Windbound Review

The sea calls, and by the wind we answer it.

Windbound sits in a somewhat difficult place in the market. Survival-exploration games have waned deeply in popularity, and a lot of reviewers tend to look at them as meter management games. Even I've leveled this criticism at a few titles, and I've definitely soured on the baseline of the genre.

So why's Windbound different? Why am I going to speak so much more positively of it than a lot of its brethren? Why is it, to do some writer shenanigans, a breath of fresh sea air?

We'll get to that. First I've got to lay out the setup.

Stepping ashore

Windbound starts not unlike a lot of these sorts of games. You wash up on a deserted island after your boat capsized, your spirit saved by something tied into the game's lore, and you have to make your way forward with little more than your wits and what you can scavenge.

Mechanically, what you have is a pretty solid, straightforward "action-adventure game" model. You know, run around, A to jump, X to attack, that same basic set of broad controls that you get in so very many games. This, honestly, is one of the things that help sweeten Windbound for me. Because it's willing to start with a solid core instead of trying to go Full Immersion, its verbs and the expression of them line up better.

Oh, real quick, before we talk the survival stuff. The game has two difficulties, and the thing it most heavily affects is the run-based side of the gameplay. You can swing it down at any time and still have all the usual challenge moment-to-moment, but play it like just a linear-story action adventure game. Something to put on the table.

Okay, that said, survival stuff. Here's where Windbound makes one very important difference from the typical Hunger / Thirst Meter setups. All you have, besides HP, is Stamina. Stamina gets spent to do actions. The meter's maximum length shrinks with hunger. Food re-expands the meter, and helps refill it faster. That's the core of it, and by boiling it down to simplicity like this, Windbound ensures that food is always at the back of your mind, but rarely actually distracts from your goal. Which is exactly where it should be.

But food is just one half. The other half is construction, tools, inventory management, all that good stuff. How's that work?

Setting sail

Windbound uses one of those simple, classic tricks of not giving you enough inventory. This makes a lot of things difficult, and forces a lot of hard decisions, especially as your toolkit grows...At least, depending on the tools. Some of your tools are constructed. Weapons, shovels, hammers and axes, all things you have to make in the field and that can break.

But the game provides a certain kindness in always ensuring you have a knife and, after acquiring it in the first five minutes of the game, your oar. These together ensure you have a certain bare minimum capacity; you can always cut down some thick grass and turn it into a basic canoe, so you're never trapped or totally hosed unless something goes very, very wrong.

Speaking of the canoe, the game is, of course, built around boating and water navigation as a central element. The second thing you'll craft, after basic grass rope to help build it, is a canoe that you can row...But soon enough, you'll be needing more capacity and potential, and you'll end up making something you can sail. And that's where things get interesting.

I'm not entirely sure how realistic the wind physics of Windbound are, but they're deeply intentional. Sailing becomes an incredibly active affair, where your sail can be raised, lowered, loosened or tightened, all providing you with a set of tools you've always got to be adjusting. With a raised, loose sail into a tailwind, you can gush forward at the point that you might get rammed right into some rocks.

Whereas working into a headwind is a constant battle of pushing back and forth, zig-zagging to try and force forward momentum from unruly skies. Tightening and loosening bit by bit, catching the wind at an angle, and managing the way it'll now try and push you around. And your ship is precious; it likely carries a fair portion of your supplies, an always available and reliable fire, or several other possibilities that can fill the crafting space on the deck...Space that is much more limited than the needs you have to fill, of course.

All of this creates a really solid set of elements for the game's actual goals; finding several islands with beacon-like towers on them, each of which will help light the way to a new land to explore with new assets, new challenges, and a new set of towers to track down. Fighting the supply chain, the wind, and the animal kingdom all to survive and push forward is a satisfying experience.

Rough waters

But of course, nothing is perfect. So where's Windbound slip up?

Honestly, there aren't a lot of design decisions that the game made poorly. The theory of inventory, of gameplay loop, of resources, all fits together pretty neatly. It does a really solid job of trying to be the thing it is, and that's most important to me.

So if the design and the theory both work, things come down to the practice. And there's just a couple stumbling points there. The first, or at least the first I noticed, is that the controls feel just a little stiff. Things aren't quite as responsive as I'd like, and I had some slightly wonky interactions with climbing and uneven surfaces. (These are, of course, mostly made noticeable by otherwise excellent animation and art design; I likely wouldn't have even noticed in a game with a simpler aesthetic.)

The second thing is, the game can be a bit opaque about how things work. I wasn't able to figure out how to get the recipe for a bow, for instance, even after finding arrows, and it took me a decent bit of gathering and experimenting before I sorted out how to make a multi-sectioned ship.

And, personally, I did have one time where the game's failsafe systems managed to lock me in. I got trapped on one of the special "here's where you go to the next area" islands without the passageway unlocked, had my boat destroyed and had absolutely no materials or supplies to escape with. I was forced to just wait out the long, otherwise very forgiving stamina system until I finally died-died (drowning just washes you up on the last island you were on) and could start over.

But these problems aren't just a bit nitpicky, they're also the exact sort of things you can fix with a bit of post-release support. I'm well confident even these minor issues can be resolved.

Where's that leave us?

Journey's end

Well, it's a solid game well worth buying, obviously. Windbound's aesthetic and storytelling choices (I've left the story largely out of this review, only so you can experience it properly for yourself), and its core design come together to make something really nice.

Would I love those last little bits of polish? Sure, absolutely. But if a couple burrs left behind are what it takes to get a game like this to come out, I'll happily accept it. And you should too. It's well worth your time.