[Review] Windbound – Nintendo Switch

Written by Abram Buehner
  • Developer: 5 Lives Studios
  • Publisher: Deep Silver
  • Release Date: 28/08/2020
  • Price: £24.99 / $29.99
  • Review code provided by Deep Silver

Introducing: Windbound Switch Review

It’s curious that Windbound relies so heavily upon crafting elements. In many respects, Windbound feels like a crafted good itself. The game is an amalgamation of disparate influences, one that hopes to be transformative and greater than the sum of its parts. However, like anything crafted, Windbound has finite durability. The more you experience this game, the more its cracks begin to show. However, waning durability is equally an illustration of rigidity, for whatever length of time that lasts. In the moment, Windbound evokes a fairly elegant sense of adventure. Over time, Windbound begins to feel hollow.

From a macro perspective, Windbound is an adventure title. It sees the player taking control of Kara, traversing the high seas, devoid of overt instruction. It’s a game about exploration, seafaring, and combat. Windbound relies on lore and subtle storytelling, player experience and discovery. You’ll hop from archipelago to archipelago, fighting savage creatures and charting new territory. However, you’ll most often be crafting and gathering resources.

The Fundamental Design

On a fundamental level, Windbound is a survival game with procedural elements. At the beginning of the game, you can choose play with our without permadeath. It’s an interesting inclusion that gives Windbound some roguelike elements, even if they’re completely optional. Permadeath sends Kara back to chapter one after she falls, but she’ll retain the items she collects. Plus, each chapter ends with the ability to unlock a persistent upgrade, making Kara a tad stronger per run. Again, these systems are completely optional.

The crafting and hunting elements, though, are mandatory. While it draws from Breath of the Wild and The Wind Waker in a fairly major capacity, Windbound is not a Zelda clone. While it would initially appear that Windbound is Zelda-like, the game’s DNA pays respects to the likes of ARK: Survival Evolved, and the crafting tropes found in a lot of western game development.

That doesn’t mean Windbound’s Zelda influences are superfluous – they’re just secondary to the game’s foundation. That’s deeply important to understand. Simply enjoying the Zelda formula isn’t going to be enough to connect with Windbound – regardless of what trailers and online discourse would suggest. Being a fan certainly helps, as the gameplay and game feel are informed by this series, as we’ll discuss. But, getting to that point requires the player to engage with crafting and resource management. You’ll have to collect various materials to build your boat, manage your health and hunger, create tools, and generally expand your toolbox. Unfortunately, on a systemic level, this doesn’t feel especially engaging.

A Matter of Function

In short sessions, crafting and gathering is functional. But, it isn’t anything new. Crafting recipes are fairly standard and there isn’t much tactile feedback when engaging with survival elements. Unlike a game such as No Man’s Sky, a resource-intensive experience, I never felt rewarded by meticulous collection and crafting in Windbound. It just feels too disconnected from the player experience.

Windbound presents its survival systems with functional but non-immersive animation that makes serves as a constant reminder that you’re crafting to fulfill brightly-colored hunger bars. That is to say Windbound doesn’t feel particularly organic – this is a video game. It isn’t especially engrossing or natural. Kara’s plight never truly resonated with me, even as I struggled to keep her in fighting shape on the uncharted waters. Typically a good survival game (particularly one with rougelike elements) forges a strong bond between the player and the player’s character. I didn’t feel that here.

To drive that point home, Windbound constantly reminds the player of its AA status. The game could do with more polish all around. To use an unconventional turn of phrase, Windbound feels plastic-y. It reminds me of when I’d play with my action figures and act out adventures. The toys didn’t have all the points of articulation I wanted to truly believe the fantasy I was imagining. It’s similar here in Windbound. A bundle of grass is cut down in a single stroke, it poofs into a collectible resource, you can gather it with another perfunctory animation, and the job is done. Movement, whether traversal or combat-centric, lacks punch and resonance as well. The word of the day is serviceable, for better and worse.

