Windbound is an interesting game. A sailing survival crafting game that will absolutely kick your teeth in if you aren’t expecting it. This is a game you have to meet on its terms because it certainly won’t be meeting you on yours.
It is, however, a game that doesn’t really know what it is. The roguelike elements undercut the main gameplay. The combat is incongruous with the sailing and survival elements. And this identity crisis makes what would be enjoyable into a slog.
Sailing For Adventure on the Big Blue Wet Thing
Windbound is a game about sailing across the ocean to a series of small islands. You loot these islands for food and crafting materials, then move on to the next island. Your actual objective are a series of magical conch shells scattered across the level which you use to open a bridge to the end of the level, where you purchase and equip your upgrades.
The sailing is excellent. I cannot find a single thing to complain about with the sailing mechanics, except maybe that in high wind on certain waves, your boat can go almost perpendicular to the water. The way that wind interacts with your sails, how you righten and loosen your sail to pick up the wind better. It’s all incredible. And I’ve never seen water simulation in a game as detailed as it is in Windbound. Waves change direction and intensity depending on the wind. Sailing in a sudden storm, as the waves dramatically grow in size, covering rocks that used to jut out above the water is truly something.
Windbound’s loop is sadly rather redundant. Every level is exactly the same, just harder and more tedious as you go. There are always three towers, each with its own key. The only question is how many of the keys now have fetch quests stopping you from getting it right away. The only thing that actually changed in the formula is the boss fight at the end of the level.
This makes the roguelike element almost unbearable. Dying, depending on your difficulty setting, either resets the level with new random islands, or restarts the entire game. And the only way to acquire new permanent upgrades, persistent between runs, is to complete a level or luck into having one spawn and then finding it. Somewhere. In the wide ocean. Good luck.
And while losing progress is always demoralizing, in Windbound it doesn’t feel like it adds anything to the experience.
Crafting is fine, but actually modifying your boat or raft is finnicky and largely at the game’s whims, and interacting with those modifications is also a bit cumbersome.
If you’re going to get anything done in Windbound, stamina management is a must. Over time, protagonist Kara will slowly get hungrier, represented by a decrease in maximum stamina. However, you actually have significantly more stamina than you think you do because your stamina bar can deplete twice before you run out. Doing this makes recovery take longer, which could cost you dearly, however. You recover stamina by eating. Luckily, everything in Windbound is safe to eat, though the alchemical flowers don’t relieve any hunger.
Unfortunately, Windbound also has combat in it.
And the thing is, combat in Windbound isn’t bad. It could use a little more polish in some places, like how there doesn’t seem to be a way to change what you’re currently locked onto, but it’s not bad. But it’s also the primary way to get meat if you don’t have a bow to fish with. And the boss fights they start introducing are also obnoxiously difficult, being fast moving with ranged attacks, and at least one of them has a shield they almost never lower to let you hit them.
A video game protagonist wakes up in an on-fire science lab with nothing but an AI and a high-tech gun to…
But this game has one of the weirdest difficulty curves I’ve ever experienced in its combat. More of a difficulty wave, no pun intended. The first level has a single monster in it, a giant armored boar which has loads of health and can dish out quite a bit of punishment, and usually there are two of them because this game wants you dead and wants you to know it. The second level introduces a weird horned lion thing which is faster, but deals considerably less damage and has far less health, and is in general easier to deal with. Level three introduces a teleporting giant lizard with a lot of health and ranged poisoning attacks because, again, this game wants you dead.
And you have to kill these things. You need materials from these monsters to craft tools that are necessary to your success. They’re also the best source of meat, because the non-monstrous boars don’t drop any meat for reasons I doubt I will ever fully understand.
And once you have meat and skin, actually making anything useful with them takes time. Because you need to put them on a fire and that takes probably somewhere around 30 seconds to a minute or so. And since your food can spoil, you’ll need to cook the meat a second time to turn it into jerky. And God help you if that fire goes out because you took too long after setting it up to cook your stuff because now you have to relight it to get the cooking to finish. So that’s another few seconds. And if there’s something hostile on the island with you, it will find you in that time. Because either I am the unluckiest Windbound player to live or monsters just like looking at campfires. Normally I’d be generous but this game is giving me trust issues.
