Windbound Review – Out in the Open Sea

    Title: Windbound
    Developer: 5 Lives Studios
    Release Date: August 28th 2020
    Reviewed On: PS4
    Publisher: Deep Silver
    Genre: Survival

On first glance, gamers might mistakenly take Windbound, by developer 5 Lives Studios, for a simple Zelda clone. The influence of both Breath of the Wild and Windwaker seems apparent not only through its game mechanics but in its art design. However, upon actually playing, I quickly realized that Windbound deviated from my preconceptions and focused more on outright survival above all else. While its presentation is gorgeous, unfortunately, the rest of the Windbound doesn’t come together for a very compelling experience.

Windbound has players assume the role of Kara, a warrior who begins the journey encountering a huge sea creature. Not long after she awakens, she finds herself shipwrecked and stranded on a mysterious island. With basically no real idea of where you are, you must piece together various tools, craft weapons, hunt, and sail across the sea to find your way home.

Windbound is, first and foremost, a survival game. While those familiar with the genre are most likely aware of the notorious difficulty survival games tend to have, Windbound gives players a few options on how to approach the genre. You can play the more traditional “survival mode,” which has you return to the beginning of the adventure, losing most of the items you collected if you fail, or you can play “story mode,” which death only returns you to the beginning of your current chapter. Story mode allows combat to be more approachable, and players are allowed to keep most of their progress. Even though the game isn’t overly challenging, it’s nice to see that players have these options.

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Survival is mostly streamlined for you to focus on hunger, which is represented by an endurance bar that indicates how full Kara is. Everything runs smoothly when you are full as you can accomplish things quicker; however, the hungrier you get, the less endurance you can expend. When it’s depleted, you will quickly lose health. Hunting comes into play to prevent you from dying, but you can also collect berries and mushrooms.

Eating items raw is an option, but there are more effective was of restoring your health, such as sitting down and cooking a nice meal. However, cooking does take a bit of time, but if you have the supplies and aren’t risking immediate starvation, it’s worth it. While you’re at it, fires can also provide you with items like leather or other tools you might need for crafting.

Endurance is needed for any strenuous activities like sprinting, attacking, or swimming. Still, there are actually two endurance bars that need to be addressed. The first yellow bar can be recovered quickly, while the second takes much longer to recover. Ideally, you never want to dip into this bar’s conception, but certain scenarios may force your hand, such as when battling more challenging animals.

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Weapons consist of close-range melee items like the knife or spear to the longer-range weapons like the slingshot or bow. I found myself mostly sticking to close range weapons for weaker animals while hitting stronger animals at a distance. Some animals are fun to encounter as each provides items for your quest. Still, I only discovered around ten different species throughout the entire game, where only one or two new animals were introduced to each chapter. With the number of islands you can visit, it seems like a broader array of animals would have gone a long way to make each island worth exploring fully.

Each playthrough maps are procedurally generated. It’s an enticing idea on paper, but in practice, it doesn’t always feel like the unique experience it’s perhaps meant to. Terrains can be very similar, and even though islands might have a different placement on the map getting there can feel tedious every time.

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Windbound finds you just as much on the sea, if not more than on land. Crafting boats to get anywhere is essential. You are given the option of crafting a few different kinds of boats, but the significant differences lie in sailing or paddling. Sailing does seem a bit faster if the winds are in your favor, but you’re at the complete mercy of the direction the wind is traveling. You can adjust your sail awkwardly, but it never seems to help in a dire situation. Almost every time I set sail, I would encounter a situation where the wind would work against me, leaving me helpless in the ocean for a bit. At moments like these, you then have to wait for the wind to eventually move the way you want or change your approach.

Your other option is using ore to row. This may be a bit slower, but it at least consistently moves you in the direction you want to go. You don’t have the option of switching up your approach until you make it to an island and hopefully have the items to craft a different type of boat.

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This design choice may seem less tedious if the world felt more alive, but many times it feels more significant than it does richer. Your main goal for each chapter is to simply come across three towers, which hold the key to unlocking a portal to the next chapter. There is no challenge or task you must complete to unlock these keys; you just have to find them. After playing the first chapter, I assumed this was a kind of tutorial, but unfortunately, it is the same goal and process every time.

Windbound is strongest when it has cryptic islands that hint at a much larger world. There was one island I came across late in the game that revealed several ancient passages as I explored. Sadly, it was anticlimactic and didn’t expand on the sense of discovery. Still, it was an intriguing lead up to something that had potential. The ethereal crossings at the end of each chapter were another strong point. Although not much actually happens, the water is turbulent and creates a sense of action with beautiful scenery and gorgeous music.

The soundtrack and art design are where Windbound truly shines. While there are only a handful of musical tracks, each is used to great effect and was my personal favorite part of the game. To that effect, the lack of music at times heightens your soundings and making for a pleasant experience. Furthermore, the sea and land are both vibrant and make you want to explore everything they have to offer. I was amazed at times how much this made up for some of the more lackluster portions of gameplay.

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In its early moments, Windbound had my attention, and I was completely ready to discover more about this world. However, after the first chapter, I was left mostly disappointed with the lack of execution the game provides through the systems it introduces. A rather tedious travel system enhanced this feeling. Through its colorful scenery and a heartwarming soundtrack, are some decent experiences to be found, with the help of some fine-tuning. Perhaps in the hands of the more diehard survival game fans, Windbound may catch a breeze, but it never truly set sail for me.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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