It's almost impossible not to fall in love with Windbound the minute its opening cutscene begins to play. Its music enthralled me, its aesthetic warmed me, and its potential excited me infinitely. I love everything that Windbound wants to be, and I feel like it knows that. Developer Five Lives Studios is very pleased in letting Windbound wear its Zelda inspirations on its sleeve and I admire them for it. Its boat-building mechanic and focus on sailing are very proud in reigniting memories of Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass, and the DNA of Breath of the Wild can be seen in - well, quite literally everything else. Windbound isn't embarrassed about that - and nor should it be - there's no shame in mimicking some of the most beloved games of all time if you do it as superbly as Windbound somehow manages to do.
However it's precisely the fact that I love everything that Windbound stands for, and more so the potential that it represents so much that left me was so disappointed walking away from the early build of the game that I played.
A Zelda By Any Other Name Would Look Just As Sweet
As I mentioned, from the get-go it's incredibly clear that Windbound is absolutely coated in the fingerprints of Breath of the Wild. From its simple but delightful cel-shaded art style to its musical themes, exploratory sensibilities, and even the focus on ancient technology. Hell, the portion that I played was entirely focused on using my piece of ancient technology to open up different shrines. I admired Five Lives Studio's attempt to recapture the same kind of magic that those games originated, and it delightfully succeeds in doing so both aesthetically and euphonically. The score, in particular, sounds charmingly like unreleased B-Sides to various Zelda themes.
Windbound's narrative also takes a page from the simplicity of Zelda, placing me in control of a voiceless character with no memory of their past - although, at least Link always has a clear goal to work towards. Saving Princess Zelda gives me a motivation, a reason to grow powerful. Windbound lacks any such immediate incentive. I had no understanding of why I was expected to build rafts to travel to new seas. It attempts to motivate exploration through the triggering of shrines throughout the ocean, but this yielded no benefit to my character whatsoever, other than that I now had one less shrine to open. Triggering shrines simply isn't fun to do, and I frankly saw no reason to do it, other than the fact that the game expected me to.
Abandon All Hope, All Ye Who Sail Here
This is made much more frustrating by the fact that the raft journeys to get to those shrines are far from the delightful voyages of Wind Waker. The oceans are completely empty, and I didn't encounter any kind of enemy, obscurity, or point of interest that made me do anything other than simply hold the accelerate key in the direction I wanted to go throughout any journey, which was arduously long. The distance between the early islands is far too vast considering the limited resources I had access to, and I found myself getting incredibly bored on my lengthy travels. I understand this is to motivate expanding my raft to be faster later in the game, but this early travel was so monotonous that I actually began to dread having to use my raft to explore its empty oceans at all. Even more frustrating was that its draw distance made it quite difficult to successfully navigate towards far off lands, even when playing on maximum settings, meaning I often couldn't tell if I was even headed for the right direction.
Windbound massively misses the mark for me in attempting to recapture the essence of Wind Waker's seafaring adventures and finds itself much more at home on land, where its Zelda influences are much more effectively taken from Breath Of The Wild. Exploring the different environments of the various islands is a joy, and hunting wildlife is a great challenge, as well as a fun way to gather resources to use for upgrades. I appreciated the ability to pretty much always be able to craft a weapon on the spot, although their primitive nature makes them rather clunky to fight with.
Surviving The Survival
Where it attempts to strike out on its own is how it leans a little further into its survival aspects. A hunger meter is ever-present throughout the adventure, and players must hunt and gather food to keep it constantly replenished. As the hunger bar is depleted, players have less stamina to use on sprinting and swimming - which is pretty key in a game about exploring procedurally generated archipelagos. Meat and berries that you gather gradually deteriorate and spoil over time, meaning you can't just stockpile on resources and go on one big adventure, you have to be constantly gathering as you go.
Sadly, I felt that this survival aspect only served to be a frustrating roadblock from the parts of the game that I actually enjoyed. I couldn't confidently explore islands because I was too anxious about being caught in an area with no easily attainable food, meaning I was too occupied with having to hunt, which in turn used up all my hunger. It left me in a brutal cycle that frankly, wasn't fun - just frustrating. I was even more discouraged by the fact that death results in starting the game from the very first island, which I took as a purposeful mockery of the fact that I then had to do all of that monotonous traveling all over again.
It's worth noting that I think my negative impressions of Windbound could be largely attributed to the fact that I found my preview experience rather awkwardly restricted. I was recommended not to play for longer than 30 minutes in each of the two sections I had access to, which made me self conscious of how I was using my time. I felt this did a massive disservice to a game that seemingly rewards patience and encourages you to take your time to explore its oceans and lands. Perhaps its survival system might not have bothered me so much, or it's sailing bored me so fatally if I wasn't under such pressure. In short - I'm not writing WIndbound off just yet.
I want to love Windbound - I really do. But I couldn't help but feel that it's wasting its potential in taking such a punishing approach to its survival attitudes and leaving its oceans empty and dull.