Separated from her clan in a storm while evading colossal sea monsters, Windbound leaves its protagonist, Kara, marooned on an island with little more than a hunting knife. From there you must lead her on a journey of discovery, navigating the unpredictable oceans connecting The Forbidden Islands.
Windbound is a third person survival game that inherits many familiar traits popularised by games such as Don’t Starve, RUST and, of course, Minecraft. You’ll start by gathering rocks, grass, and berries, before intuiting a list of recipes and upgrades which become increasingly more advanced as you progress, demanding harder-to-find resources.
Unlike most survival games, Windbound doesn’t tout the same sandbox structure. Each chapter may spew out a procedurally generated archipelago of islands, but there’s a clear story and set pieces driving you forward. In other words players have freedom to explore though the experience is being directed, nudging you towards the next milestone. By reactivating three ancient monoliths, you can transport yourself to a dream-like realm and advance to the next area, ratcheting up the diversity that Windbound’s survival gameplay has to offer.
This gameplay can be roughly hewn into four interleaved parts: navigation, gathering, crafting, and combat.
Not only will you need to climb and traverse each island, you’ll also need to need to captain your own ship. Boat-building and sea navigation definitely help set Windbound apart from other survival titles and you’ll notice that developers at 5 Lives Studios have put some time into refining that feeling of movement as you paddle and sail across the ocean.
It’s an interesting wrinkle in the survival game formula yet long, tedious stretches of Windbound can be spent simply getting from A to B. Eager to progress to the next chapter, while hungry and losing stamina, there’s nothing worse than being buffeted by strong winds as you spend several minutes fighting to reach your destination. Add to that the occasional frustration of being lost within Windbound’s procedurally generated seas, this can lead to some early burnout.
Combat isn’t especially dynamic, but it’s functional enough. Ranged attacks work like your typical third person shooter whereas melee slips into more of a 3D Zelda vibe as you lock onto targets, strike, and dodge. You’ll be hunting a menagerie of creatures, from small critters to much larger beasts and predators, one of which Windbound throws at you almost straight away. As if to counter its dreamy, somewhat toonish, art style, you’ll find yourself trampled into the ground within minutes by the Gorehorn.
Part of what makes this early encounter brutal is how Windbound strips you of most items and resources upon death (this blow is lessened if playing on Story difficulty). On top of that, the game kicks you right back to the beginning of chapter one, potentially erasing hours of gathering and crafting.
These two activities are just as important as fighting monsters or travelling the high seas of Windbound. By collecting and combining the right ingredients you can make life much easier for yourself, equipping Kara with superior weapons while also building her own personalised barge. Starting out with a rickety grass canoe, this boat will evolve throughout your adventure, becoming a makeshift floating fortress to house all your survival needs.
The crafting and inventory interfaces are straightforward, quick, and intuitive, though console players may find the controls for navigating tabs and menus to be a little finicky. Windbound also manages to sidestep the tedious survival game trope of having you combine items just to create components used in other, more advanced recipes. Those rocks and tufts of grass will be just as useful in the later stages are they are on that first sandy shore.
Windbound is a roguelite, it’s true, but not in the way that makes this subgenre appealing to most fans. Every time you start a new game, Windbound rolls the dice when it comes to procedurally generating a handful of islands spread across each watery sandbox. It will only shuffle in advanced monsters and resources as you progress to later worlds, though there’s still an unknown element every time.
On one hand this adds an unpredictable flavour to Windbound. After getting rammed to death by a Gorehorn back to back, I felt a twinge of excitement when I stumbled across a tiny island in the ocean where I discovered a powerful Tempest Bow. You’ll also find Sea Shards, an ancient currency which can be cashed in between chapters to unlock buffs and better equipment.
However, the often slow pace of Windbound – mainly thanks to the large open space between islands – doesn’t lend itself to the kind of frantic run-based gameplay the roguelite template engenders. Rogue Legacy, the Binding of Isaac, or Risk of Rain 2, all excel at throwing you straight back into the action, players excited to see what random combination of elements awaits their next run.
In Windbound, the time put into rigging your custom boat and filling your inventory means that there’s nothing but frustration upon dying, knowing it will take a painfully long time to recover what was lost. Ultimately, the survival genre is a deliberate slow burn whereas roguelikes ignite, explode, then fizzle. The two don’t gel ingeniously, at least not here.