I had high hopes for Windbound but sadly they’ve been dashed on the rocks like so many grass canoes. Developed by Aussies 5 Lives Studios, “Windbound is a 3rd-person roguelike, set on a fully procedural archipelago.” Players control Kara, a shipwrecked warrior, seeking her clan.
While the initial joy of hunting, gathering, sailing and crafting makes the opening hour or so of Windbound feel like a breath of salty fresh air, the longer you play, the less it shines. What begins as interesting becomes tedious. What was once charming becomes painful.
Windbound is certainly crammed with character and potential but it sadly never capitalises on either. In the end, we’re left with a game that could have been great and is instead, only ok.
The pre-release marketing spiels for Windbound espoused the idea it was this great moral tale of humanity versus nature. A story about learning to live alongside animals and plants, using them sparingly and co-existing. But this doesn’t come through in Windbound’s gameplay whatsoever. Crafting materials like grass, rocks, sticks and the like can be limited but you’re encouraged to strip mine each island you visit before moving on.
Similarly, murdering animals on each island has absolutely no consequence as they continually respawn after a few minutes. Not that you’ll care because you’ll have already moved onto the next island to deplete its natural resources and doom the animals there to a long, painful death by starvation.
While sailing, which we’ll come to shortly, there’s very little engagement with the ocean beyond the actual sailing. Occasionally I’d hear the music change to the combat theme but would look around and find myself alone. Eventually, I discovered I was in the vicinity of a giant shark. I sailed away and never looked back but I would have killed it had I had the right weapons. If Windbound wanted to teach me to peacefully live with the creatures of this world, it failed.
At the very beginning, when Kara awakes on the first island, there is a sense of wonder to be had. The tropical setting, vast ocean, bright colours and cartoon aesthetic are genuinely engaging and I found myself drawn into the world. The first stumbling block came only moments later when I’d already filled my pockets with crafting materials and couldn’t pick up something new.
This is a constant occurence in Windbound.
Compounding matters is the fact that inventory management and crafting are terrible. On PS4, you press R1 to bring up the crafting menu and inventory but I could never be certain which window I’d be in. Sometimes crafting, sometimes inventory. Moving across to the other required a second button press and more scrolling to find what I was looking for. More than once I’d try to access something in my inventory only for the button press to not register. If I wanted to drop something but my pockets were full, often I couldn’t and so I’d be forced to eat something to make room.
Even after I finally found enough materials to craft a bag and double my inventory space, I was still always out of room. Not even when I crafted boxes and baskets onboard my ship did I have enough space and to make matters worse, you can only craft with what’s in your pockets and the bag you currently have equipped. If there are materials on the ground in front of you, you can’t use them. If you’re on board your ship, where you’ve stored everything, you can’t craft unless you have all the required materials on your person.
Especially because Kara has both a health and stamina meter. Stamina depletes from actions and also over time as she gets hungry. Health depletes when you’re hit by enemies. To recover both, you need to eat, but to get the best effect, you need to cook your food. Doing so takes multiple steps and materials and more time than it’s worth. This is most evident when cooking a number of items only for them to degrade and become unusable before you need them. You can leave food items uncollected on the ground and they won’t degrade but it’s definitely not worth sailing all the way back to a past island just to collect a small piece of meat.
By the time you do, you’ll have wasted time and stamina and you would have been better off simply progressing forward.
On the subject of progression, I have to talk about sailing. It’s a huge part of Windbound and another element that simply doesn’t work as well as intended. Early on, Kara only has access to limited materials so will generally craft a grass canoe first. My advice, stick with this for the remainder of the game.
Building any larger and more advanced boats requires an enormous number of resources which could be better spent on other items. Sailing is also the mechanic in Windbound that wears its welcome out the fastest.
Once I was able to build sails, additional hulls, decks and canoes made of better materials, I was all in. This would be my undoing. After spending nearly everything I had on creating my mega boat, I took to the sea and found the wind was going in the wrong direction. I had no way to change it and was forced to struggle, zig-zag, change direction and take a massive detour just to go where I wanted. What should have been a two-minute trip took nearly 10 and all the goodwill I had for Windbound’s sailing evaporated.
It didn’t matter what size my boat was, how complex or simple, how many sails, upgrades or doodads; sailing was always a pain in the arse. Without the ability to change the direction of the wind, you’re at the mercy of RNG which seems to never be on my side in Windbound.
I pressed on though, hopeful I’d find something to improve the situation but things only got worse.
Each chapter in Windbound requires you to find three shells across the various islands and use them to power up a “temple.” Once you do so, Kara awakens in a spirit realm and has to sail through a linear tunnel to head to the next chapter. The first time I completed this sequence I thought it was exhilarating. There’s a strong tailwind and rolling waves that push you forwards with great speed and the music is joyous and epic.
The second, third and fourth times I completed this sequence I was less thrilled. Not because of having to repeat the sequence but because it kept ruining my boat. The speed of my sailing and the rolling of the waves kept launching my boat into the air and making it crash down nose-first into the water, throwing Kara from the deck and causing damage, not to mention putting a total stop to all forward momentum.
There are also enormous schools of jellyfish in the water which damage your boat if you sail through them. Due to the previously mentioned speed and lack of control from launching from giant waves, I had limited control of my ship and I ploughed through many, many jellyfish. Afterwards, my triple hulled, wooden ship with three wooden sails, three wooden decks, tonnes of storage, a cookfire and more, was reduced to a single canoe with a deck and a sail. The deck is wider than the canoe so it tilted in the water ridiculously and everything else I had collected was gone, dropped to the bottom of the ocean.
I limped onwards to the next chapter, only to be murdered by some animal which saw me returned to the first chapter with only the items I’d had in my pocket. It felt like a really cheap, frustrating death and like Windbound had stolen from me rather than me dying because of a lack of skill or lapse in judgement.
After such a demoralising death I had little interest in continuing which is a huge problem. The core loop of a roguelike needs to be so tight, so exciting and so moreish that you can’t help be keep playing. In Windbound, each of its problems compounds one another such that dying feels like a huge blow and beginning again like an investment not worth making.
There are moments of something good and even great in Windbound but they’re few and far between. Buried instead beneath busywork, material collection, woeful inventory management and the dread of having to sail 100 metres with a headwind which you just know, is going to be tedium defined.
Windbound had a tonne of potential but the finished product is more Titanic or The Perfect Storm than a soothing day at sea.
Windbound was reviewed on PS4 using a digital code provided by the publisher.