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Review: Windbound Sails Past a Sea of Troubles with Style and Spirit

Screenshot: Windbound

Taking on too much all at once is usually a bad idea. That said, it doesn’t usually stop creators. This can lead to a great triumph, a catastrophe, or, in some cases, something in between. Windbound is a game that takes cues from a lot of great titles, like Breath of the Wild and Sea of Thieves. You’ll find yourself washed up on a mysterious island and have to piece together what happened to you while trying to make it another day. It’s immediately compelling, and before I even got through the initial cut scenes I was excited to play it. Unfortunately, once the controls are yours, you find the frustrations come in at least equal part to the fun. 

In Windbound, you’ll play as Kara. Though it seems she’s the only person on the planet, she’s simply shipwrecked and alone, separated from her tribe. Windbound is extremely open world, much like Breath of the Wild was, but in Windbound’s case this works against it. Open worlds are great until they’re not, and what usually makes them less than great is a lack of proper amounts of feedback. This is what you’ll find early on in Windbound.  The game is afoot as soon as you’re conscious, and you’ll be battling hunger and scraping for resources immediately. This would be fine, and works in other games, because the survival mechanics aren’t super severe. Unfortunately, in Windbound, even once you’ve mastered the mechanics and have a few chapters under your belt, it’s fully possible to starve to death while cooking your next meal over the fire even in its lowest difficulty “Storyteller” mode.

Screenshot: Windbound

You’ll begin your adventures as a gatherer, picking up rocks and hacking at grass with your trusty knife. Recipes to make different things–tools, weapons, fire, and recipes for food and armor, will come as you continue to explore and discover. You’ll also discover mysterious towers that emanate blue light, which bestow blessings, uncover lore, and serve as progression markers. Early on, you’ll be given the ancestral oar, which you’ll use to pilot a boat that will of course be of your own making. Craft something simple and standard or go nuts and make a monstrosity that is fit for that whole tribe you left behind. Early on, you can create a simple grass canoe that’ll serve you just fine, but much of the game is built on a series of progressively heartier boats that you can expand and improve.

As with most everything about Windbound, there’s little guidance, and even having played games with sailing mechanics before, at first I really struggled to get the sailing down comfortably. Sailing is unforgiving, and while you can loosen and tighten the sails, or raise and lower them, most of the time you’ll find yourself hurtling along like a rocket or dead in the water. If the wind isn’t right to get to the next island in front of you, you’ll have to loop around the long way. I stuck with my canoe a little longer than I was probably supposed to because though it was sluggish, it didn’t depend on wind direction and speed, which sometimes meant a speedier journey anyway.

Screenshot: Windbound

The seas around the island are perilous, and boats can easily take damage from coral, get tossed about in waves, or be beset on by crobsters, one of Windbound’s most obnoxious enemies. Crobsters gracefully arc over the waters near coral and then attach to your raft or boat, and eat it. You’ll need to stop sailing to stab the little buggers with your knife or spear before they completely wreck it, but doing so leaves what can be a high speed boat hurtling headlong into islands, rocks, or tall waves that could capsize it.

This is the root of most of Windbound’s problems. While there are two difficulty modes–Storyteller and Survival, with Storyteller purportedly being the easier one, the game’s survival systems are too severe. One crobster can practically devour a huge chunk in seconds. Food that you cook can spoil on the journey from one island to the next. Weapons break fairly quickly, even when made with heartier materials, and crafting materials are often scarce, or scattered far and wide between islands, which ups the chance you’ll starve on the open ocean before you get another stick to build a new spear and hunt another meal. Drop rates for vital items are also too low, so it’s possible to hunt a bunch of boars and only end up with enough meat to last you for the next half hour of gameplay.

Screenshot: Windbound

Windbound’s core systems work against you too. The UI is clumsy, and nowhere is this more obvious than the crafting menus. Instead of being able to simply tab over with a bumper from Survival Tools to Boat Accesories, Boat Parts or Weapons, the game’s four main crafting categories, you have to use the D-pad to scroll through the list from left to right, which will then turn the page. 

Windbound’s core controls also seem strange, with a whole lot of actions assigned to the same keys or buttons, and at least for me on an Xbox Controller, the default buttons for combat, running and using things seemed just exactly opposite of where they  felt natural and comfortable. Add to this that sometimes the spot you have to stand in to get the option you want can be infuriatingly small and you’ll get to the point where you’ve just accidentally climbed onto your boat instead of pushing it offshore or swapped your bigger bag for a smaller one, dumping some contents in the process.

Screenshot: Windbound

Hitboxes can be imprecise in Windbound, as can visual cues. A cliff at a height you just climbed might look exactly like another you can’t climb, and fall damage costs you dearly. Kara’s stamina and health work together, so if you drain all of one you’ll be taking from another. Stamina is used in combat and when sprinting, and there is both temporary and permanent stamina. If you deplete all your temporary stamina, you’ll start to lose the permanent stamina. If you lose all your stamina, your health will start ticking down fast. In Storyteller mode, if you’re saving your game frequently, you won’t lose your boat or your resources, but you can lose your place, and considering the length of time it takes to do everything, this can be rage inducing.

