Windbound is the newest game from developer 5 Lives Studios. This open world survival title sees the player take control of Kala as she tries to find her seafaring tribe again after becoming shipwrecked and washing ashore on a small island among procedurally generated archipelago. To make it back to her people, she’ll have to hunt for food and materials in order to survive and craft a boat to make it back out across the ocean.
Playing this on Nintendo Switch, Windbound is reminiscent of Legend of Zelda : Breath of the Wild by way of Wind Waker. Likewise, seeing its cartoony aesthetic and tropical setting, it’s hard not to be reminded of Disney’s Moana. When a game sets itself up, whether intentionally or not, with those sorts of images, it has some very large boots to fill. While Windbound may look the part from trailers, to actually walk the walk and keep the pace up for the full length of a game is another matter entirely.
Windbound’s gameplay, for the most part, is typical of the indie survival genre. Kala starts off the adventure with nothing but the shirt on her back and a small dagger for hunting weak enemies. From there you’ll start of harvesting fruit and mushrooms for food, rocks for weapons and, most importantly, grass and sticks to fashion your first canoe. From there you’ll work up to hunting animals for meat and bones, make better food and weapons, and so on, and so on.
The game is split into 5 chapters, with each chapter bringing you to a new, consecutively larger archipelago than the last. To complete each chapter Kala will have to find three towers spread across the islands and activate a pedestal at the top. In theory, if you knew where to go, you could sail directly to each and quickly activate them before moving on making Windbound very short indeed. However, finding them can take some time, especially in later chapters where the map is larger. As such, Kala will have to stop on each island to gather more food to stave off hunger, and to gather new materials for improved tools and yet more seaworthy vessels. At the completion of each chapter Kala will have a choice between a couple of randomly allocated permanent improvements that can carry with her through the rest of the game. These can range from passive abilities like poison resistance or increased drop rates, to more active ones like unbreakable tools or weapons, and in some cases whole new abilities like diving deep underwater.
The game allows you to choose between two gameplay modes. Whichever one you choose will significantly alter how you play the game, and what happens if Kala dies. In Story Mode death is less severe, returning you to the beginning of a chapter and allowing you to keep the entirety of your inventory. Survival Mode on the other hand makes dying a much more threatening idea. Death in Survival Mode will return Kala all the way to Chapter 1 and allow her to keep only a subsection of her total inventory.
The benefit of Survival Mode is that returning to Chapter 1 means being able to complete each chapter again and unlock another ability, increasing Kala’s survivability. My personal recommendation would be to stick to Survival Mode until you reach Chapter 4 for the first time, then to swap over to Story Mode. Once you reach Chapter 4 you’re unlikely to die in any case, but there are some frustrating elements that can cause progress to be instantly lost, and having to restart because of something that’s out of your control at that stage of the game is something I can imagine many players would rather not contend with.
Sailing, I Am Sailing
While it does share some elements with BotW in that weapons and items degrade, and a couple of tools such as a glider give comparable abilities, the similarities are ubiquitous of many modern titles in many ways. The sailing on the other hand is much more reminiscent of Wind Waker specifically, and is where Windbound really stands to set itself apart.
To start with, Kala will only have the ability to craft a canoe that can be paddled by oar, but this method of travel is slow and tiring, and ceases to be useful when traveling between more distant islands. To make any real progress she’ll need to craft at least a basic raft and latch a sail to it. Reaching this point is where the game really opens up. Rafts can be joined together in a near unlimited amount of configurations, provided you have the required resources. Each section of raft can have a utility built on it too, such as storage for more materials, or a more permanent cooking spot. Most builds will come with their own advantages and disadvantages, but that doesn’t mean you can’t just go wild and build whatever you like.
Once you get your sales you’ll be able to move much more easily, but, just as in Wind Waker, you’ll be tied to whichever way the wind is blowing. You can sort of skirt against the wind, but it takes a lot of wriggling. This is the main way in which what is normally the most fun aspect of the game becomes a chore later on. It also highlights why Wind Waker gave players the ability to actually control the wind fairly early on. Aside from the sailing between islands, the end of each chapter also comes with a sailing trial. Kala and her boat will be thrown into some rapids with some narrow tunnels to navigate and obstacles to avoid. This is why the planned crafting of a vessel is important, since crashing and damaging a section can result in losing storage and all the items therein, or another harder to build add on requiring rarer materials.
Windbound, for all the neat ideas it has, unfortunately has quite a few scuffs. In fact, the main issue with the game is that it seems entirely devoid of polish. Almost every aspect of the game has some flaw, be they minor or major, that detracts from fully enjoying what it has to offer. As mentioned earlier, filling the shoes of Breath of the Wild or Wind Waker was going to be nigh impossible, and holding Windbound to that standard would be unfair for an indie studio, but in many ways this feels like an indie game that should still be somewhere in late stage Early Access.
Some of these issues are purely aesthetic, like a limited bank of sound effects that get repetitive after a while, or animations that are a bit janky, or in a couple of cases get mixed up completely. (I had one interesting trip between islands where Kala was stuck in the falling animation, rather than the sailing animation until I left the boat.) Others are less to do with minor glitches and more to do with a limited survival loop. The sailing is a lot of fun, but there is a very limited pool of enemies and loot drops and some craftables feel entirely redundant.
On top of these minor to intermediate issues which could be considered subjective, there is a major problem with Windbound; It is extremely unstable in its current state (Unless it was heavily patched in the last week.) While I played, I had at least one major crash per session. Sometimes it would crash when I opened my inventory, sometimes when I opened the map, sometimes when I paused the game, sometimes when a cutscene loaded at the end of the chapter and sometimes even when I tried to save. This is bad coming from any game, but keeping in mind that when playing in Survival Mode here you’ll be catapulted back to the very beginning and it becomes that much worse. It’s the sort of thing that should result in a delayed release.
Windbound has an extremely fun game inside it somewhere. For all its flaws, I still really enjoyed my time with it, especially once I got to the later chapters and could mess around making some wider spanning rafts. As it stands, if a theoretical Windbound 2 were announced I’d be on board to try it out. That said, I find it very hard to recommend in its current state. Firstly, it’s lacking in enough content to feel of value at a €30 price point. Secondly, it’s just so glitchy and unstable. That said, if you could pick it up on sale, or in a couple of months once it’s been patched a bit, there’s an enjoyable game in there that’s worth giving a chance.
Windbound is available now on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Google Stadia, Microsoft Windows.
Floats Your Boat... Just About
While fun at times and charming to look at, my playthrough on Switch was littered with bugs that hinder progress or broke the flow of the title. This may be fixed in time with updates, but Windbound needed just a small bit more crafting before release.