Windbound is beautiful, I’ll give it that much. It’s just a shame that the rest of the experience isn’t as impressive.
A survival exploration game, Windbound casts you as Kara, a woman stranded and alone on an unknown island. Narrative isn’t the game’s strong point, so don’t expect a rich and storied history about Kara and why she’s there. Simply, you’re expected to get to the task at hand: surviving, and exploring.
Windbound doesn’t ask for much from its players. And in return, it doesn’t give a great deal away. There’s a very simple structure to follow: across five levels, your goal is to find three towers spread across three different islands. Atop these towers is a sea shell. Once you’ve got all three, you can activate a portal which, after a dramatic setpiece, will take you to the next level. Rinse and repeat five times.
There’s slightly more than just finding those towers, namely because you have to keep an eye on Kara’s health and energy. To keep her in good shape, she needs to eat. That means foraging for berries and mushrooms, or hunting wild animals for meat. The trouble is, thanks to Windbound‘s randomly-generated nature, there’s not always a great deal of food to be found. Keeping a stock of supplies on your person is ideal, but you have limited storage space – and food degrades after a while, eventually going rotten.
It’s rarely a problem in Windbound‘s first couple of levels. Spotting the shell towers is fairly easy, so if you’re quick enough it doesn’t leave much time for Kara’s hunger to fall to critical levels. If you’re lucky, you’ll find enough berries and mushrooms dotted around to keep you going.
But it’s when Kara’s hunger level does fall to critical levels that Windbound‘s many pitfalls begin to rear their ugly heads. As her hunger meter gets close to empty, she’ll lose health rapidly. If you’re not near an island that has a food supply, chances are, you’re going to die.
In this situation myself while in the middle of the ocean, I set sail for the nearest island I could see in the distance. By the time I’d got there, my health was down to around 25%. Just off the coast of the island, my boat got stuck on a rock. Rather than fight its controls, I dived off, intending to swim the rest of the way. Of course, with very little energy left, swimming was a poor choice; I’d drowned within seconds. The game helpfully transported me back to the last island I’d stepped foot on which was, unsurprisingly, not the island I was trying to get to. With absolutely no food or resources on there (and no boat, since it was still at the other side of the map, where I’d drowned), I had no chance of surviving. My hunger killed me within 30 seconds.
It’s not always quite so dire. When you’re doing well in Windbound, you feel unstoppable. Successfully hunting animals – be it with a spear, a sling or a bow and arrows – is a rush; and when you’re gleefully cooking your pieces of meat over a burning fire, you’ll feel like a true survival hero. Even taking to the seas – in a boat you’ve created with your own hands – can be a real thrill.
You’ll be able to craft a basic boat very early on in Windbound. A magical oar is all you need to get going, which you’ll come across on your first island. With a few bits of twigs and twine thrown together, you’ll have your first raft. It’s flimsy, but it’s all you need to get from A to B. Over time, you’ll be able to craft bigger, stronger boats, and tinker with its design; adding sails, storage pots, firepits and more.
Adding a sail to your boat feels like the right progression. From a canoe that you row by hand, you can upgrade to a more seaworthy vessel that can reach great speeds when going with the wind. Speeding along the waves is spectacular; it’s even more of a sight to behold if you find yourself caught in a storm. The game’s beautiful music changes key, adding urgency into the mix; it’s a real thrill. But Windbound‘s epic moments like these are few and far between.
The trouble comes when you want to travel against the wind. You’re meant to adjust your sail depending on the flow of the wind, tilting it accordingly. But more times than not, I’d find myself at a standstill; my boat refusing to go anywhere at all. It’s frustrating when you spend a great deal of time in the water. I found it easier to downgrade my boat, going back to manually paddling with my oar. It doesn’t go as fast, but at least I can choose the direction I go in. Moving slowly is better than not moving at all.
During Windbound‘s later levels, those towers you need to find become more elusive. Depending on your roll of the game’s random generation, you might be lucky, finding them all fairly close together. Or you may end up combing the sea for literal hours, going back and forth – perhaps fighting with your sail in the process – hoping to catch a glimpse of one. There are no waypoints or guides here. Just you and your boat, and your sheer determination. The game’s level of freedom is a boon, sure, but aimlessly combing a vast area of water gets tiresome very quickly.
It doesn’t help that each of the game’s five levels have you repeating the same task. The generated areas become more varied as you go, at least; soon, you’ll sail through storms, hit patches of fog, come ashore on swampy islands and come across new species of animals. But your ultimate goal is always the same. Find those shell towers and try to stay well-fed in the meantime.
Perhaps the best bits of Windbound come as you transition from one level to the next. You’ll find yourself in a mysterious space where you’ll embark through a linear body of water in order to reach the portal to the next level. Bombastic music blasts out as you fight through a storm, one that gets more powerful as you progress through the game. They’re beautifully put together, but short-lived before you’re cast out on a new map with new levels to find.
I feel like Windbound would have been more effective if it wasn’t level based; if your world didn’t change around you. It needs a more active narrative to help push you forward from one goal to the next, rather than repeating the same task again and again. It’s an absolutely gorgeous-looking game; the shimmering, crystal blue waters and the varied islands, beautifully animated and begging to be explored, will keep you coming back. But eventually, even they wear thin. The repetition, the frustration of aimlessly sailing the sea, fighting against the wind, finding yourself stuck with no way to satiate your hunger; it all gets too much, and ultimately, it doesn’t make for a fun experience.
If the gods of random generation line everything up in your favour, Windbound could be a truly captivating adventure. It’s unlikely to happen that way though, and sadly its many frustrations outweigh the beautiful game it could have been.