What I love most about Windbound, as I suspect most people will, is the fact that it’s a survival rogue-lite adventure that isn’t tedious. It offers two ways to play, ensuring it meets most player’s tastes, and has one of the best sailing mechanics I’ve ever had the pleasure of using.
If the sound of another rogue-lite adventure (or survival game) that feels half finished and requires hours of grinding to get anywhere fills you with dread, then Windbound is the breath of fresh air that you need. It combines all of these elements, but keeps up a pace that pushes you to never dwell too long in one place, or do the same thing over and over again.
Developer: 5 Lives Studio
Publisher: Deep Silver
Platforms: Windows PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, Stadia
Release Date: August 28th, 2020
The story of Windbound is brilliant in its simplicity. You play as a warrior called Kara who has been separated from their tribe during a storm, awakening in a mystical place that takes you to an archipelago. From here you need to gather the resources required to build a boat, eat, and everything else you need in order to get to the huge glowing tower in the distance.
Along the way you must activate mysterious beacons that are somehow connected to your necklace. Once you reach the largest island, you’ll be taken on a journey of revelation, before moving to the next archipelago.
Everything is told to you through the environment. There are short glimpses of story that are revealed at certain points, but they’re just flavor text for the overall narrative that appears to be unfolding. It’s open for interpretation, but also sends an important message that most players should appreciate.
Of course, you don’t need to pay attention to the story at all, because the gameplay is fantastic. You must work your way through each chapter in order to get to the end of the game, but if you die you’ll need to restart. The mode you’re playing on dictates where you will restart from.
In Storyteller mode, you’ll restart from the beginning of the current chapter, and retain everything in your inventory, including your boat. On Survivalist mode, you’ll be taken back to the start of chapter 1, and only retain the items you’re holding.
I spent the majority of my time in Survivalist mode. It’s slightly more stressful because of the added threat of losing so much progress, but it felt like the best way to play the game. Every time I died was because of my own actions, and I never felt like the game was unfair.
There are other subtle differences between the modes, such as combat difficulty. Even so, I thoroughly recommend Survivalist mode for anyone’s first time with the game.
Every chapter has a procedurally generated set of islands to explore. There will always be a few that you need to head to because they hold the mysterious pillars. However, if you choose to explore each and every one, then you’ll slowly start to see the world evolve.
Right from the first chapter there are resources to gather, recipes to learn from them, and creatures to hunt. You learn what you need by gathering items and seeing the results of experimentation. Yes, there are some tutorials, but for the most part the game doesn’t hold your hand.
The combat is competent and intuitive. At the press of a button you’ll lock onto an enemy, and from there it’s down to you to master the art of killing enemies or cute fluffy animals. Much like in Dark Souls, it pays to watch an enemy and learn their attack patterns before you jump in with your knife or spear.
I learned early on that making better weapons was the best way to progress. With a higher attack damage you can take down enemies faster, and avoid the need to stop to eat and fill up your stamina gauge.
Stamina and health are the only two metres that you need to worry about. You lose health in all the traditional ways. Creatures nipping your heels or impaling you hurts, as does falling from a great height. Stamina is different though.
You’ll lose stamina a few times a day, indicated by a small audible boom. There’s plenty to eat on each island, but you need to ration it enough so that it will last you for the entire time you’re surviving in that chapter.
It gets easier to do this as you craft more tools though. Gathering more resources unlocks more recipes, which pretty soon leads you to having a complex boat filled with important items. Your boat really is the crux of getting around in Windbound, and it’s one of my favorite parts of the game.
Initially you’ll be rowing between islands. However, once you’ve acquired a sail, you’ll be able to progress much faster. The game’s wind is a fickle mistress, and you’ll need to head where she wants you to at times.
If you know anything about sailing though, you can bend the wind to your will. I was surprised by how accurate the sailing was in the game. You can tighten and loosen the sail as you see fit, and tack against it if that’s what’s required.
I have no doubt that the developers did a lot of research to make the sailing feel as good as it does. Anyone with an interest in it will find it one of the best parts of the game. I genuinely sailed out of my way at times just to see how far I could take the boat. The answer is pretty damn far.
For all that’s great in Windbound, there are some elements that don’t quite match up to the rest of the game. For example, getting into your boat has a 50% chance of spawning you on the mast. If this happens, you’ll fall and take some damage.
The game’s climbing also requires some polish. It’s hard to tell what you can and can’t climb, often leading to more fall damage. In one instance I actually sequence broke the game and skipped every mysterious tower in the first chapter.
There could also be slightly more information given to players. You’re able to buy one upgrade at certain key points. Once you buy them, you need to pick them up. I discovered this by buying once, and immediately leaving the area, only to find that I didn’t have my item, or the currency I’d wasted on it.
Windbound‘s technical issues pale comparison to the music though. Every creature and resource has a sound associated with it. These build up to become a joyful little tune that changes as you explore. There are some unique instruments being used here too, which is really endearing.
Sailing is where the game’s music is at its best, but also its worst. There are times when you wish you could sail forever, akin to that feeling of sailing in The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. On the other hand, some sailing music could be expanded.
One tune in particular will awkwardly stop and start when it ends. The result is a song that repeats over and over again, but only after you’ve had enough time to enjoy the absence of it enough to think that you’re sick of it.
The animation and art style of Windbound are lively, but they’re nothing special. They sit somewhere between a truly unique look, and the cel-shaded graphics of games like Okami. They’re good, but nothing to write home about.
The animation is solid though, with nothing crazy or out of place occurring on-screen. It could definitely benefit from a little more work on the edges of each character, but that’s really nitpicking. Windbound is a beautiful game to look at, only graphics snobs will turn up their noses at it.
Overall, Windbound is a fantastic little game. It’s quite short, but you can stretch the hours out if you explore every nook and cranny. There’s a lot to be uncovered for those who want to find it, and a very pleasing title for those who want to blast right through it.
The more I played, the more I realized that I wanted to continue playing Windbound at the end of a stressful period. It’s a great way to unwind, because there’s no pressure pushing you to your next objective. You’re a nomad, and all you need to do is move between islands and survive.
It’s an odd game to call relaxing, because the combat and sailing require concentration. You also need to bear in mind that you’ll die without managing your stamina, and on Survivalist that will send you back a very long way.
Still, this is a very chilled out game. It’s also one that I can see myself playing through multiple times. There’s so much to unpack, and for the price it really is a no-brainer. Don’t waste your time with other survival games, Windbound is all you need for years.
Windbound was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a review copy provided by Deep Silver. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.