After all, what is here will get the job done. The only places Windbound truly feels clumsy relate to menuing and contextual button inputs. These facets of the interaction just miss the mark somewhat and feel like blemishes while the game’s general stiffness and lack of polish feel more like hinderances. The UI could certainly use an overhaul, as I found myself fumbling through it when crafting or using items, which you’ll be doing a lot. But, let’s return to the action figures comparison. Just because my TMNT toys lacked the articulation to organically carry out imaginative scenarios, that didn’t stop me from bashing them together and believing that Leonardo was kicking the snot out of a Foot Soldier. The toys still served their purpose, they facilitated my imagination.

Evocative Exploration

Windbound’s clunky central mechanics and survival elements still facilitate the game’s sense of adventure. Plus, it does so in a more elegant manner than a child smashing plastic turtles together. Windbound asks the player to simply set forth in its world, learning its systems and rules independently. The game is surprisingly and refreshingly hands-off. Player direction and signposting is environmentally contextual. Tutorials are minimal. Much like Link’s first steps into the Great Plateau in Breath of the Wild, Windbound’s opening moments similarly make it clear that player discovery is paramount.

I love when game design treats the player as an adult capable of puzzling out solutions on their own. Half of adventure is experimentation, and Windbound wears this axiom proudly. The game is all about setting forth into various archipelagos in seek of myriad points of interest. How you get between islands, how you engage with each as you arrive, and what approach you take to gameplay is a personal decision. Windbound trusts that its players will parcel out what to do, how to craft, when to fight, and where to explore. The impact of this cannot be understated. I felt potently free in Breath of the Wild, and I felt just as free in Windbound. For those engaged in the Switch ecosystem, the caliber of that praise should be clear.

The Whimsy of the Sea

For as much as Windbound draws upon loose design philosophies from Breath of the Wild, it shares more DNA with The Wind Waker. This is a seafaring adventure, after all. If you’ve played that game, you know how sailing in Windbound is going to feel. It’s arcade-y, but each wave you crest feels earned and the ocean’s rhythm augments the feeling of traversal. Exploring the game’s little islands similarly evoked my time on The Great Sea, even if the level of polish and overall quality isn’t equitable between the two titles. The feeling is still alive, and as an enormous Wind Waker fan, Windbound’s ability to capture even a part of that essence is exciting.

Windbound’s nonlinearity and sense of player-driven exploration truly evokes a strong sense of adventure. That, in conjunction with the game’s presentation, posits a rather compelling case to check this game out. While the aesthetic and soundtrack live perhaps a bit too much in Breath of the Wild’s shadow (my roommate, hearing only game audio, actually asked me if I was playing Zelda), it’s still effective. The world is pleasant to exist in, and when it employs a wider range of colors, it can be downright beautiful. The music ebbs and flows nicely with the tides, too, especially when you’re actually on them. Sailing over the waves with the game’s score is a rather euphoric experience.

Final Thoughts

Of course, being captivated by Windbound requires the same affordance as playing with action figures – the suspension of disbelief. Eventually, my TMNT figures become chunks of plastic again. Eventually, Windbound becomes a middling survival game again. It’s a game that succeeds in bursts. Longer sessions make it clear that Windbound is a coalescence of familiar gameplay staples in a AA framework.

When Windbound hits its stride, it’s a contemplative, evocative adventure. It’s a synthesis of aesthetic and gameplay in a well-realized archipelago. When it falters, or when you can recognize the game’s mechanical composition, it’s a familiar survival game that’s rough around the edges. The more wear and tear the game accumulates with time, the harder it is to see it for the emergent adventure it wants to be.

As a student of mechanics and a player who prioritizes fundamental design, Windbound just didn’t connect in the larger context. In its more intimate gameplay moments when I was closer to the experience, I found myself engaged by Windbound. But, doing so requires you to overlook a number of rough curves and jagged edges.

Pros

  • Pleasing aesthetics
  • Wonderful sense of adventure
  • Player agency with respect to exploration

Cons

  • Lacking polish
  • Stiff animations
  • Underwhelming survival elements

Verdict

Windbound is a survival experience masquerading as an adventure title. When hitting its stride, Windbound succeeds at the latter, but the game’s fundamental issues with the former undercut its success.

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