I am a big fan of survival games that require you to feed yourself, craft the items you need to live with exploration where you have to search for the materials you need to craft the items that you need to live. Chuck in a fantastic story and world to be in whilst you are battling to keep alive and you have pretty much my attention throughout the many hours it should take. From the moment I saw the announcement trailer, Windbound had my attention with its visual art style and incredible musical score. But could the full game sweep me off my feet like a leaf in the wind?
Windbound is a Survival Action game, in which you play the main character Kara, a young woman who during a storm at sea, is separated from her clan. Kara wakes up to find herself alone and on a strange set of islands with no food, no tools and no means of sailing away from the islands. Kara has a will to survive and ability to adapt to her surroundings and as the player, you will need these skills as you explore this mysterious and strange world to Kara and she not only fights to stay alive but to also return to her clan.
I pretty much need to start with the elephant in the room and glaringly obvious thing about Windbound from the start, just how much this game has clearly been inspired by Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Now this is not a terrible thing to do as Breath of the Wild is considered by many to be a contender for game of the generation and you can really see how more than just the art style has been inspired by Nintendo’s juggernaut success story. Visually, the art style of Windbound is very much taken from Breath of the Wild and it is beautiful from the opening cutscene to the moment Kara wakes up and you take control of her on the very first set of islands. The world continues this visual feast as the wildlife you encounter and new islands you explore. I did feel at times that the inspiration from Breath of the Wild did run dangerously close to copying, such as the use of a glider in the later parts of the game but there is no denying just how beautiful Windbound looks.
The core of Windbound is really in the survival element to the gameplay and here the game offers two different playing modes to choose from, Story Telling mode which as you expect is more focused on allowing the player to progress through the game without the survival element being too punishing to not hold them back. However, the other and default game mode is Survivalist which is how the game advises it to be played. This is the mode I played through first and I am glad I did as this is really how the developers wanted the player to experience this procedurally generated experience. You will need to find materials to build the many tools and weapons Kara will learn to craft throughout her journey, which can all be found on the island Kara explores. Naturally, different islands will have different materials meaning you will have to go further exploring to find the components required to make a particular tool or weapon.
To this end the game has a crafting and inventory system that enables Kara to carry around crafting materials on her in order to at any time craft what she might need such as a new spear or rope needed as component to build another item. Other than weapons, the most important and crucial thing Kara will need to build is a boat as this is the only way to travel between the set of islands you are on and ultimately, moving between the five groups of islands that make up the game. Each set of islands has three mysterious beacons that must be activated by Kara in order to open the sea tunnel which will enable the player to move to the next group of islands and so on. The mysterious beacons are connected to Kara’s clan in some way and as you progress through the game more and more clues as to what that connection is becomes known to Kara and you as the player.
But helping Kara to survive long enough to complete this journey really is the main focus and it will require the player to do some work to make this happen. The survival aspect really comes down to the health and stamina bars in the top left corner of the screen with the stamina bar being an interesting way to focus the player on the elements of hunger and tiredness that are the backbone to any survival game. Running, jumping and fighting all use up the stamina bar and as Kara becomes tired or hungry, this bar is reduced limiting just how much running and fighting Kara can do. So, learning to gather basic food like berries is essential right from the start. But food can spoil, and with limited inventory space, cooking food such as animal meat. Of course, to get that animal meat you will need to go hunting so observing and hunting the various animal life in Windbound is not only keep to keeping Kara fed and ready to go at any time but the by-product of using the remains of the animal as more advanced crafting tools and boat upgrades.
Now the crafting side is a double-edged sword in Windbound as not only will you need to learn new crafting designs to make new weapons and tools but also how to upgrade them including the boat you make. The boat will soon become a modular base of operations of sort as it is your main means of island transport but also your home as you continue to upgrade it you will soon use it to help manage the inventory by storing materials and food on it for your journey as there is a limit to how much you can carry on Kara at any one time. Working to upgrade the boat and to keep it in good condition is vital to Windbound as is keeping your tools and weapons in good condition as well. I found that often the choice between getting enough materials to craft something new and useful would often be hampered if I needed to repair Kara’s boat or to replace a tool or weapon.
Combat is fairly basic really depending on the weapons you have, starting with your trusty survival knife which is used to gather materials and as your initial defensive weapon. But soon you can craft spears, slings and a bow to help you fight the animals you encounter but large and small. Now the animals tend to follow the same basic behaviour when it comes to fighting you and often it is a case of just waiting for an opening and attacking them then repeating this until defeated. Most of the time engaging them is down to what component or material you need to craft or repair something though the meat you can get from them is also great at keeping Kara healthy and stamina bar full. The price for failing to do so or messing up combat is true to form for any survival game and should Kara die….well, it is literally back to the start of the game for you and Kara.
That is right, if Kara dies in Windbound you will find yourself right back at the starting island with only the items you have in Kara’s inventory, anything that is on the boat including the boat itself will be lost to you. Now this may sound harsh and in the early going in the game this can happen a lot but like all survival games, this is how you the player are expected to learn from your mistakes depending on how you failed be it losing in combat, not having enough food or crashing the boat perhaps. By the time you do reach the later groups of islands and their different environments, you will have learned enough hopefully so the chances of facing a restart grow more and more slim.
I particularly like the sailing in the game which has just enough elements to stop it becoming too much of a simulation of sailing but also not so simple that you just get in the boat and hold a button to make it go. Controlling the sail to get the most from the wind direction made the sailing rather satisfying as someone who regularly enjoys Sea of Thieves. You need to watch out for coral reefs as well as you approach an island or your boat can be damaged by them making you as I said above, change your upgrading plans to one of repairing.
But I do have some issues with Windbound which for me runs foul of just being too ambitious in what it wants to achieve than it actually delivers. The inventory system is at best, annoying and you will find yourself having to micro manage it especially when gathering items to craft new gear. The blend of a survival game and an action game means the two sides blend together ok but not perfectly and both lose something as a result. The animation when it comes to Kara climbing is very cumbersome and noticeable and even the glider you can craft in the later stages performs more like a parachute than a means of traversing long distances as its inspiration in Breath of the Wild allows players to do. The combat is clumsy and once you know the pattern of a creature, it just becomes a mini game of rinse and repeat of the same tactic which becomes repetitious after a while. Even the threat of failing and starting over again becomes less and less of an issue.
Windbound for the asking price of less than half of what a regular game would cost is a very brave attempt at making a survival action game that is rewarding in parts but frustratingly annoying in others. Which is a shame because whilst it is still highly playable, you can just sense the many layers did not quite come together as was hoped. But this is still a solid ten to fifteen-hour game experience that did not quite give me the replay over again feeling more than a one and done or play again once every few months potentially.
Beautiful in visuals and in sound with a survival system that works best when the player learns from mistakes made, Windbound is a charming budget entry in a very crowded entry genre and may have stood out more if less of it was a tribute to a game like Breath of the Wild that simply does everything far better.