Life on the high seas is easy to romanticize. There is a beauty and grace to the way the ocean moves, and with that comes an inherent sense of adventure. But there is great danger hidden behind that beauty. At any time just over the horizon, there could be a monstrous storm brewing, and with it the chaos and danger of the sea becomes evident. Modern technology makes it easier to navigate through it all, but imagine being thrust into the place of the people who used to traverse the oceans on small crafts with nothing but the stars as their guides, as in the world of Windbound.
Windbound features a rogue-like procedurally-generated survival world, in which you take control of Kara, a warrior abandoned on the Forbidden Islands – her clan missing after being separated in a violent storm. There are five chapters to progress through and two difficulty settings. There is a standard survival mode where death means restarting from the very first chapter, and then another mode that lets you restart at the beginning of whichever chapter you died on. There are subtle story elements present throughout but first and foremost the focus is the gameplay.
I think the core features of Windbound are found in the boat building and sailing, and they really are the best aspects of the game, as they should be. You start off by building a simple grass canoe and you have an oar to row along with. As you explore more islands and gather more resources, you’ll be able to add a sail, expand your boat with platforms, and construct improvements like campfires to cook with and baskets to store your supplies. It’s a mobile base that will stick with you through each chapter of the game.
It’s easy to repair and when you want to upgrade the sail, or any of the other modules, all you have to do is dismantle the part you don’t want anymore and then build the upgraded version in its place. Something else that was nice is the one time I managed to wreck part of my ship while coming ashore; some of the resources piled up on the rock for me to gather so I wasn’t stranded.
The boat physics themselves are some of the best I’ve experienced in a game. The sailing mechanics have been designed to emulate the feeling without being too much of a chore and it strikes a good balance. Once you actually have a sail you can leave it unfurled while at sea and move around your boat to tend to your campfire and manage your inventory.
This is where most games with moving vehicles struggle; a moving character model on top of a moving vehicle usually feels really odd but Windbound does a great job of optimizing the physics. I never rubber-banded off the deck or had to worry about suddenly drowning in the middle of the ocean. The boat itself, while I occasionally managed to hit a reef, or crash into what some may call an obvious rock, never got stuck.
When the boat lands on the shore, it’s possible to push it back out to sea when you want to resume your journey. “Push” is putting it mildly though; punt is probably more accurate because it gets some air. But, while odd, this is probably a good thing since it would make it very easy to get the boat out of any tight spot. But I never got myself in a situation where I was genuinely concerned about my boat being trapped.
I really only have two complaints about Windbound, both of which became more manageable the more I played. The first is in regards to the combat, which I didn’t enjoy starting out. More specifically I did not like the sling – it is awkward to move around with and the animation for it is off.
To my first complaint, walking and aiming with the sling is a bit finicky and the charge time on using it is rather slow, so it becomes very hard to use it effectively. Which I suppose makes sense for it being the first weapon.
To the second point, I know the animation shouldn’t bother me so much, but the sling’s chord is never taut while being spun around. I know this has no real bearing on the game itself but it would be so much more satisfying if the development team could change it.
That being said, I was much more at ease using the spear and bow. The spear is a good starter weapon since it’s so easy to make, and it ensures killing pigs for food is much easier.
But, even better is the bow. The bow has a bit of a charge time like the sling, which can be mildly tedious, but it is much easier to use overall and works great at long distances. As a side note, there are perks that can be acquired between chapters and I chose the one that grants an unbreaking bow – easily the best choice. Once I had it, hunting became a matter of choosing a good vantage point and lining up the shot, instead of getting gored to death by an animal ten times my size.
My second issue is that the menus are a little odd to navigate at first. They look good but the buttons for them are a bit awkward and it is hard to get around them initially. They weren’t so bad that I never got used to them, but it just took a little time.
The last thing I’d like to mention can’t be put too much on the developers, but the game did crash on me twice while playing. When contacted the team behind Windbound have mentioned that it was an issue within Unity’s engine that they had no control over unless Unity issues a patch. I can’t speak to how accurate that is, but I have had other games crash in the same way so I think there is some truth to it. The bigger issue is that Windbound only autosaves at the beginning of new chapters, so it’s important to manually save semi-frequently just to be safe.
I think the most important thing to keep in mind when playing Windbound on Xbox One is that there is a bit of an adjustment period to picking up the game. I didn’t boot it up and immediately fall in love with it; the visuals and premise drew me in, while the mechanics took some adjustment. But after a while everything begins to feel pretty good. Not perfect, but not bad. There is plenty more to experience, but the highlight of Windbound for me is the wonderful match-up of survival and sailing mechanics.