They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if that’s true, Zelda’s cheeks will be redder than the blood moon when players get their hands on Windbound when it launches.
In Windbound, the influence of modern Zelda is abundantly obvious on the surface - its painterly art-style purposefully reignites memories of Breath of the Wild and several of its mechanics and sensibilities act as a sort of roll call for some of the franchise's greatest hits. But beyond those similarities - that’s where the comparisons end. Though initial perception could easily conclude that Windbound is a spiritual successor to Zelda’s prime titles, in a similar vein to Oceanhorn, my actual playthrough proved that Windbound foregoes a lot of adventure sensibilities in favor of a much stronger focus on survival mechanics, sharing much more DNA with Rust and Don’t Starve than it does with Wind Waker. I’ve got to admit - I don’t think that’s to its benefit.
Surviving The Seas
Players take control of protagonist Kara after waking up on a shore with no memory of her past and are instantly thrust into tackling the boat-building mechanic and different survival systems that define Windbound. A hunger bar that must be frequently replenished, cooking meats to varying levels of quality, a crafting system that requires ingredients from all sorts of environments, all the survival staples are present - although, I underestimated just how much they would determine the kind of game that Windbound is. I expected an adventure game that saw me traveling to new lands to chase a story-related goal while tackling survival elements to keep me on my toes - however, it turns out Windbound is actually a survival game first and foremost, with exploration only serving as a means to keep those survival systems satisfied.
Frustratingly, these survival systems dominate the general gameplay to a slightly detrimental extent. Food degrades and spoils a bit too quickly resulting in several occasions where I would gather plenty of food to prepare for a voyage to a new land, only for it to have spoiled before I had even docked at the shore. I felt like a slave to these systems at times, like I was being actively discouraged from exploration because survival was more important. I don’t have a problem with these systems - they just feel a little unbalanced.
Thankfully, Windbound does offer an option to those who are keener to focus on exploration and story. Survivalist mode threatens perma-death, whereas Storyteller mode offers checkpoints at each chapter break and slightly reduces the difficulty.
Setting Sail Without Direction
I expected to be spending a lot of time gathering resources to expand on my boat, but I didn’t expect this endeavor to be so aimless. Each of the six chapters takes place within their own procedurally generated archipelago, each vaster and more threatening than the last, and Kara’s only goal within each chapter is to simply activate three shrines scattered across them. For every three shrines activated you get a brief glimpse at the history of Kara’s people, but that’s as far as the story goes in Windbound. There’s no call to action, no plot to chase, no villain to conquer. Just survive long enough to complete the 6 chapters. I’m not expecting a triple-A style narrative, but just some kind of goal would have been nice.
You’ll spend a lot of time sailing from island to island on your makeshift boat, and though Kara initially starts off with just a simple canoe, you’ll quickly find yourself building a large raft with multiple sails and accessories to navigate the dangerous waters. It’s immensely satisfying to watch your vessel expand, and it’s this system that is Windbound’s key strength. I spent a lot of time perfecting my boat's design, eagerly chasing down resources to build new accessories. Direction is controlled by raising, lowering, tightening, and loosening your sail depending on the direction of the wind. Though it’s a nice way to keep the player engaged while sailing, it is a little fiddly at times, and I was often let down by this system, finding myself completely stationary with no capability to catch the wind on my sail, which frustrated me greatly.
Lay Of the Land
Thankfully, exploring the islands of Windbound is a real joy. Though each chapter's archipelago is procedurally generated, you wouldn’t be able to tell. Each land I explored felt like a purposefully crafted environment, and I loved finding new ways to get around. Discovering new creatures is also a great thrill, each fantastically designed and with their own unique behaviors and characteristics. I would land at new islands with bated breath, excited to find out if I was about to discover a new species.
A majority of the creatures you’ll encounter are hostile, and you’ll have to craft spears, bows, and slings to fight them. The combat system is serviceable but incredibly simple and shallow, consisting of just a basic attack and dodge, though Kara is able to add poison to her weapons in the later game, allowing you to hit an enemy with a single poisoned strike, then slinker off as the target slowly dies, avoiding confrontation.
Setting Sail In The Wrong Direction
The most frustrating part about Windbound for me is that there’s a game that I would absolutely adore beneath its unbalanced survival mechanics. It’s an absolute visual treat, absolutely nailing it’s watercolor aesthetic, and its beautifully composed score was a fantastic accompaniment on my journey, making even the dullest voyage feel like an adventure. Building up my tiny little canoe into a full-scale boat is a great little pet project, and every creature is fantastically designed, from weird purple rabbits to giant boney rhinos.
I just can’t help but feel like there are two different games competing to be dominant here. An adventure game that wants you to fall in love with its world, and a survival game that wants you to struggle in its world. These opposing attitudes distract from each other in Windbound, rather than complementing each other.
TechRaptor reviewed Windbound on PlayStation 4 using a copy provided by the developer. The game is also available on PC, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.
- Gorgeous Aesthetic, Score, and Creature Design
- Satisfying Boat Building Mechanic
- Unbalanced Survival Mechanics
- Dodgy Sailing Controls