.
The other glitch ended a run. Waves can get fierce in Windbound, especially in the later chapters. One wave tossed my boat high, and knocked Kara off, but she didn’t fall in the sea. She fell through the boat, and then got stuck, halfway through the boat, flailing her limbs about. I had no control of her or the boat, or the sail, and ended up careering into a rock at high speed, destroying my boat, and having to reload. Not quite game-breaking, but close.
I know it’s a rogue-lite and it’s about staying alive for a whole run. But it’s a long run, far longer than comparable rogue-lites like Dead Cells, Moonlighter, or Undertale. Because of this, Windbound is equipped with a save feature, so that you can go to bed, have dinner, or take your lizard out for a walk. But it’s infuriating, given how long you are playing, that you can’t reload a save if you die. The game is designed to send you back to the start, but clever gamers will immediately realise you can exploit the loopholes in having a save function eg. save all the time, and if you are about to lose your boat to a shark, or about to die in a mano-a-beasto spear fight, simply reload, and don’t go the same way again.
Just because Windbound is probably not the game you were thinking it was, doesn’t mean it not a good little game. I just feel people’s expectations need to be tempered going in. Windbound is not Breath of the Wild, or Wind Waker 2.0. Windbound is a fun and accomplished sailing game, the islands you visit are generally pretty and the crafting system is robust, if a little on the simple side. The freedom is given to tackle challenges in almost any order or way you see fit, but eventually everything still boils down to crafting and battling your stamina gauge, and then sailing on to the next island and doing it all over again.
But it is also lacking in a number of key areas. It’s nicely made, but not well designed. The chapter structure, saving, permadeath and difficulties all add up to actively discourage play and experimentation. It’s brutal survival chops make it hard to recommend to most gamers, and it’s also a damn shame it’s basically devoid of anything that could be called narrative or character.
Windbound is a fun sailing game set in a world that’s different every time you play, but it’s a frustrating and punishing survival game at the same time. It’s highly likely to not be the game players expect it to be. Without any story or narrative to anchor it, the player is left adrift at sea without a raft.
Windbound is launching on the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 (review platform), Xbox One, Google Stadia and PC on August 28th, 2020.
Developer: 5 Lives Studio
Publisher: Deep Silver / Koch Media
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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