I’ve never been drawn to the open-world/survival genre that’s seen immense growth this generation with titles like ARK, Conan Exiles, Subnautica and the like. I understand the appeal, but the idea of playing something for hours to potentially fail and lose a ton of progress makes my skin crawl. Enter Windbound, a gorgeous-looking indie adventure developed in our very own city of Brisbane at 5 Lives Studios that promises to bridge the gap between hardcore survival and more narrative-focused journey. Suckered in by the almost Wind Waker-meets-Breath of the Wild vibes, I decided to cast aside my trepidations and set sail.
Windbound centres around Kara, a girl who finds herself stranded alone on an island after a storm separates her from the rest of her clan. With little recollection of events and no clue as to where she is, Kara must use her survival and sailing skills to keep herself alive and build the tools and craft to venture out into the open sea and find her way home. This forms the game’s central goal, and underpins the survival elements, as Kara hops from island to island, collecting resources and upgrading her boat and equipment to ultimately find a way home and learn the truth behind her fate along the way.
Set across five chapters, Kara’s journey in Windbound walks a fine line between open-world survival game and narrative adventure. There’s a particular rhythm to progress, with each chapter requiring the activation of three shrines in order to pass through a gateway into the next, but the seas and islands contained within that framework in each chapter are procedurally generated. It’s an interesting dichotomy, giving players a freshly-generated world to discover with each new section while tying it to rigid and simple goals, and it almost works. Unfortunately, it’s the simplicity in this equation that is Windbound’s slight undoing, which is a far cry from my anxious expectations going in as a genre rookie. Despite the looming threat that dying would reset my progress back to the beginning of the game (though playing in ‘Storyteller’ mode disables this) my first playthrough was an absolute breeze, which feels oddly wrong.
I’ll expand on that in a bit, but first let’s talk about what Windbound does well. For starters, this is a game that will feel very familiar to anyone who’s played 3D adventure games in the vein of Breath of the Wild, which will no doubt appeal to a lot of players. Kara is a capable adventurer and exploring the world’s many islands, foraging and hunting for resources and uncovering secrets is a lot of fun. There’s a great variety in atmospheres, even if the island layouts start to feel a tad too familiar by the end, and the menagerie of creature designs is excellent. I appreciated how well-integrated the game’s species are into their environments, and how their visual designs and their behaviours actually play a role in when and how Kara should approach them. I especially love the fact that each creature in the game bears its own musical cues that play as Kara gets close to them – after being ambushed by vicious Silkmaws a few too many times I learned to recognise the faintly saucy salsa beats that warned me to keep my eye on the treelines.
Windbound’s presentation and aesthetic is strong throughout, from those great creature designs to the simple act of sailing the seas looking for far-off islands and the telltale signs of important structures in the distance. The building blocks of the procedurally-generated land masses perhaps aren’t as varied as they could be, but they manage to look believably hand crafted most of the time. The ocean is incredible to look at too, even if its winds and waves seemed to conspire against every course I charted. I could sail for hours on end just watching the waves roll and listening to the absolute bop that is the game’s sailing theme (and the even bigger bop when it switches into the ‘dangerous’ sailing theme).
Discovering new resources and things to craft with them is also an enjoyable experience, for the most part. There’s a decent variety of tools for Kara to make and use, including some cool special weapons and gear, though inventory management can sometimes get in the way. Inventory slots and capacities are quite limited even with upgrades, so all too often I’d find myself unable to pick up resources I needed without having to dump something else. As a mechanic in a survival game it makes obvious sense, but it feels a little more restrictive than I’d have liked, and the inability to craft using items that Kara has dropped right in front of herself is bewildering. I’m all for some light inventory management but it can be disheartening to turn up to a new island full of glorious new loot and have to leave it all because I can’t afford to drop the basic junk I’ll inevitably need to fix my boat with when I sail off again.
And that boat, of course, is one of Windbound’s most exciting ideas. As 5 Lives Studios so aptly described it in our recent interview, Kara’s boat in the game is a fresh take on the idea of a home base in other survival-like games. Rather than being rooted to one spot like so many others though, this base is mobile, which is an essential concept for giving the game’s narrative a forward momentum. It’s a fantastic idea, and anchoring my two-tier, multi-deck bamboo craft in the middle of the ocean to quickly cook up a meal on its dedicated fire pit is a great feeling. That feeling didn’t come until the game’s final chapter though, as I never really found a need to build my boat up in any meaningful way until the seas became slightly more dangerous toward the end. Up until that point my simple, single canoe with a mast was more than enough to shoot me across islands and to the ends of each chapter.
That’s a sentiment that basically sums up my entire experience with Windbound. There’s a great survival experience here with plenty to see and do, but with little motivation to see and do most of it. Because the narrative is so intriguing, and Kara’s goals so clear, all instincts in my initial playthrough led me to seek out that narrative’s conclusion. That sounds perfectly fine in theory, but in practice what it meant was that I simply avoided anything that might impede my progress, like dangerous creatures or unnecessary exploration, for fear of dying and being sent back to the beginning. The knock-on effect of that is I never had the resources or need to fully explore the game’s more interesting systems. For all my anxiety about dipping my toes into a ‘survival’ experience, Windbound turned out to be too easy-going, to its own detriment.
A second playthrough more focused on exploration has turned out to be much more enjoyable – without pushing myself to actually finish the story I’m discovering so much more depth in the survival and crafting elements than my initial run revealed. It has highlighted the lack of a new game plus or any carryover, which is slightly disappointing, but it’s clear that this is a game best experienced over multiple runs. That should technically have been by way of dying and resetting a bunch, but starting a new save works too.
Windbound makes an admirable attempt at bridging the gap between an unguided survival experience and a narrative adventure, and it almost gets there. The core building blocks are there, and they’re all fun, but they don’t always gel in a way that works. Like the ocean waves that seem to almost consciously work against Kara, the ebb and flow of the game works to disrupt the player’s journey more than it carries it. There’s a genuinely good game here with a great story to tell and when it shines, it truly shines, but that makes its shortcomings all the more frustrating.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher