Stranded on a desert island, what do you bring? As much as I would love to say…. “a PS4 and a copy of Windbound”, alas I cannot. Its beautiful art style and fun sailing mechanics, have been scuttled by the tough rogue-like penalties and clunky combat encounters.
I played as voiceless “Kara”. She has washed up on an island after a storm and must live off the land and build boats to navigate the procedurally generated archipelagos. There is a subtle background story driving Kara onwards to activate three towers per Chapter, to spawn a portal to access the next level. I found it had little consequence to my actual adventure and the narrative was a bit too subtle for my tastes.
Windbound is a survival game built around rouge-like mechanics and procedurally generated islands. Anyone who has played “Don’t Starve” will have a very good understanding of the design philosophy. Dropped on an island with just a knife. I gradually collected grass, sticks, skins and wood to build boats to get to the next island. But don’t forget to make weapons and gather food to eat so you don’t starve. Not usually my cup of tea if I’m honest. But Windbound had two things going for it which made me brave the frustration zone of a rogue-likes.
Modes for all seasons
Firstly, it has a “Story Mode”, so I could partially opt-out of the start-over-on-death, rogue-like experience. Secondly the art style, music and production levels are just gorgeous. Now, I did have a go with the “proper” rouge-like mode. However after investing three hours, gathering resources, building weapons, boats and bags I died…….and had to start all over again with nothing. Yep, it just confirmed for me that I still hate rogue-likes.
Instead of the “Survival Mode”, the “Story Mode” is a bit more forgiving. It still has sizable penalties to pay upon death though. The game is broken into Chapters and in the Survival Mode no matter how many hours put into the run, the game resets to Chapter 1! (madness, right!?) With Story Mode, death resets to the start of whatever chapter you have progressed too. That said, everything collected amassed still vanished on death..
Here is an example, I had made it to Chapter 4 with a fast trimaran boat, big sails, onboard cooking fires and baskets of hoarded resources. I played for a good hour or so and ventured off to another island and hit rocks. Then a shark attacked and I could not fight him off with the weapons available and I died.
Groundhog Day on a beautiful island
Kara woke up at the start of Chapter 4 again…but with No boat, No tools, No resources, No ammo and I had… No hope. I had to start all over again gathering enough crap to push on.
This is where the games beauty and the enjoyable sailing mechanics could not hide the failings under the hood. Simply put, the game feels unfair. The aiming of bows is unwieldy and death in combat feels cheap. This is a fatal flaw in a game where death carries a heavy penalty. I think if there had even been something as simple as a checkpoint system in the story mode everything would have felt more approachable. Risks would have felt less…..well risky. The best of both worlds could have been catered for.
Windbound initially presents as a sort of paired down version of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Which, let’s be honest is a great place to start. Windbound will not however, have the broad appeal of Zelda. I think it’s going to be an acquired taste for many gamers as they will need to be patient and forgiving lovers of rogue-likes, to find joy here.