I’m not kidding about the trust issues thing. At some point, around the third of five levels, I stopped caring about the islands. They’re all gorgeous and I would normally love exploring them. But I saw a new biome with cherry blossoms and my first thought was ‘I wonder what monster lives there and wants me dead.’ The island was too small for a monster, but the feeling of dread never truly went away. This island had a tower with one of the keys, but some rapscallion had stolen it and buried it on another island, because Windbound pads itself with fetch quests. The island I was directed to find the buried treasure was covered in an odd purplish fog. I immediately assumed it was poison gas that would kill me. Recognizing that I was growing paranoid, I convinced myself that I might instead have a strange forest adventure, like the Lost Woods of Zelda fame. I arrived in the night while it was storming, and as such did not realize that what I assumed to be rocks on the beach were instead a foul ichor which immediately shot Kara with weird tentacles of black goop and started draining my maximum health over time. This was the last time I ever trusted literally anything in this game.
This game wants you dead and it wants you to know it.
Where the Winds May Take Us
To be blunt, Windbound is one of the prettiest games I’ve ever seen.
It has a cell-shaded art style with realistic proportions, in the vein of the recent Zelda games, and it absolutely nails it. Kara’s character design is superb, with detailed but not distracting tattoos creating interesting asymmetry, her clothes look great and even get wet depending on how deep you get into water.
I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: the waves move so well that I cannot imagine what kind of black magic the developers had to use to make it work. And the way that the water changes color as the waves move like there’s genuine depth to it is really cool. Not to mention how foam appears, shifts, and fades away again. It’s so good.
The monsters and animals are all unique and distinctly recognizable. They animate well so you can read their attacks, though usually not well enough to predict an attack you’ve never see before, but enough to know when you should dodge anyway.
The music is excellent, featuring a variety of instruments and changing dynamically as you play. There’s more music while you’re out on the ocean than when you’re running around on an island. And the battle music starting with a blaring horn is a good way to know when one of the many things that wants to kill and possibly eat you has finally noticed you. But the battle music isn’t distracting even with those horns, matching the tension of combat nicely.
The music also uses several instruments I don’t usually hear in video game music, mostly in the ambient music while you’re onshore and exploring.
And the music that plays during the climactic run down the straights at the end of each level is so good.
Windbound’s story is fine, but the storytelling needs some more work. The islands you’re exploring are long-forgotten and used to be populated by a race of people who were all wiped out under mysterious circumstances that you slowly discover over the course of the game.
Most of this story is learned by completing a chapter. Each chapter you complete fills out a mural which, if examined, will give you a piece of history about the lost civilization. You can learn more details from finding strange ghostly campfires that usually have some kind of combat upgrade lying nearby, like parrying or attacking out of a dodge. These details usually flesh out the lingering regrets of the fallen rather than providing new information, but are still interesting.
But the storytelling is slow, and sometimes makes assumptions involving information I don’t yet have. One of the bosses is a ghost from the lost civilization who opens his fight monologuing about how I have no right to judge him for the things he did while desperate to survive. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. And I wouldn’t learn what he was talking about until after I’d beaten him and unlocked a new mural.
Now that would normally be fine as it would recontextualize the fight banter and in hindsight everything would make more sense. But don’t forget that if the boss kills you, then at best you have to redo the entire chapter with no understanding of what he was on about. At worst you have to restart the game. And if you die again before you get there…
But the real problem is that Kara herself has nothing to do with the story.
The world design is smart enough to usually have a visible point of interest on the horizon so that you have some idea of where to go next, even if it doesn’t have anything you actually need to collect on it. Bouncing from landmark to landmark is largely how you navigate since open waters can have sharks or those boat-eating crabs which I swear I am not making up.
Windbound is a beautiful game about sailing across a beautiful ocean to explore a beautiful world. Unfortunately, conflicting game systems and a somewhat lacking narrative hold this game back from being it’s potential to be truly memorable.