When I started Windbound, it seemed very promising: a vast ocean expanse opened before me, and I immediately thought back to Wind Waker, one of my favorite Zelda games. Unfortunately, the game never manages to build something solid upon this beginning, hampered by many flaws and issues related to its story, gameplay, and general user experience. It’s not all bad, though, and I’d like to talk a bit more about what Windbound fails to deliver, and what it actually does well.
You are Kara, a white-haired woman stranded on a sort of archipelago after being attacked by a Kraken. Separated from her tribe, she must navigate a series of procedurally generated islands, gathering resources and finding magical shells that you use to unlock new chapters. Then, repeat this until you’ve completed all five chapters of the game. This is standard fare for roguelikes and survival games alike, but issues with how Windbound handles this crop up as early as the second chapter, when I was already asking myself if that was all the game had to offer. As I would later find out, it was.
The crafting is similar to many other survival games, where there’s a sort of pyramids of requirements. To get wood, you have to chop trees, but to chop trees, you need an axe, and an axe needs leather, which you get from… and so on. There’s a good bit of variety to the crafting system, and although the interface takes a bit to get used to, it does the job well enough. The problem is that the game gives you little motivation to craft things: you can more or less easily complete the chapters with the worst boat available, and harvesting all the materials takes time, a resource that is scarce because Kara goes hungry. She goes hungry very quickly.
Food, unlike the game’s many materials, isn’t always easy to find, and you sort of have to hope you’re dealt a nice set of islands. Despite the sprawling ocean, fish are hard to come by, and berries and mushrooms don’t respawn. That leaves you with hunting game, which would be better if the controls weren’t so clunky—playing on the Switch, the lack of gyro aiming stuck out like a sore thumb, and made shooting with the bow or sling a much less pleasant experience than in games like Breath of the Wild. Finding food was never impossible, but it felt like a chore—one that I had to do too often, given how ravenous Kara’s appetite is.
Fortunately, the other main half of Windbound’s gameplay is done exceptionally: the sailing. You start off with a dingy rowboat made of grass (that you make yourself, of course), but soon enough you’re able to equip it with a fireplace, a sail, storage containers, among other things. The mechanics for sailing are handled very well, as you can raise and lower your sail, tighten or loosen it according to the wind’s direction, and so on. Sailing between the islands was the game at its best, and I wish it did more to keep you in the sea rather than on ground. The sailing challenges that precede each of the portals require you to put your captain’s hat on and navigate through towering waves, jutting rocks, and aggressive sharks. They also reward you with perks or unbreakable weapons, a worthy reward considering all your other tools and weapons will break down (although they never explore this aspect as well as Breath of the Wild did).
The main thing that discouraged me from continuing to play Windbound was how it handled the story. Windbound’s narrative sits uncomfortably between non-existence and being relevant, with bits of lore and information scattered across the chapters. They didn’t motivate me to progress in the game, and I sorta just went ahead because, well, where else would I go? And that’s one question I think the game could have handled better. It gives you an interesting, if sometimes clunky, set of tools with which to brave this world, but never gives you reason to make or use these tools in creative ways. The linearity hampered my desire to explore, as I could easily spot my next objective due to the distinctive structures that house the shells you use to progress. Not only that, but the fact you change to a different archipelago once you’re done with a chapter makes it so there’s no real reason to thoroughly explore any given area. That satisfaction that many survival games nail, of charting out a region, building a homebase and gradually improving your equipment is never delivered, and Windbound is less than it could be because of it.
Visually, the game works fine. Mostly. The art style is pretty, but there are some noticeable issues with pop-in, which can be an issue in a game about gathering resources (… which you can’t spot from afar). Ironically enough, the one thing I did want to be hidden from me—the towers that house the progression shells—are visible from any distance, even if when you get closer they’re hidden by trees or the environment. This makes it extremely easy to go straight from objective to objective, further diminishing my desire to set out and explore. If there’s one faultless aspect about the presentation, it’s the soundtrack, a collection of subdued piano songs that meld into the game’s rolling sea and environment.
Windbound could be much better than it is, I think. Some of its ideas are very well executed, such as the sailing system, but many others left me wanting something more cohesive. The narrative loop you play through felt at ends with its open world, curbing Windbound’s potential to be a fully systems-driven experience that you can just lose yourself in. As it is, Windbound offered me a great, sprawling ocean, but never gave me reason to play the game on my terms instead of just working myself up to the next portal.