Like many, I was intrigued by the announcement trailer for Windbound, the new game from Australian indie house 5 Lives Studios. Sure, it uses a lot of familiar elements that we’ve seen before, including crafting, hunger, and bring a roguelike title but if the world and aesthetic can pull me in, I’m always up for more. I’ve seen comparisons to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild due to Windbound’s art direction but and I understand the thinking behind that. However, once you play the game for yourself and spend some time learning how everything works together, do the comparisons fade away.
And I’m glad that happens to be the case here because playing Windbound can be therapeutic at times. Even though it begins with Kara, the protagonist waking up on a beach shore, you’re left to piece together how things work. A lot of survival games don’t need to tell you how to do things and that trend continues here. Kara walks around the island, taking in her surroundings, she is lost and alone. At first, I was a bit anxious because I had no clear objective and that’s okay; but when I let go and explored, the gears in my head pieced together the next steps in my journey.
We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails
A bit of grass first, then gather some rocks and build a sling. Swim across the shallow channel to the neighbouring island and learn a few more recipes. A bush containing berries can either be collected or eaten on the spot. Since Kara has both a hunger meter and a stamina bar, being mindful of where those are will save you the hassle later on. On the islands are wild boars, you can earn meat from killing them. Some islands also have mushrooms that restore stamina and deal with hunger. Finding grass is a commodity and can be turned into rope, your first sling, and your mast.
Equally, discovery is a major component of the gameplay. Finding new components, learning how they combine to craft bigger and better recipes is an enjoyable experience, and Kara unlocks some neat tools. But, the lack of capacity when storing items and the general inventory management is lacking, leaving me to stress out about what items to keep, what to drop, and making sure I had enough to move forward.
Many things being to make sense around an hour in. After dying once, twice, three times, I learned that exploration is the key to surviving the Forbidden Islands. As you gather the local ingredients, you’ll inevitably come across a statue. You’ll need to visit three of them but the first one offers you a mystic oar, which unlocks the ability to craft a boat. And if you die in between travelling the islands, everything resets due to procedurally generated mechanics powering Windbound.
That is to say, it’s hard not to compare Windbound to The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker. Sailing the oceans in Windwaker was an inviting experience, albeit a bit tedious. I was able to freely move about and I wanted to do the same here but because of the survival mechanics, trying to do anything but the next step in the narrative felt limiting.
If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else
With the oar, Kara navigates the open ocean around her. Kara can also unlock a mast and sails by crafting them and by doing that, lets Kara manage her vitals better (and helps her survive longer). On top of all this, you’ll need to pay attention to the direction the wind is blowing and use the face buttons to point in the right direction.
A lot of this click eventually and you’ll have around five chapters from start to finish to see Kara’s journey through. However, I did notice a pattern that each chapter insisted on being necessary. In each chapter, Kara must ignite three shrines to get through the gateway blocking her progress. These shrines offer up a poem, something to help you piece together the narrative. Nothing is spelled out for you so it’s up to you to solve what the developers intended to tell you. Sadly, it’s a tale that didn’t do enough to grab my attention, and that’s a shame because I was invested at the start.
However, while that isn’t the biggest qualm I have, it’s learning to deal with enemies as combat is cumbersome. Kara will always have her knife, an unbreakable tool to help in a pinch. By playing and learning more recipes, Kara begins to unlock better weapons – I was a fan of the spear because it generally handled most monsters well.
Windbound offers two ways to play the game from the start: Survival Mode or Storyteller Mode. Picking Survivor Mode is where the real challenge lies and if you die, you’re essentially stripped of most of your items and restart at the beginning of the game. I chose Storyteller Mode for my review which allows you to keep your inventory when you die, and you’ll also only have to restart the current chapter you’re playing. It was the right choice for me and helped me immerse myself smoother than had I gone the authentic route.
Windbound has a ton of interesting ideas at play but sadly never lives up to the potential. Combat is serviceable but not exciting, sailing is fun and the few moments that offer the experience I had hoped for, make me wish this was a bit more baked in the oven. I understand what the studio was looking to do and trying to bridge a roguelike with a narrative is a daunting task. But the end result is a game that is far more tedious and far too much busywork weighs down the experience of something that could’ve been great.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]