Windbound deserves to be a better game than it is in its current state. I say that after putting a good five or so hours in, experiencing some charming highs and infuriating lows. It’s gorgeous, with some of the best painterly lighting and flowing water physics I’ve ever seen. The soundtrack is sublime. Now if only it didn’t seem to hate being played. Making things trickier is that I’m only allowed to discuss two 30-minute spans from the first and fourth chapters of the game.
Anyone who has played a survival game knows that the first 30 minutes is not when things are interesting. Even the best survival games struggle to onboard players until well after the first hour. The mandatory learning curve, experimentation, and early crafting grind are standards of the genre — making up a healthy portion of Windbound as well. However, all I can say is that eventually, around the second chapter, Windbound starts to come together in ways that offer a much more intriguing experience than its opening lets on, and that remains the case by the fourth chapter.
And what an opening it is, with our heroine Kara being shipwrecked on one of many auto-generated isles by a monster attack. Now, to find your clan and sail home, you’ll have to go on an epic quest to fight Windbound’s controls like they’re an ornery bull. Seriously, the control scheme is downright broken in certain areas. Why? Well, rather than one unified control scheme, Windbound throws two at you, hiding one behind an alternate camera mode.
When just performing regular survival activities like harvesting and crafting, it is basically a clunkier Grounded, with a heavier emphasis on inventory management due to Kara apparently wearing pockets built for ants. You can upgrade her storage, even building some additional housing on your boat, but you never quite get the elbow room necessary to be fully equipped.
Although not bad, there is an emphasis on pre-canned, lengthy animations that, while polished, actively get in the way of efficiently gathering and crafting. This goes double for the mantling animations, which feel stiff and slow, with little visual flair.
For a game early along in development, this all would be fine, except Windbound releases this month. More concerning though is the clear lack of polish in the combat.
Survival games aren’t typically famous for great combat systems, mind you, but Windbound’s are infuriating at best. You’re often swinging at the wind when targeting an opponent or fighting to properly aim with a sling or bow. It’s hard to tell if the lock-on camera is even working when hunting beasts directly.
Worse still, lock-on prevents you from sprinting and jumping, yet it is somehow the only mode that lets you dodge. It’s also the only consistent way to see an enemy’s health, though it’s slapped at the very top of the screen rather than above your opponent, so you might not notice anyway. Add a tediously slow wind-down between attacks, a stamina bar that runs out faster than in a Soulslike, and enemies that spontaneously run or attack in unexpected ways without warning, and you’ve got a bad time.
It feels like Windbound is punishing you whenever you enter combat. This is made all the more painful as crucial crafting tools require taking out a massive bison enemy early on. This bison can take loads of damage unless you’re lucky enough to find a bone spear. What should be an intuitive test of skill instead becomes a trial of beating your head repeatedly against an enemy too cumbersome for its own good.
The thing is — eventually you set sail and Windbound becomes a much better game. You discover where the story’s going and uncover your people’s past. There are interesting progression ideas that grant fresh wrinkles to the survival formula. The joys of sailing with actual sails rather than holding down the W key to row a grass boat everywhere become apparent.
There are beautiful microbiomes to find across every auto-generated isle. Legitimate dangers lurk everywhere — though boat-assault crabs just make no sense, acting at odds with the tone of the overall story. There are also some normal polish issues like odd enemy spawns and going four islands before finding a single stick to craft with, but hey, that’s normal for the genre. It’s the unnecessary new problems that hold Windbound back from being the fun game it could be.
I’d watch a Windbound movie or TV show. This world is full of promising lore and an aesthetic direction that oozes with charm. It just also handles like a boat with a broken rudder. I want to see more, but the gameplay gets in its own way. Every second of wonder is compromised by a glaring snag that’s pervasive enough to be worrying. I can only hope developer 5 Lives Studios can tighten up the rest of the experience to fully harness the ambitious ideas within.