Described as a flora builder in a world of mystery, Winds and Leaves is a meditative experience where you can plant forests and watch as they grow around you. Literally, as you step into the virtual reality shoes of a gardener, walking around on adjustable stilts, climbing trees and with the surprising ability to speed up time. I had no idea until now that foresters were so powerful!
You begin Winds and Leaves in a little grove where you’re introduced to the tools of your trade. You have a long, extendable stick for digging holes, a wooden thing for advancing time, a bundle of sticks that tracks your energy, and a pouch for carrying fruit. These items are attached to your hips and shoulders one at a time as you pick them up and get a brief tutorial on how to use them. You collect some fruit, find where you want to plant a tree, dig a hole, drop some fruit in it, and advance time to watch as the whole world speeds up around you and your fruit becomes a sapling, then a small tree, then a huge tree. It’s magical the first time you do it, as grass spreads from its base, the trunk of the tree gets wider as it gets bigger, and you can climb all the way to the top if you like. It’s just satisfying to watch, like a timelapse of, well, an actual tree growing.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of tree husbandry, the game just tells you to explore, though there are limits to how much it lets you. You can’t just run off into the distance as the bundle of sticks that tracks your energy starts to drain when you get too far away from your forests and once it’s all gone you’ll find yourself sent back to wherever you last filled it up. Exploring in Winds and Leaves means planting forests to connect strange wooden contraptions that you can put your sticks in to recharge. Soon you find more types of fruit, and some drawings on some walls will instruct you how to combine them into new types of tree so they can grow in soil in other areas, allowing you explore further and spread forests as far as possible across the steppe.
That sums up the bulk of the game, and that’s far from a bad thing. It’s quite a relaxing experience and I never tired of simply watching my trees grow, but there are a few issues that hold it back a bit.
Aesthetically, the world is beautiful, full of bright colour and interesting landmarks, but viewed through the PSVR headset everything is a bit blurred and jagged from even a few feet away. Vegetation growing on nearby monuments looks like it’s morphing repeatedly as it loads in more complex geometry/textures when you move closer. These graphical compromises damage immersion and, considering a game like this lives and dies on how immersed you are, that’s not great.
The distractions don’t end there, either. The first time I tried climbing a tree, I enjoyed it for three seconds despite it hugely exaggerating my movements to speed up the climbing. Then I realised you don’t actually need to be in contact with the tree. Once you’ve started climbing, you can just “grab” the air and pull yourself through it, so instead of climbing up a tree it feels more like awkwardly swimming in the air. My mental image of climbing through trees like Tarzan as I collect fruit died as it just doesn’t feel anything like climbing.
Walking is strange as well. Winds and Leaves is another in a long line of VR games that insist on forcing players to waggle their hands around to walk and, as ever, it’s awkward and silly. You hold the move buttons on both controllers and move your hands up and down like you’re milking a cow. You can adjust your stilts’ height, with shorter stilts making it marginally easier to pick up fruit from the ground, and taller stilts meaning you move quicker and are closer to the fruit in the trees as well. This is a nice touch that, whilst it doesn’t really offer that much utility in gameplay, makes you feel like a strange wooden forest automaton. The real problem with the walking is that it’s inaccurate. You constantly have to adjust where you’re stood because something is just slightly out of reach. It gets a little frustrating – another sin in a relaxing, meditative game about growing forests.
The control issues continue when picking things up. Specifically fruit, which often falls out of trees for you to stand over awkwardly moving your hand around until a button prompt appears for you to grab it. Worse still is when the fruits land next to each other and the act of picking one up causes the others to bounce away from you, so you have to go and find them again. Considering everything you do in Winds and Leaves involves collecting fruit and the two ways so do so are annoying or disappointing, this is another fatal flaw.