Windbound is the kind of game that sounds a delight on paper, but in practice leaves you feeling lost at sea.
Windbound has been on my radar since it launched, and the visuals make it pretty clear why. A product of the Satellite Reign creators 5 Lives Studios, Windbound is basically dripping in Zelda influences, most prominently Windwaker but also with a strong touch of design ethos from Breath of the Wild.
What that means in practice is that it’s a game without much handholding. You play as Kara, washed up on a small island following a vicious storm. The game doesn’t provide any waypoints or general bearings, but before long you’ll find a Zelda-esque tower, which ends up granting you the ethereal equivalent of an oar that never breaks.
With that, Kara’s sailing journey begins.
The meat and potatoes of Kara’s journey is really in three parts. Once you unlock the ability to sail, you unlock the ability to basically forage from one island to another — which you’ll need, because food is an ever pressing concern. Kara’s stamina doesn’t last long, at first, and it’s easy to quickly deplete it by sprinting too much.
You can’t leave each chapter without unlocking three towers, so naturally finding all of the islands — because the game gradually gets larger from chapter to chapter, with more procedurally generated islands — is a core part. But you’ll also want to explore just to find animals and new resources, because that unlocks the recipes you’ll need to make bigger bags, better boats, and crucial exploration tools like axes and bows.
This is probably the most annoying element, because you need to kill certain creatures to get certain recipes. But there’s no advice or guide on where those creatures might be, and the game’s procedural generation means you’re never really guaranteed a steady ramp of all the creatures, resources or supplies of food that you want.
The procedural generation is especially hit in miss. In my first playthrough, I’d rowed over to a nearby island before Kara’s hunger pangs started to critically lower her stamina. So I popped up a fire and started cooking a piece of meat, acquired from an unlucky furry creature bouncing around the nearby island.
Cooking items can take a fair while — sometimes around 30 seconds or more. Nothing was around me at the time, so I let the game continue and went to get a drink of water. Upon returning, I sat down to see a massive rhino send Kara flying 30 feet into the air, obviously unimpressed at her carnivorous ways. Smashing against the rocks of a nearby tower, the resulting fall damage knocked me out cold — and also meant I had to rebuild my boat, because you lose that when you die regardless of the difficulty setting.
Which wouldn’t have been a pain, except the island I was stuck on had bugger all resources, nothing to fashion new arrows with, and Kara was fast running out of stamina trying to get in melee range of the tiny boars that were there. And nothing regenerates especially quickly in Windbound, so after half an hour of frustration, I restarted my save.
Provided you don’t get stuck in the raw end of the loop, you’ll spend most of your time sailing. Once you actually fashion a sail for your canoe — the canoe handles like most vehicles or boats in other video games — you’ll have to get to grips with reading the wind. The wind’s direction is indicated by wisps floating across your screen, which effectively animate the direction the wind is coming from.
Windbound‘s boats adhere more to actual sailing logic than most video games, so you’ll need to weave from side to side and tighten or loosen your sails appropriately. In principle, you want the wind at your back if possible — but if you can’t manage that, or the wind is coming straight on, then you might need to travel from side to side, picking up speed as the wind blows into your sails.
It takes a bit of getting used to. I eventually started to enjoy the sailing more than I did in my preview of the game. It definitely helps when you get access to bamboo and, later, wood, unlocking sturdier decks and boats that allow for multiple sails and room to store more items.
When you’ve scoured the island and found the three beacons, you’ll be able to unlock a shrine of sorts that effectively lets you pass through to the next chapter. Before you get there, however, you’re taken to a transitory level to watch a mural unfold, revealing more about how the world of Windbound came to pass. After the game’s brief take on exposition, you then sail through some seas and come across some underwater life along the way — although they never really interact with you — before getting a blessing and then moving onto the next chapter.
As the game gets harder so do the passageways, although their speed and obstacle course-like nature made them some of the most fun I had with the game. They’re not completely without fault — in one level above, I got stuck on a rock that I couldn’t see due to the nature of the waves above it. It resulted in Kara’s boat becoming stuck at an angle that wouldn’t support Kara, who kept getting thrown into the drink.
Windbound has an ability where you can push your boat further out to sea, but I wasn’t able to dislodge it from the rock, and the angle it got stuck at meant Kara couldn’t stay on board to try and wedge it loose. So I had to sit there, waiting for the waves to rise and fall for a full minute before it finally dislodged itself. Simply dying is an option, of course, although you have to run the whole gauntlet over again.
When Windbound does come together, it’s a pretty, relaxing and charming game. But there are often so many elements that get in the way of its majesty and beauty that you just end up feeling more frustrated.
The controls are a great example. If you’re playing on PC, there’s no ability to rebind any of the controls. You can’t switch between holding down the button and a toggle for things like sprinting, which is an unfortunate accessibility oversight that could have been easily rectified. There’s other curiosities, like how locking onto a creature in combat doesn’t automatically unlock from that creature as soon as it’s killed — and you have to manually unlock from the target view to loot its body, because the game won’t let you loot despite giving you the prompt to do so.
The animations in Windbound can be fairly lengthy at times, although I never found that any of the islands were so populated with resources and loot that I was waiting too long. But I can definitely see some people wishing they were sped up, especially in instances where you want to craft multiple things quickly, or you’re having to prop up an emergency fire because you finally got a piece of meat and Kara is losing health, fast.
Combat isn’t especially complicated either, but it’s let down by some weak enemy AI. Some enemies simply didn’t respond to me peppering them with arrows, simply walking around until they eventually died. It seemed to be a range and line of sight issue — if I was shooting arrows at an enemy looking directly at Kara, then they would approach and I’d have an actual fight on my hands. But a lot of the time, I’d shoot them from afar, often in the belly or the rear, and they’d simply wander around.
Windbound‘s music will get repetitive by the end, too. It doesn’t really vary from that slowly uplifting melody, which kicks in once you get far enough away from any particular island. There’s more upbeat tracks in the levels between chapters, but not a whole lot of variation throughout most of the adventure.
As I approached the end of Windbound, I kept thinking about the beautiful sunsets, the low-poly islands and just panning the camera as the wind blowed into Kara’s sails. I wish my experience of Windbound was more about that — more islands, more sailing, more beautiful music. Instead, it was constantly bogged down with clunky combat, a crafting system plagued by hit-and-miss procedural generation, and a core gameplay loop that gets a bit stale.