I’m sure Windbound caught plenty of Zelda fans’ eyes when it was initially revealed, with its Breath of the Wild-style presentation and Wind Waker-style world ticking plenty of boxes as far as grand adventures are concerned. However, what made the game most interesting to me was its blend of survival mechanics with an actual progress-based adventure, with the two genres not always going hand-in-hand in a meaningful and enjoyable way.
Fortunately, Windbound manages to offer an experience that makes the most of them both thanks to its fun gameplay and wonderful setting, though it does have a few caveats here and there that stop it from striving towards adventuring greatness.
Windbound puts players in the role of Kara, a young adventurer who finds herself lost at sea within the Forbidden islands following a shipwreck. With just her survival instincts and the resources available on the islands to help her endure through the ordeal, she soon finds herself seeking out a mysterious set of keys as a means to find her way home. Know what this means? Setting sail on your own boat and navigating across the Forbidden islands, all whilst uncovering the many secrets that are hidden upon them.
At its core, Windbound plays like most other survival games that are available right now. There’s a big emphasis placed on gathering resources, crafting, looking after your own well-being, and unlocking more advanced gear to increase your odds of success – it’s a formula that has been utilised in plenty of other games in the genre over the years, with Windbound not straying too far from the norm as far as its basic concept is concerned.
However, whilst a lot of survival games are more open-ended in design, Windbound gives players an actual goal to work towards that is spread over multiple chapters during its adventure. The world around you is open and procedurally-generated and there is plenty of freedom given to the player as to how they approach their journey, but progress is ultimately tied to following the objectives that are set out for you. This was something that I really liked about the game, with a lot of other survival titles lacking the purpose to keep me fully invested in the adventure.
It’s worth noting that there are two different ways to approach Windbound via its difficulty settings: as a ‘Survivalist’, which gives players tougher combat, strict inventory loss upon death, and permadeath mechanics, and ‘Storyteller’, which has easier combat, no loss of inventory, and chapter-based checkpoints so you don’t lose your progress. These options cater for two very different types of players who are looking for a different experience from Windbound, so its nice to see that it can be playable as a hardcore survival sim or as a typical adventure game. You should be warned though, Windbound is not an easy game, so players hoping to see the tale through to its conclusion may want to stick to Storyteller the first time around…
The gameplay of Windbound keeps itself relatively simple as far as survival games are concerned, though it does have some neat ideas thrown in the mix that give it a fresh feel when compared to its peers. For one, there’s an emphasis placed upon sailing between the different islands of the game, with players owning their own upgradable boat that is used to navigate the seas. After loving games like Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag and (perhaps more obviously) The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, this was something which REALLY appealed to me. Of course, sea travel isn’t easy and you can expect some long journeys (sometimes frustratingly so) and uneasy winds to make each voyage more treacherous, but there’s always an excitement to be felt when you do set sail. Those who take the time to explore can come across some neat treasures too, with some unexpected items to be found if you check out some of the world’s more elusive islands that aren’t necessarily on the path you’re meant to follow.
Just make sure you’re prepared for a long journey. There was one VERY ANNOYING occasion where I set out to sea only to find my hunger whittling away – I had minimal supplies and it put a lot of pressure on my journey, especially since I had a fair distance left to travel. Believe me, it wasn’t a mistake I made twice…
When you’re not sailing around, there’ll be plenty of resource gathering, crafting of equipment, and combat with the many monsters found across the islands… you know… typical survival stuff. The formula will certainly feel familiar to most, with players earning new skills as they progress, finding more valuable crafting items, and getting stronger weapons and tools to use.
Combat is decent enough, even if it is a little uninspired. You can lock onto enemies and mash out an array of ranged and melee attacks based upon your weapons… and that’s about it. There’s nothing too intricate about the mechanics, though you won’t want to pick fights willy-nilly. The enemies of Windbound can be pretty nasty, so you’ll want to pick your battles carefully if you hope to survive.
The constant threat of death was the sour point of the experience for me, especially since enemies themselves can be so ruthless. It’s not an easy game by any stretch of the imagination and even the most prepared of survivalists can find themselves meeting an early grave on a regular basis if they’re not prepared. Depending on the difficulty you play on, this can be frustrating – especially since all your progress is lost when you’re on Survivalist, meaning hours of work can be potentially lost in an instant. It happened to me once after around three hours of play, and believe me, it nearly saw me stop playing the game completely. Fortunately, I just decided to play on Storyteller mode instead, which was a lot better suited for the gameplay experience I hoped to get from Windbound.
Outside of that, there’s an enjoyable adventure to be had with Windbound from a gameplay perspective that’s easy to lose hours in – however, there were a few non-gameplay related issues that bugged me when playing. For one, the in-game menu could be a little bit fiddly, which is something I especially noticed when crafting. It is something you get used to the more you play the game, but it still manages to feel clunky throughout. There were a few performance issues to be found too, with the game randomly freezing on occurrences, the menu not popping up, enemies not responding to attacks, and even whole scenes not loading in when starting the game – a lot of these issues were few and far between and they never occurred on a regular basis, but it could be frustrating when they did.
I will give the game praise for how it plays on the Nintendo Switch though, with the frame rate pretty smooth and the visuals impressive when playing both docked and heldheld (my primary choice). The colourful world manages to look lovely throughout with some impressive vistas to be seen across the islands, whilst the water effects looked great when sailing around… it’s just a really nice-looking game.
Windbound offers an enjoyable blend of survival and adventuring gameplay, though some technical issues and a tricky difficulty can make for some frustrating moments. There’s certainly more good than bad to be found on your journey through the Forbidden Islands and there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had sailing through its turbulent seas, but there’ll also be times where a particularly brutal (and sometimes unfair) battle with an enemy or a random glitch will annoy you too…
Still, if you’re a fan of adventures that implement some neat survival elements, WIndbound will certainly appeal to you. It might not be perfect in all facets of its design, but it still manages to offer an entertaining adventure that’ll keep you hooked to your Nintendo Switch for some time.
Developer: 5 Lives Studio
Publisher: Deep Silver
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC