What’s refreshing about Deep Silver’s Windbound is that it isn’t afraid to wear its influences on its sleeve.
As many have noted from its pre-release trailers, it has a clear admiration for the excellent Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, adopting its sense of unbridled freedom and strikingly colourful cel-shaded art style. However, it’s also evidently found some new grounding in the survival and rogue-like genres, pulling in inspiration from the likes of Stranded Deep, Don’t Starve and The Forest.
And while Windbound does feel like a blended assortment of different games and genres, the smoothie that comes out the other side is more refreshing and fulfilling than you might expect. It’s a constant surprise how well the game’s survival elements fit within a roguelike structure, and even more surprising how snuggly both feel in the kind of expansive open-world that Windbound provides. The end result manages to make for a more laid-back survival game than you might expect, offering both a liberating open-world adventure on top of an enthralling survival experience.
The core concept is pretty simple. You play as Kara, a member of a seafaring clan who gets shipwrecked following a violent storm. You awaken on an island in the middle of nowhere, alone and with little more than the clothes on your back and a trusty rock in your hand. From here, you’ll have to navigate across a procedurally generated landscape of islands in search of crafting items, food and magical towers which push forward the game’s story. Along the way, you’ll encounter a variety of locations, including murky swamps, harsh deserts and tropical paradises, each with their own resources and unique threats.
The first big deviation from most survival games is that Kara doesn’t really have many needs to attend to. Her stamina meter will slowly deplete as she grows hungry and health won’t regenerate on its own, forcing players to scavenge for food to replenish both. But, thankfully, there are no sleep meters to manage or temperamental thirst bars to watch out for. It’s the first of many signs that Windbound is a much more streamlined survival game than you’re used to, which is excellent because it means more freedom to explore without limitations.
Of course, that’s not to say the game doesn’t punish you. Death in Windbound is far more permanent than you might expect, with the game clocking you back to the first of five chapters if you’re unfortunate enough to see your health bar deplete to zero. Not only that, but all the items you amassed and the stat boosts you discovered perish alongside your progress, literally kicking you all the way back to square one.
Seeing as my winning run clocked in at around six hours, that’s a lot of time to spend on what might be a fruitless stab at reaching the credits. In truth, the permadeath focus can be a little too punishing for its own good. However, it does facilitate a type of learning most survival games don’t offer. Every run of Windbound brings a new discovery; every death teaches you to be cautious of something you were slightly too gung-ho about approaching before.
One of these exact teachings is to rely heavily on the game’s boat-building mechanic, with it quickly becoming essential to construct a ship that can withstand more than a slight gust of wind. In essence, boat-building in Windbound takes the place of crafting an intricate shelter in other survival games, especially as a sturdy craft will solve a number of your more pressing issues. You can store items on ships, use them to hide from pursuing foes and, of course, set sail to new islands in search of much-needed resources.
Constructing an awesome sea vessel quickly becomes Windbound’s most compelling feature, as you go from a hapless small fry in your little grass canoe to a cel-shaded Moana, skimming through the high-seas on your towering, hand-crafted sailboat.
Yet, on the opposite side, Windbound’s biggest issue is its lack of depth. While I’m completely behind the decision to strip away the classic survival tat and focus in on exploration, it can feel like there’s very little to discover after a few hours of play. Crafting boils down to slightly enhanced versions of tools you’ve utilized in the first few chapters. Sailing never evolves into something more challenging and the game’s central objective remains exactly the same.
Combat is plagued by the same problems, with slim enemy variety and clunky battles that rely on a dodge and attack system with unpredictable enemy hitboxes. Meanwhile, it often feels like there’s little reason to visit islands outside of gathering resources and accessing magical towers, which is unfortunate when they are such visually rich locations to explore. The addition of some Zelda-like dungeons with unique armour or weapons might have added a little something to sweeten the deal here. But, as it is, there were often islands I actively avoided because there was nothing to entice me off the beaten path.
Then there are Windbound’s technical issues, which are far from game-breaking but definitely noticeable. The game crashed a handful of times for me (with one resulting in around an hour’s playtime lost) while visual issues and infrequent bugs followed me throughout the campaign. None of it is going to truly ruin your time with Windbound, but there definitely will need to be a few patches.
Other than that, what’s here is a surprisingly enticing survival game that’s a lot of fun to play. It might not be able to match the sheer scope of something like Breath of the Wild, while other survival games offer much more depth, but its combination of several different genres and styles makes for something that stands out from its more gritty, self-serious peers.
Deep Silver has clearly aimed to blend the line between the single-player adventure game and the crafting-based survival genre, and for my money, it’s a solid first attempt.
Platform: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Developers: Five Lives Studios
Publisher: Koch Media
Release Date: August 28, 2020
Windbound almost feels like a mixing pot of some of this decade’s most visually striking and compelling games, and for the most part, the end result is surprisingly effective. It could do with more depth, but its focus on exploration and fantastic ship-building mechanics make for a pretty liberating survival experience.
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