Windbound advertises itself as a survival game that includes “unraveling a mystery” about the islands the main character finds herself shipwrecked upon. But its survival game classification only tells half of the story. The other half of it attempts to be a roguelite. Unfortunately for Windbound, it does neither of these very well.
The game starts with a pretty cool premise. A storm on the seas separates Kara’s boat from the rest of her tribe and knocks her overboard. When she wakes, she’s standing on the water and sees a giant glowing portal. When you see a giant glowing portal on the ocean, you’re going to walk through it, right? It’s the only sensible thing to do, and this is exactly what Kara does. Only now she wakes up on a beach, all alone, with no idea where she is, how she can regroup with her tribe, or how to survive. But there seems to be plenty of tall grass on this island and a lot of berries. That’s a start.
As Kara gathers resources and lives off the land, so to speak, she will get ideas for recipes, from creating weapons to building storage to building boats. And that’s pretty much how you’ll start each island adventure. You’ll run around to find things to eat or collect to make new recipes so you can make better things and get more ideas for crafting recipes. First, she will start with building a simple grass rope sling, which she can use to kill boars on the island for meat, bones, and skins. However, the grass sling is not very powerful, and it requires quite a few hits to take down a large boar. If you overuse it, the sling will break. While it can take down a smaller boar with some ease, that’s certain to grab the attention of the other boars, and they aren’t always keen on taking this affront lying down. One hit from a boar can do a lot of damage, and fighting and defending yourself is clunky at best.
Kara can only dodge if she’s targeting an enemy, which makes absolutely zero sense. The game seems to lock onto an enemy at random, and I never could figure out how to change which enemy I’m targeting. It’s super fun to lock onto a beast that is ignoring you, only to be smacked around by another one, the one you mean to be dodging. It doesn’t take long to figure out that it’s often best to leave most animals alone, especially since the more dangerous ones are fairly easy to ignore.
Should also mention that this is where the rogue-lite elements come in. If Kara dies and you’re playing on the normal mode, she goes back to Chapter 1, standing in front of the glowing portal. She has lost everything except what she has on her person. But any progress you made with gathering materials or building your boat are gone. You have to start completely over with Chapter progression as well, but more on that in a moment.
When I first started my journey with Windbound, I was enamored with this world Kara was in. I took my time exploring the islands, crafting everything I could, figuring out the best hunting methods, etc. Everything about it was so beautiful and mysterious. I had to know what happened to Kara, and I had to know more about where she was. As a result, I spent hours on the first Chapter, and only some of that was due to dying and restarting. My goal was to find every piece of food, craft every bit of gear, explore every island, you name it. I was having an absolute ball.
I was, until I started Chapter 2. Kara progresses through the Chapters by using her necklace that happens to be magical to resonate with artifacts on three islands. When you activate all three islands, another portal opens and she can continue her adventure. I couldn’t wait to see what I found in Chapter 2. And then I found out it was Chapter 1 all over again with a different coat of paint.
It’s the same story, albeit there are more challenges. The beasts are more dangerous aka larger, but the biggest significant is the distance between the islands. You can build a sail in the first Chapter, but it wasn’t needed all that much. Kara could easily row with her oar to each of the islands. But now, rowing for too long will affect her stamina. If her stamina gets too low, she gets hungry. If she gets too hungry, her health drops, etc. etc. etc.
While you can bring food with you on the boat to keep your stamina up, food spoils incredibly quickly. Sure, these mushrooms have been growing on a tree for months now, but now that you’ve plucked them, they’re going to go bad in roughly 15 minutes. Cooking the meat doesn’t help too much either. At the rate it spoils vs the length of time it takes to cook it, it’s better to eat it raw anyway. Kara doesn’t like it, but it’s either that or letting food go bad on accident or waiting half a day for it to cook over a campfire. Naturally, the food only spoils at the worst time imaginable.
But as I was saying, now Kara needs to sail, and what a tedious, arduous chore this is. Sailing is slower here than it was in The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, and that’s seriously saying something. In keeping with the survivalist theme, the wind doesn’t always cooperate with your sail. It is possible to starve to death on your boat due to the wind not helping you get to an island with food. You can row to move right along—watch that stamina—but one does not simply start to row with the sail. Kara has to stand up in the boat and completely dismantle the mast every time. There’s no way, for some reason, to easily switch between the two.
And, as previously mentioned, if you die, you go all the way back to the beginning. You have to craft everything you had on your boat again. Even better, you have to activate those three island beacons again. Imagine my delight when I found that Chapter 3 was also the same song and dance as the first chapter, just with yet a different biome. After I died in Chapter 2, I immediately changed the game’s difficulty to story mode, which doesn’t send you back to the very beginning and you get to keep everything you made, except for the boat. You have to built your boat again. But in the grand scheme of things, I’ll take it.
I’m honestly not sure why Windbound has this rogue-lite element at all. Even without starting over, a run through of the game can take 6-8 hours, depending on your exploring mood. Why would anyone want to go all the way through that just to repeat it if they died in Chapter 5 (the final Chapter)? That’s rage-quitting material right there. The whole difficulty setting seems incredibly tacked on, as if the developers really wanted that rogue-lite tag, and this is the best way they found to use it.
In the end, after figuring out every Chapter was essentially second verse, same as the first, I stopped exploring. I stopped trying to get better gear. All I needed was enough food to keep me alive as I sail from one island to the next, climbing towers, activating beacons, rinse, and repeat. Even worse, there wasn’t much story to make any of the progress between Chapters feel satisfying. Not even the ending was a nice reward.
At least the game is beautiful. I’ll definitely give it that.
Windbound is available for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Google Stadia.