The survival game genre is one that’s been well ploughed over the last few years, with hugely popular titles like The Forest, Subnautica, Don’t Starve, Grounded and plenty more lighting up the best sellers charts. There’s something that players find so compelling about being stranded in a hostile environment, forced to fend for themselves and regularly hunker down to survive the elements and enemies that will attack you.
Windbound takes some of the fundamental elements of the genre and blends it with an ever-changing environment. You see, instead of setting down roots, founding a new base and then regularly venturing out from a fixed point, you take your base with you from island to island. Your base, if you couldn’t already guess, is a boat.
The game starts with Kara finding herself shipwrecked in a heavy storm, seemingly at the hands of a gigantic Nautilus sea monster. Thankfully, that’s not the end of her – this would be a very, very short game if it were – and she wakes up on a frankly idyllic little island with nothing to hand but her trusty little knife. Exploring this new land, it’s not long before you find the Oar of the Ancestors atop an unusual rock formation, the oar responding to kara’s touch and the necklace that she wears, and giving you the key tool with which you can set sail once more and start to reveal more of the game’s story.
The boat makes for an intriguing change of pace, starting off with a simple canoe made of grass and then expanding it to have multiple pontoons, decking, a sail, and everything that you need to be able to gather from each island you visit and craft new gear to prepare you for the next. In truth, we only got to scratch the surface of what’s possible here, our play time giving us a relatively short window to see the game’s opening moments, and then jump ahead a few chapters to see how the boat can evolve. By the fourth chapter, you should easily have two or three hulls strapped together with a basic platform on it, as well as a fire that you can stoke to cook food and a cooker for concocting potions.
Regardless of the size of your boat, it’s a wonderful feeling as you sail between islands. The camera starts to feel more dynamic, the sounds become more evocative of crossing the open waters, and there’s a real The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker vibe, thanks in part to the stylised visuals. It’s nowhere near as toon-like as Wind Waker, perhaps coming by way of Breath of the Wild, but there’s certainly some common ground to be found.
The music that accompany this is lovely, injecting playfulness, tension, drama and majesty as they’re required. The light and joyous plucked strings as you chase after little wild pigs on the first island make way for groaning didgeridoo-like sounds as you encounter the strange and unnatural rock formations. The up tempo drums that thump as you fight territorial animals switch to sweeping piano and strings when you take to the seas and head over to a new landmass. The only thing I feel is missing at times is the sound of the ocean, which I’d love to have a far greater presence than it does. It is there, but it’s often so low in the audio mix that it feels completely absent.
Though the game is procedurally generated, the opening chain of small islands are more tightly constrained to ease players into the adventure. The grass is vibrantly green, there’s adorable little wild pigs running around and little danger as you get your fingers and thumbs around the basic controls and menus.
There is a touch of awkwardness to be found in these early interactions, in my opinion. Inventory management is always a tricky game element to design, and while it’s simple enough to bring up the inventory and crafting screen, I always felt that I was looking at the wrong part of the screen, expecting something to be in the foreground when it was in the background, and then flipping back and forth as I try to find my place – it’s like trying to plug a USB cable in at the first try. It’s not helped by the crafting menu being sub-divided into pages to flip through, instead of a large scrollable list. I’m sure there’s a reason for that later into the game, do help sort a ballooning crafting system, but it feels a bit too obtuse early on.
You start off with an inventory size that’s just the wrong side of being too small, but this can be expanded in a couple of ways. First, you’ll likely find the materials needed to create a simple storage unit to strap onto the front of your canoe, but this gives you a hilariously small new storage pool. Later upgrades can switch from grass and leaves to using bamboo and wood, giving you sturdier materials for your boat – which you might need if and when pesky little crabs hop on and start chomping away! – and offering better and more advanced upgrades. Of course, you’ll also be able to craft a bag to expand your carry on luggage as well.
As you venture into each chapter’s new map, you’ll be charting the unknown, trying to pick out what might be an island from the thick clouds that seem to line the horizon. There’s some great potential for varied biomes here, and we got to see a big shift from those serene patches of vibrantly colourful lands at the start of the game as we sailed to an imposing, murky island surrounded almost entirely by rocks. If the swampy atmosphere didn’t already scream “Danger!”, then the giant frog and explosively toxic plants should do.
In truth, danger seems to only really be there if you go looking for it. You’ll need to hunt animals in order to take their bones, hides and meats and craft them into new tools or cook to give you health and energy, but they’re not defenceless. Whether it’s a wild boar, a pair of rhino-like beasts, or gigantic frogs, you’ll need a deft touch to dodge their attacks and strike back. It’s not the most challenging experience from what we saw, and the combat controls feel intuitive across knives, spears, slingshot and bow and arrow, but get your timing wrong and you’ll take some hooves to the face a few times too many. If you’re not looking for a fight at that time, it’s pretty easy to just run away during these early parts of the game.
The survival genre brings with it a bit of a reputation, with many of the most popular examples making a name for themselves through Early Access. Rough edges are often the name of the day as often small indie devs have to manage the tricky balancing act of fixing bugs, adding new content and managing their newfound audience. Windbound neatly skirts around that problem by releasing in a finished form – what a novel concept! – and from the small amount of time we spent with the game, it certainly seemed well put together.
With a gorgeous art style, wonderful atmosphere and an intriguing take on the survival game genre, Windbound is absolutely one to keep an eye on when it comes to Xbox One, PS4, Switch, PC and Stadia later this month.