Browsing through any of the major digital marketplaces on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, or Nintendo Switch provides a constant assault of brand new titles. AAA games, indie darlings, up-and-coming developers – there’s always a huge choice, whatever your platform of choice.
As such, we are often guilty of judging a game at first glance. A simple picture and a very brief summary is quite often what determines whether or not we fork out hard cash for a game – well, one that hasn’t been marketed across every billboard and bus stop in the country. We’ve all heard the saying “never judge a book by its cover,” and Windbound is the epitome of that philosophy.
Windbound’s charming and warm exterior hides a complicated mash of genres, as rogue-like elements provide brutal punishment alongside a more traditional open-world RPG design. A beautiful art style and captivating visuals are sure to lure many a brave sailor to these treacherous seas, but what sits on the horizon may well be unexpected.
You begin your adventure as Kara, a young girl who awakens on the beach of an unknown island. Separated from her tribe after a deadly storm, she hopes to survive on her wits and determination alone – and you’re going to need an ample supply of both to survive these seas.
The basic fundamentals of Windbound are familiar and easy to grasp. You explore islands, gathering the regular materials. There’s a lot of recipes and crafting options available; for instance, you’ll have to gather rocks and sticks to make weapons and a campfire, and you’ll need bamboo and wood to upgrade and enhance your raft. Most of the crafting works, and you can gather materials to make tools to gather stronger materials for upgrades.
I did struggle on some chapters. Items I needed to craft something as basic as an axe seemed completely unavailable until I reached the next area. While the regular crafting materials are common and easy to find, a lot of the most basic items require unique materials only obtainable from specific enemies.
All of this would be incredibly frustrating and dull if Windbound wasn’t so damn beautiful. The game looks absolutely fantastic, and coupled with the calming soundtrack, any feeling of repetition is quickly overcome with the joy of just being in the moment. However, that’s also another potential problem.
Windbound’s default difficulty is rogue-like. There is a story difficulty without the harsher penalties, but I got the distinct impression throughout that the rogue-like difficulty was its original design. Traveling between the islands is so visually pleasing to be almost hypnotic. You raise the sails, grab your belongings, and set your sights on the next island on the horizon.
Soft piano notes fill the air as you glance around, looking at the colorful reefs in the distance, almost pausing to breath in that fresh…BAM. You’re dead. That’s it. Your boat is destroyed and you drown. You lose all story progress and most of your items, then return to Chapter 1. I can recall at least six different incidents where I died glancing away at the screen for just a second, or missing a school of jellyfish under the waves. What initially frustrated me to a point of nearly turning it off, soon grew into something more.
Life is a beautiful thing. One moment you’re glancing at the clouds and appreciating all that’s good in life, the next you’re picking yourself up out the gutter. That’s very much Windbound’s design. While initially I thought the combination of open-world exploration and rogue-like was a completely bizarre mishmash, I grew to love it over time. Dying and starting afresh was always a challenge, but something just kept dragging me back in.
Outside of the crafting and exploration, there’s a very basic combat system. Most enemies provide little challenge, acting as a source of food and materials rather than a potential death and restart. There are several more challenging enemies that appear, each promising a selection of new recipes if you’re able to take them down. While each of the unique enemies boasts different attacks and patterns, the overall approach is much in the same. You dodge and attack until they are defeated. It’s standard, but also very welcome in a game that is already brutal when things go south.
Windbound’s most exciting sequences come between chapters, as expanding murals provide the main insight into the games narrative direction. Kara is then tasked with reaching the next island through a portal. However, between you and that portal is a challenging ride through turbulent waters. These sequences, while short, are extremely fun and really highlight its fantastic visuals. Watching a frothing wave storming up behind you, granting you huge boosts to speed as you look ahead at reef filled waters and school of jellyfish – any of which can end your adventure in an instant.
Windbound’s biggest downfall is not the crazy combination of genres, the sometimes frustrating search for crafting materials, or even the brutally punishing survival difficulty. It’s just a bit broken. I encountered several bugs that not only killed that particular run, but also made the entire profile useless and broken – forcing me to start from scratch without any of the rogue-like progressive rewards that I had gathered on previous runs.
And some of these rewards are hugely beneficial. A bow that never breaks, reduced hunger, increased carry capacity – the progressive elements of the rogue-like aspects of the game really made future runs more fun and exciting. Despite this, losing all of that – multiple times – was incredibly frustrating.
Windbound’s visual appeal is sure to lure in players expecting an entirely different experience. That said, I grew to love a game that I initially couldn’t stand. It’s beautiful, charming, captivating, and completely brutal without apology. One of my favorite games of the year so far.
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