I have always enjoyed the survival genre, its challenging nature and brutal difficulty bring out the caveman within. I have lost track of how many games I own in this category, but I’m happy to return to each and everyone when I get the itch. One title I failed to get hold of at launch was Windbound by developers 5 Lives Studios and publisher Deep Silver. A mere 6 months after release I’ve dipped my toe into the waters of this seafaring survivalist title, to see what all the fuss is about.
The game follows the story of Kara, a seafaring girl who has lost her tribe during a terrible storm. A sea monster rises from the deep and annihilates her vessel. Upon waking, she is left with nothing but a knife, her wits, and a mystical necklace that will help her find her tribe. The game is broken down across 5 chapters where you must search for beacons hidden in looming towers. Once each of the 3 triggers is struck, a gateway opens and you can progress to the next episode.
A game that is light on story, but heavy on mechanics.
If you are looking for a title that will give you clear direction, and a fulfilling story, Windbound will not be your first port of call. The story is almost nonexistent, and little guidance is offered to the player about where to go, and what to do. If you are happy to go with the flow, and try to survive while searching for each beacon of hope, then this could well be the game for you.
With a fantastic crafting menu, and a deadly rogue-like theme running through it, this is not a game to take lightly. Planning, preparation, and knowing when to run is key to being successful. 3 game modes are at your disposal; storyteller, survivalist and endless. The latter allows for unlimited sailing, with the freedom to explore with no pressure. Storyteller allows you to start the chapter you are on with all the equipment you have gathered. You’ll note that death is only a slight inconvenience. Survivalist will restart all your action back to the first chapter, and it will wipe all your goods, with the exception of a select few. The hardcore mode is a kick in the balls and makes you consider your options.
Crafting and sailing is a treat.
The game’s rich level of crafting is an absolute delight to experience. Gathering new resources will automatically unlock a blueprint for new equipment. A tutorial pop-up kindly advises you of your new discovery, and you will search through your list hoping to build your new tool. You soon realise you don’t have the resources, so more exploration and hunting is required (so near, yet so far). This restriction of what items can be made was frustrating, but it keeps the gameplay balanced, ensuring the player can’t get to the end game too quickly. It was a well thought out concept from the developers, even if I cursed them when I couldn’t make an axe or other items in the early stages.
When every chapter is a procedurally generated archipelago, you’ll find that a boat is the only way to get around. Luckily 5 Lives Studios got this element spot on. You start out with nothing more than a grass lined canoe, yet this soon evolves to a well designed sea faring vessel that can take on any weather front. The wind will whip across your bows, and you must tighten or loosen your sail accordingly. You cannot mindlessly float to each island, you need to understand the best way to get there, and that requires planning.
Disjointed fighting and hunger pangs.
Surviving is as much about gathering resources as it is hunting big game. You craft a spear or sling and go to town on some gigantic beast that roams the islands. You hope that the battle is smooth and quick, but what you discover is a slow and arduous affair that is painful to get through. Dodging is pointless, and your attack strength is pitiful. We all know that death is a certainty in life, but I never guessed I’d be killed by a baby wild boar repeatedly.
This leads me nicely into the next major concern, Kara is constantly hungry. You explore and the hunger meter falls, jump in your boat, and you see it dropping like a rock. Starvation is an annoyance that never goes away. Food is scarce, and when you have gathered it, it spoils in record time. Berries can be collected, meat harvested and jerky created, but it’s never enough. You must come to terms with the fact you will die because Kara is painfully greedy.
Essence of Zelda.
It is a great game to look at, and I was reminded of Breath of the Wild. The bright colours and cartoon style made this easy on the eye. This garish approach distracted you from looking at the finer details, and when you do, you realise that the finishing touches are rough. Textures are off and items don’t flow like they should. At first glance it was lovely to look at, but this faded the longer you spent playing. It was a shame as the trailers and opening cinematic set an expectation that I’d hope would continue throughout.
A light-hearted sea shanty style audio matches the theme brilliantly. This upbeat and fun to listen to soundtrack matches the action, as do the simple and retro RPG sound effects. Kara grunts as she climbs, screams as she swings her weapon, and hears the wind howling in her face while at sea. The audio does well to create a great atmosphere and makes up for the shortcomings with the visual elements.
A busy UI, but easy to play.
With such a complex crafting system, it was understandable that the UI would be in-depth. Lots of sub menus allow you to navigate many categories of craftables. A separate page is reserved for your inventory, so you can identify your goods at the touch of a button. Annoyingly, however, was the lack of a mini map. You float from island to island searching and exploring, yet you have no clue where you are going unless you access the main menu. This was an irritating oversight from the developers, and a mini map should have been included as part of the main screen. Other than the clumsy fighting mechanics, the rest of the controls are straightforward, and you’ll play this with ease quickly.
The survival genre is renowned for its replay value, and Windbound is no different. If you get hooked by the concept, you’ll lose hours sailing the oceans and crafting all that is on offer. The sandbox mode allows you continuous play, and the procedurally generated algorithm ensures that no combination of islands is ever the same. A large achievement list will add hours to a playthrough. But, only the most hardcore of players will attempt a 100% completion. Currently on offer until 09-02-2021, you can purchase it for £12.49 (normally £24.99). This 50% discount makes it great value for money, even at full price it’s worth spending your money on.
Does it stand out amongst its peers?
The survival genre is a cramped place. There are so many and wonderful games that it’s hard for one to stand out from the crowd. Windbound offers a unique package, but it’s held back by its lack of story. On the surface the graphics look great, but don’t look too closely otherwise you’ll be disappointed! The audio is fantastic and helps to set the scene, and the crafting options are the best I’ve experienced. Do I recommend it? I do, but I know it won’t be for everyone. You can purchase your own copy here if you wish! The sea may have taken Kara away from her tribe, but now she must use its power to return her home to them. Build a boat and live off the land. You must do all it takes to survive and return to your people.