At a glance, Windbound promises to be the ultimate seafaring adventure. The main protagonist is separated from her tribe while at sea and is ostensibly looking for a way home while uncovering the mysteries of the islands around her. Helping her to explore deserted islands, live off the land and create rafts to navigate stormy seas sounds like an intriguing survival-adventure. Unfortunately, despite having wonderful visuals and a delightful musical score, Windbound is let down by its repetitive gameplay and very sparse environments.
Windbound can be compared to the likes of two entries from The Legend of Zelda series: Wind Waker and Breath of the Wild. This is certainly true stylistically; the art style of Windbound is its strongest element. Featuring gorgeous puffy white clouds as the backdrop to your journey, and beautiful waters whose realistic ebb and flow make the ocean look satisfying to sail across. The few creatures inhabiting each island are unique and detailed, so much so that I felt guilty for eating them. The various piano medleys underscoring the protagonist's journey are indeed reminiscent of Breath of the Wild, and the use of musical cues to signify danger are an example of how attention is paid to small details.
However, where Windbound succeeds in implementing these little details, many of the wider aspects of the game are neglected. For example, each item you collect will be accompanied by a quaint bit of description explaining its function and potentially mythical history, as an attempt to build a sense of lore. Yet this object will exist on an island which is incredibly sparse, with nothing to do but collect this item over and over again, reach the 'objective' and return to your boat to set sail for another island, rinse and repeat. Even the 'objective' itself is incredibly repetitive – in every chapter, you must locate three stone monoliths, each containing a key. The three keys are then used to open a passage which takes the player to the 'crossing' section of the game, where you must navigate narrow waterways to reach a portal leading to the next chapter. Each chapter operates in the exact same way, and there is never an explanation as to why these keys should be sought out (other than opening the crossings) or any hint as to what the protagonist's actual goal is. While Windbound is home to several animals, some extremely adorable and some fairly deadly, there are usually only two or three of each on an island, and maybe a few berry bushes or mushrooms, leaving each island feeling incredibly barren and therefore boring to explore.
Any exploration is hindered by the wobbly controls and sluggish periods of waiting. Climbing and jumping, which is vital to reach the tops of monoliths, is very slippery which usually has dire consequences as fall damage is severe. This is addressed later with an item which reduces health lost from falling, but this is fairly late game. A large portion of the climbing I did in Windbound was accidental, as the protagonist seems eager to climb every ridge she comes within a foot of, and there is no way to slowly dismount from a ledge – you must simply drop down instead, which is worrisome when considering the before-mentioned fall damage.
For as eager as I was to explore the world of Windbound, the first two thirds are slow going, and involved little crafting. Beyond making a spear and my boat, I never felt as though I was improving or expanding my toolbox. In fact, a majority of the objects I crafted felt pretty useless. Paragliding is a neat addition, but don't expect to get much airtime because the glider descends quickly and islands are too small to go far. There are a few slings, which rock ammo can be used with, but slings do so little damage that there's really no point – especially when spears are so easy to craft and do high damage. The in-game currency of 'shards' can be exchanged at the end of chapters for gifts, and these gifts include unbreakable weapons, further making crafted tools redundant – in fact, I never once found the need to create a bow. There is therefore a distinct lack of balance to the pros and cons of each object, meaning that once players craft a reasonably effective object, there's not much reason to craft any more of its kind, or improve upon it. Killing your first large animal is triumphant, but another marker of progress won't come for a long time. It will feel great to make your first boat with a sail, but then along with this comes another important gameplay issue: sailing.
Sailing, which takes up half the game, is slow and cumbersome. Players really must work with the wind to get anywhere, and this can be tricky when the wind isn't in your favour. Sailing is infinitely more fun during the crossing sections, where the wind is purposely programmed to flow in the direction of travel allowing the boat to gain some real speed, and these sections are made generally interesting by the change in weather, fast rising tide, need to avoid perilous rocks and interesting visuals such as whirlwind backgrounds. Returning to the main world, sailing feels like a tedious struggle. By chapter 3, I realised that by removing the sail from my boat, and returning to steering with only a paddle and canoe, I no longer needed to rely on the wind and maintained far better control over my vessel. This goes against the intended spirit of the game – to create your perfect sea craft – but was more convenient and made sailing sections less of a bore since the waters are only inhabited by the occasional shark and jellyfish, with little to occupy the player other than holding down the acceleration button. The crossing sections themselves became absurdly easy with the use of the canoe and paddle to steer through obstacles.