The various islands contain a multitude of different monsters. Some will attack you on sight while others must be provoked. In the beginning chapters, Windbound’s lore seemed to indicate that the better way to approach things was not to unnecessarily harm the animal life, but you’ll soon find through trial and error that you’re going to be hunting more than you’re going to be petting bleenks and cooing at razorbubs. 

Combat includes melee and ranged options, and a Dark Souls-esque lock-on system and dodge that’ll help you avoid damage, but here again, combat is sometimes overly punishing. You can miss a dodge and if you’re not locked on you can’t dodge at all, but an enemy seems to never be able to miss–unless it just stands idly facing away from you for some reason allowing you a few cheap, guilty stabs.

Screenshot: Windbound

Still, you’ll take the cheap shots, because if they do connect with you, it won’t JUST do one thing, it’ll often debilitate you in several ways at once–for example, with the Gloomharrows, who can simultaneously grab you, poison you, and knock you down. It’s avoidable, and surmountable, but I can’t help but feel like it could’ve been toned down a little bit. This is sometimes also true of enemy spawning, nowhere more obviously than with the abomination that is a Silkmaw. These little balls of teeth drop from trees in four packs like angry little grapes, but there can be 2 clusters extremely close to each other and they’ll chase you to the ends of the earth. They’ve got almost no hit points individually but locking on and off to them to take them all down is a battle against finicky controls and what is hopefully a decently full health bar, and in later chapters they.are.everywhere.

This is to say nothing of the technical bugs I encountered in Windbound, including falling through the ground during combat or after hard falls, jittering up against rocks or after falls, a total freeze and crash, and the mysterious and somewhat baffling amount of effort it put even a beefy gaming setup through, kicking fans into high gear and significantly heating things up.

Screenshot: Windbound

Though it seems I have nothing nice to say about Windbound that’s not entirely the case. Despite punishing mechanics, clumsy UIs and grinding for mats, I found myself coming back to Windbound eagerly every session. Even though sailing the seas takes up a lot of time and can feel tedious, catching the wind and careening toward an undiscovered island feels exhilarating. There are lots of little secrets to find too, from tiny little islands with jars full of goodies including craft materials and sea shards, Windbound’s currency, to interesting new items that unlock new items with interesting new abilities. 

Some of the severity can be mitigated with mid and end game items too. There are increasingly larger bags and containers to aid with storage problems, bags and armor that improve stamina or even help food spoil slower (though still not slowly enough) and items that give you special abilities. And, once every tower in the chapter is activated you’ll face a sort of “end trial” sequence, in which a little bit of lore is revealed through ornate hieroglyphics and cryptic voiceovers before you’re guided to a sort of altar where you can purchase a blessing to use in your upcoming adventures. These include things like a powerful spear that doesn’t break, items that reduce stamina burn, and items that reduce poison damage, with more popping up each time. You’ll spend sea shards to obtain them and once they’re unlocked they’re available to you for the rest of the game with one caveat–there can only be one used at a time. Once you’ve acquired the blessing, you’ll enter something called The Fury, a perfectly scored pitched battle that sees you and your boat taking on some extremely tumultuous waters. Make it through to the end and you’ll sail right on in to the next chapter.

Screenshot: Windbound

Exploration and discovery is one of the most fun parts of Windbound, and just when I’d be frustrated with how long it was taking to do everything I would find something new and interesting that lead me to want to continue on, and Windbound does a good job of teasing what’s to come inside its crafting system. I knew I’d eventually have an axe to chop down trees, for example, but I had to figure out what a Gloomstalker was and where it lived before I could get its jaw and make the thing.

I wish I could say that Windbound laid out the same sort of breadcrumbs for its lore, but it really doesn’t. Windbound’s cut scenes and interjectionary dialogues are mostly purple prose. Sometimes they talk about great loss, sometimes about the past of Kara’s people, but never really in much of a way that really paints a super clear picture. Still, it’s intriguing enough to want to keep going and unravel more of the mysteries.

Screenshot: Windbound

Similarly, though everything is a grind, Windbound is the same sort of grind you’ll go through in a lot of other games I do enjoy, and if you’re drawn in enough by the Forbidden Islands you will likely find the fun and relaxation of resource grinds. Windbound’s got a world that begs you to explore it. Sailing, though difficult to pick up, can be fun. I actually enjoyed the Fury segments after each chapter, too, and found myself looking forward to finding out what the new blessings I could purchase were.  

Though I think the story could be more straightforward, it was certainly intriguing and mysterious, and I found myself excited when some new piece of the puzzle would emerge or I’d discover something magical and powerful on a run for sticks and stones. 

Screenshot: Windbound

Developers have addressed a lot of the players’ concerns and are planning to patch in some changes, though as of the writing of this review this has not been completed. As it is, Windbound is frustrating–maddeningly so at some points, and the compounded effect of the various issues means at least in its current state I can’t heartily recommend it. But if you’re into exploration and survival or if you really like to sail, there’s a good chance that even now, you’ll still enjoy your time with Windbound,–Silkmaws, starvation and all.

 

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