Knowing how to sail is not a normal activity or skill for the majority of people. Similarly, it’s a wholly unconventional form of travel for video games. We go from point A to point B, often only diverting because of impassable terrain, invisible walls or the occasional side quests.
But that’s not how Windbound works.
The latest game from 5 Lives Studios, the Brisbane makers of Satellite Reign, is pretty upfront about its inspirations. Windbound has looked like an indie blend of Breath of the Wild exploration and Windwaker-style sailing from the start, and after spending three hours with the game via remote streaming, that’s exactly how it plays.
You’re not given a great deal of direction. There’s very little in the way of a HUD. It’s just you — or Kara, the adventurer for this nautical journey — bouncing from one island to the next, navigating the wind, collecting rocks, wood, grass and chasing small animals and boars to get the various materials you need.
After being washed ashore on a small island, Kara comes across a small shrine that eventually gives her access to an oar. Coupled with the grass and rope you’re already able to fashion, Kara’s then able to build her first boat, enabling travel to the next island.
The only direction you have at this point is line of sight. There’s bars for your stamina, various weapons you might have crafted, but there’s no compass or quest log. Windbound wants you to explore of your own volition.
The exploration in the beginning is actually the easiest, too. You start with just a canoe and an oar, but the next island contains sticks, which unlocks the recipes necessary to make basic sails.
It’s here where the control scheme totally changes. Instead of being like every other video game, sailing is all about managing the direction of the wind. Kara’s main job is really to steer, while “loosening” and “tightening” the sail. The game explains that “tightened sails allow you to sail across or into the wind”, while you’ll want to loosen the sail for the most speed when the wind is at your back.
It’s tricky, largely because W and S lower and raise your sails. (I was using mouse and keyboard, largely because that was the simplest control scheme for the remote streaming software used for the gameplay session.) Raising and lowering your sails does absolutely nothing for your forward or backward movement though, and unlearning that natural habit after decades of using W and S for basic movement takes time.
There’s also a lot of stiffness when loosening and tightening the sail — and while I’m sure that’s completely fair and accurate to what actual sailing is like, it feels a little unwieldy and unresponsive in a video game.
For me, 3 hours wasn’t sufficient to get comfortable with the way sailing works. That’s especially the case once your boat starts getting bigger and you’re having to navigate rockier, more difficult terrain.
During the preview, Windbound‘s publisher loaded the game into a save further in where more materials and weapons were unlocked. The islands around this area were more hazardous, with small creatures jumping out from the water and attaching themselves to Kara or the boat. This’d stop you from sailing every time it happened, but you can upgrade your boat with spikes to make it sturdier.
Along the way, you’ll also be dealing with Kara’s starvation. You can make fires fairly early on, although the game warns that the fires you can make — including one that you can have on your boat — aren’t quite enough to keep you warm at night. I couldn’t actually see anything that would let me fall asleep or rest to recover HP, at least in the preview I played.
There’s a little bit of combat in Windbound, but it’s absolutely not the game’s core focus. The biggest fight I encountered was with the rhino-esque Gorehorn, who charges and kicks at Kara once she becomes too much of a nuisance. It’s completely straightforward: Line up the shot, dodge out of the way, shoot some more, craft extra arrows if you need them, or safely dodge in and out for single melee strikes.
The controls themselves are a little bit floaty, and the rudimentary sling you start with has an arc that can be a bit of a pain to properly aim. Fortunately, there was supremely little combat in my three hour playthrough. You’ll have to engage with it whenever Kara wants to regain stamina — because eating is a crucial part of survival.
But for the most part, it’s the sailing that really defines Windbound‘s gameplay. So the faster you pick that up — or don’t — the more you’ll get out of the game.
Press was told during my preview session that Windbound will run for about 40 hours, which is a hell of a lot more than I was expecting. That’s almost twice as long as what most people will spend playing Horizon Zero Dawn, for instance, and it’s an awful lot of time to spend battling the wind. There’s supposed to be a story underpinning Kara’s journey throughout, but that was kept hidden in the preview session.
What would make the journey a lot easier is a bit more refinement with the controls. When your craft gets stuck, you can swim or wander up to it and push a button to send it further out to sea. But as your boat gets bigger, that prompt often gets lost in between the other interactive parts of your boat. This was the biggest sticking point I hit during the preview: I’d gotten my boat wedged between a couple of rocks, but couldn’t budge it out because the push prompt wouldn’t appear, or it’d disappear and activate the crafting menu for my onboard fire or pot instead.
If that was rectified — even some kind of automatic prompt to respawn the craft behind you — then I’d be more down for 40 hours of sailing. But as it stands, I can’t help but wonder how long it’ll take in Windbound to really get to grips with the game’s core mechanic. Three hours certainly didn’t feel like enough. I’m just hoping when Windbound launches across PC, PS4, Switch and Xbox One on August 28, it won’t require much more than that.