Windbound offers two settings to play on which affect what happens after a death. The first is 'survivalist', which resets you to the start of the game and empties your inventory, and 'story' which resets the chapter and allows you to keep your main inventory. As most deaths occur from falling and the maps are so basic, you don't learn much from each failure. Retracing your steps is dull since progress is so slow and there isn't much excitement to be had on each island, so survivalist mode exists more as an inconvenience to the journey. Thankfully, the developers have included the option to switch modes at will during the game, so players can toggle between the two at any time, though frankly, other than fall damage there is little challenge to be had which might result in a death, as most animals can be outrun or sneaked around.
For a survival game, there really isn't much surviving to be done. You can keep your hunger metre filled very easily by eating berries and mushrooms, and starving was never an issue in my playthrough. Besides, cooked food such as meat degrades far too quickly to be useful, so stocking up for a long journey is futile. Food cooks so slowly that a lot of time is wasted waiting, with no tasks to occupy the player on the island in the meantime. There is also a distinct lack of diverse environments, as every island looks similar, with a beach to dock on, maybe a small forest area, and almost nothing to do. It would have been engaging to feature changing weather – perhaps the protagonist can get too cold and needs to craft clothes, or maybe shelter needs to be made to protect from the rain. Inclement weather is absent from the game, with the exception of a few areas of fog. These foggy areas, for a short time, instantly added some challenge to the experience, as I became worried for the safety of my boat and of what creatures lurked in the mist. This feature is severely underutilised and could have been included to enhance the survival aspect of the game.
What is frustrating is the fact that toward the end, the game begins to hit something that resembles a stride. Islands very gradually begin to feel more populated with fauna and wildlife, with the map expanding and exploring becoming more necessary. But this doesn't happen until chapter four of this five-chapter game, so for many it will be too little, too late.
The story is just as sparse as the islands themselves. There is an opening and closing cutscene, but this is really the most direct storytelling we see. There is no large sense of a driving force behind the protagonist's actions. Simply go to one island, get the key and repeat fourteen more times, with crossing sections in-between. The only 'dialogue' is in the form of vague phrases and maxims which appear on the screen once a key is obtained, and the story is condensed into being viewed through a growing wall mural at the end of each chapter. This all contributes to the generally empty feeling of the game as a whole, and makes the journey often feel stagnant.
If the player is willing to overlook these faults, there is still a number of glitches and bugs to be overcome. I was frequently shot into the sky while boating (which, if we remember the earlier fall damage issue, is particularly frustrating). Bizarrely, button prompts frequently completely disappear making interactions with objects difficult, solved only by restarting the game. Among a series of input lag, animals not responding to being hit, falling while stationary, and being unable to walk up stairs, the worst of this occurs when out to sea. If you are unfortunate enough to run into sharks, the boat will be completely destroyed and the player is launched into the sea. This itself is normal, but the introduction of the character into deep sea clearly cannot be processed, since the game becomes an almost unbearably lagging mess where the player must navigate their way back to land among a severely stuttering frame rate. One of my playthroughs ended with quite the whimper, as the protagonist began to take small amounts of health damage for no apparent reason while in the middle of the sea. It is for these reasons that I was mostly reluctant to pursue the optional islands, which contain health and stamina upgrades (again on solitary, empty plots of land), for fear that I would become stuck or catapulted once more.
Overall, Windbound is a pretty game with a terrific score which is sadly bogged down by slow and bulky gameplay, a lack of driving force and satisfying progression, and a fair handful of bugs. If you are willing to slog through the first three chapters, you may find some enjoyment from the final two, as the game begins to feel somewhat more alive, yet I would advocate playing on story mode to bypass the mundanity of repetitive early gameplay.