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Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: 5 Lives Studios
Release Date: Aug. 28, 2020

About Andreas Salmen

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PS4 Review - 'Windbound'

by Andreas Salmen on Sept. 11, 2020 @ 3:00 a.m. PDT

Windbound pits a stranded warrior against the elements and fauna across the mysterious Forbidden Islands, with each isle posing unpredictable challenges as players explore, hunt, craft, and sail their way to new discoveries.

The gaming industry has always been quick to adjust to new trends and genres. As soon as the first survival indies took off, the floodgates opened, and it's difficult to not stumble over one these days. Windbound is a survival game that's firmly rooted in survival mechanics and random world generation. Similar to a roguelike, it even has permadeath and a linear story. While I'd argue that none of this is exciting or unique on its own, Windbound has an ace up its sleeve. With visuals somewhere between Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Wind Waker, it invokes similar feelings of mystery and freedom to explore. It doesn't quite manage to deliver on all of that, though.

In Windbound, we play as a nameless woman who's separated from her tribe during a terrible storm involving a frightening sea creature, she washes ashore on a deserted island and is armed with only a knife. Our goal is simple: collect resources, don't starve or get killed, and build a boat to reach the surrounding islands. On those islands are towers that need to be climbed and activated. After activating a certain number of them, we'll open up a way to progress to the next stage to continue our journey.

It sounds simple enough, but it's not quite as formulaic as it might sound on paper. Windbound has a certain mystery to it. The towers, which grant a currency (shells) and emit a light to power gates and portals, are at the heart of the story and progression. It creates intrigue and a desire to figure out how all of this fits together while you try to survive and explore a collective of deserted islands. At the same time, the game can feel disinterested in the exploration and environmental storytelling, which means that some interesting moments and structures are often undermined by the gameplay.

The first order of business when starting a new game is collecting as much as we can. As we collect new resources, new recipes automatically unlock to offer up better equipment and upgrades. The most vital piece of equipment is our boat. As mentioned, the world of Windbound consists solely of randomly generated tropical islands, so having a boat is of the utmost importance. In a game session, we quickly went from a simple rowboat to a sailboat. We may also find additional improvements and upgrades to increase carrying capacity and sturdiness as we go along. Because of these constant upgrades that improve the maneuverability of the boat, you do grow attached and, it's a great way to see your progress as you learn new tricks and recipes.

Getting across the sea with your boat is another matter. While rowing is straightforward, as soon as you get a sail, you can move much faster either with or against the wind. Windbound aims for a more realistic approach, where moving against the wind is only possible in certain angles and with a completely tightened sail. It takes some getting used to at the beginning, but it quickly becomes second nature. Sea traversal can become quite dull once you get the hang of it, since nothing happens during the voyages. It is calming to sail between tropical islands to a somber piano score while you look at beautiful vistas on the horizon. The quieter moments lose their impact through frequent repetition.

Survival games are all about exploration. Finding the required resources is key to survival, as both wild creatures and your own hunger are out to get you. Since Windbound is procedurally generated, the islands are never the same — except they are. One of the bigger issues I have with Windbound is its inability to create truly memorable environments. The game doesn't prepare special structures or bigger map set pieces. Everything is completely random, and sooner or later, that takes its toll on the variety. You'll see the same kinds of islands over and over again, just mixed up a bit differently. If the environments can't keep up the momentum, you had better hope the gameplay does.

I enjoyed Windbound quite a bit, even though it is far from a perfect title. When it works, you're on the edge of your seat and trying to reach just one more island or tower. It's a tight balance between challenge and frustration, but Windbound doesn't manage to maintain it. If you play the game on survival difficulty (as recommended), be prepared to be frequently frustrated. Due to the game's roguelike elements, death means being transported to the very beginning of the game. While we keep all learned recipes and gear in our top inventory slots, the rest of our inventory and our boat will always be gone. The latter can be especially disheartening, depending on how much you've upgraded it.

There's also a story difficulty, which we eventually switched to, since it offers a more forgiving and fun way to play Windbound. Instead of restarting from the beginning, we only need to start from the most recent chapter (of which there are five) while still losing all items and our boat as described above. It goes a long way to not have to retread the same parts of the game, especially because there are rarely new things to see or discover. Repetition is not unheard of in survival games or roguelikes, but Windbound didn't manage to create memorable moments that would make it worth my while to start anew.

Even if there were interesting things to see, the game has you in a tight grip with its survival mechanics. Wild animals can dish out major damage, so you have to be on guard and create decent weapons early on. Bows, slings and spears are some of the weapons to craft and improve, and depending on your play style, each weapon is a welcome addition. The combat itself, however, feels clunky and imprecise, and even if it works as intended, it is too simple to create fun encounters. Don't expect to do much more than to lock on to enemies, spam dodge as your stamina allows, and try to get in a hit. It's serviceable, but it's far from a good combat mechanic.

More dangerous than animals, though, is your appetite. Windbound has an aggressive hunger meter, that depletes constantly and without mercy, limiting your stamina over time and eventually killing you. Berries and mushrooms may serve as welcome snacks in the world, but cooked meat is what you'd usually want. Even if you do stock up on food, everything degrades quickly, so hoarding food is not usually a viable option. Since each island's resources are finite and your hunger is ever-present, it feels like Windbound is trying to funnel you through everything as quickly as possible, rarely allowing for prolonged moments of exploration and relaxation. Given that a lot of the tools you need to progress are tied to killing larger, dangerous animals, there is a constant threat that, when combined with the relatively punishing death mechanic, can kill any motivation to push through. The subpar combat system doesn't help with that, either. I'd recommend playing on story difficulty first unless you want the survival experience of failing and retreading the same ground over and over again.

As a sum of its parts, Windbound is a decent survival title that has a few balancing and game design issues that are difficult to overlook. The survival aspects and crafting are fun, but they're not new by any means. The death mechanics are overly punishing, exploration is often discouraged by design, and the environments quickly start repeating. The only parts that stand out positively are its visuals and lore, the latter of which is so bare-bones that I quickly lost interest.

The visuals and music also make a strong first impression but rapidly peter out. Its vibrant and colorful visuals are undoubtedly charming, but the models aren't highly detailed and lean more toward the low-poly art style. It works, but it feels like a pretentious copy of several Zelda art styles mashed together and doesn't quite comes together to build its own identity. The music aims for something similar. In the rare moments when the visuals, gameplay, and music align, there is great fun to be had as you sail towards an island in the hot summer sun. As it stands, these moments aren't frequent enough to overshadow the flaws.

Windbound looked to be a great many things, but it turned out to be a standard survival-roguelike crossover with some promising areas that never reached their full potential. An overly cruel death mechanic and repeating vistas are what ultimately drag down an otherwise solid and partially fun survival game. With the right expectations, Windbound is a solid offering that doesn't stray too far from its survival core.

Score: 6.3/10

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