The survival crafting RPG is a fairly recent, emerging entry in a long line of video game genres that I’ve tried to get into and failed spectacularly. After dipping my toes in, and subsequently abandoning, a bevy of cool-looking worlds and concepts I’ve come to a couple of conclusions. Firstly, I really do suck at video games. More relevantly though, I need direction when I play. Standard open worlds with hundreds of icons screaming for my attention cause me enough anxiety, let alone something where it’s up to me to figure out my goals and not starve to death halfway to reaching them. Cue an initial sense of trepidation toward Windbound, Brisbane-based 5 Lives Studios’ take on the genre that looks very bloody cool aside from making me sweat in my jorts. After being lucky enough to spend roughly an hour with the game recently though, I think this might be the one to finally do it for me.
Take a glance at any of Windbound’s marketing material and you’d be forgiven for seeing a modern take on the likes of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. The imagery of a lone hero sailing the open seas and hopping from island to island to seek adventures certainly strikes a resemblance, as does the vibrant, cel-shaded art style. The parelells to 3D The Legend of Zelda games can be felt somewhat in Windbound’s third-person gameplay model as well, but the similarities don’t go much further than that from what I played. This is a survival/crafting adventure through-and-through, and one with some bold ideas. Marrying procedurally-generated maps to an engaging narrative is a tall order, but the studio is rising to the challenge and from the small slice I played I’m confident they can pull it off.
The first section of Windbound that I played was a fresh start, plonked right at the beginning of the game to learn the (grass) ropes. Like most survival RPGs, this consists of a few very basic tutorial prompts followed by a gentle but unceremonious push out into the world proper. While 5 Lives Studios are (suitably) keeping mum about the nature of the game’s end goal, Kara’s primary focus is sailing further and further out and exploring increasingly dangerous land masses, looking for clues about the world and her situation. First things first though, and to get her adventure Kara needs a boat. In this early tutorial sections that’s as simple as crafting a canoe from materials dotted around the small starting island. A grass canoe won’t do for a journey this epic though.
Kara’s boat is one of Windbound’s defining features and, although I went in with a general disdain for sailing in games, it quickly became obvious how integral it is to the journey. For the preview session I was skipped forward to a later chapter in the game and given ample resources to mess around with the game’s hefty crafting system. I spent a little time decking out Kara with the pointiest weapons I could make, just in case I’d need them, but I primarily wanted to tinker with my ride. The boat, in a genuine stroke of genius, is a sort of home base for Kara, replacing the typical static bases of most survival games with something that moves with her to keep the narrative pushing forward. To that end, what starts as a raft or canoe gets built upon piece by piece until (I hope) Kara is riding a veritable fortress on the seas. In this early stage I sailed atop but a simple wooden craft, though I eventually added a nice large deck of raft pieces and way too many masts. The sailing took some getting used to, hopefully the full game has tutorials on how it all works for the majority of us who have zero sailing experience, but I got the hang of it in good time.
Once Kara actually touches down on one of the game’s procedurally-generated land masses, she has a few basic things to take care. Staying fed is important, which can be sorted in a hurry if she happens across something edible and naturally-growing. Kara can also hunt the many creatures she comes across if need be, either for food or materials. Something that stuck out to me during the demo is how much thought has been put into some of the creature designs to not only make them visually interesting but subtly signal their useful traits. The marsupial-like Bleenks, for example, have big feathery ears which are both adorable and double as a useful resource should you decide to murder them. Resources are, of course, important for crafting things like weapons, tools and camp utilities which can be used both on land and on the boat.
If there’s one thing that’s going to draw the onlooking crowd toward Windbound, regardless of any previous penchant for the genre, it’s the allure of the game’s gorgeous art style and the promise of adventure in its varied and enticing environments. It’s a handsome game for sure, though that’s not something I could appreciate fully until playing back the recorded footage from my demo session. The whole thing was played via remote streaming which, as you might have guessed, isn’t ideal in Australia. Still, it’s easy to see how a strong aesthetic coupled with an appreciable diversity in biomes (even in my short time I saw a multitude of different environments and atmospheres) will make for some beautiful moments.
Something I wasn’t able to fully understand from this small slice is exactly how progressing through Windbound works. From what we were told, the game seems to be split into chapters, each with varying numbers of islands to explore and increasing in danger and excitement. In the chapters I played I came across various ancient structures on islands that seem to be connected to progression, but that’s as much as I could tell.
I’ll be honest – the environment in which I was able to get hands-on with Windbound in this instance was less than ideal for this type of game. It’s hard to really grasp the flow of a survival RPG like this in short, staccato segments, especially with the bare minimum of instruction. As these things usually go, I left my preview session with just as many new questions as the ones that were answered, but I’m suitably excited to seek those answers out for myself once the full game rolls around.