The Forbidden Islands are Calling, Unlock their Secrets. Shipwrecked on an island, explore, adapt and navigate the land and perilous seas to stay alive.
Publisher: Deep Silver
Reviewed on: PS4 (Pro unit)
Also available for: Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Google Stadia, PC
Developer: 5 Lives Studios
Design: Chris Conte
Art: Mitchell Clifford, Dean Ferguson, Brent Waller, Chris Conte, Atticus McNaughton, Lee Segawa
Code: Chris Conte, Mike Diskett, Luke Hedditch, Zander Hulme, Kieran Lord, Mark Rowley, Chris Webb, Kirk Winner
Writing/Narrative: Mel Taylor, Lee May, Mitchell Clifford, Dean Ferguson
Windbound is a game that’s sure to remind you of many things. The art style looks like Breath of the Wild, the ship sailing looks like another Zelda game, Windwaker, and the gameplay is heavily inspired by Don’t Starve or similar ilk of survival games. It’s a mix of ideas and an obvious love for all those that inspired it from Australian developer, 5 Lives Studios. Add it all up and Windbound is a rogue-lite, survival, narrative-driven, adventure game. However, it features enough options and ways to play so as anyone that’s a fan of any one of those singular genres, should be able to enjoy Windbound.
You play as Kara, a warrior who has swept away from her clan and is now lost in a sprawling mass of water and islands. The goal is simple: build a boat, survive and make your way back to your clan, somehow.
Unlike most survival games the story in the game has a beginning, middle and end. You can roll credits and it took me probably around 10-12 hours to do so for the first time, although there’s a lot of replay value, especially for those seeking to grab all the game’s achievements/trophies.
Your first island starts the same every time you play the game. It has a couple of rocks and some grass. But it’s enough to build a simple slingshot to protect yourself. Gathering what you can, you swim across a small gap of water onto a larger island and here find a magical oar. With it, and some sticks, you’re able to build your first raft. A small vessel, but it’ll do the job. You’ll spot a tower just across from you on another small island and climbing that you’ll unlock one of three shell ‘keys’ needed to progress out of the chapter.
What the oar is, and what the towers are — I couldn’t tell you. Although Windbound is being touted as a narrative-driven adventure, it is not a simple or plainly told story. Each tower you light up presents a poem and each time you finish a chapter you’ll be presented with some hieroglyphics laying out, what I assumed was, history of Kara’s people crossing this land. I’ll be honest: none of this grabbed my attention. Fortunately, the gameplay loop was engaging.
There’s a total of five chapters in Windbound and each features the same objective. Find and ignite three towers that’ll extend bridges on another island ,that’s more-or-less the chapter’s exit. Although the islands are procedurally generated, the first chapter only features a couple of islands and finding the three towers and exit are easy to spot. These get harder each chapter, not only because of potential dangers but also because rock masses, fog and extra islands are added.
Of course, there’s more than just fog to worry about in Windbound. Monsters roam the land from boars all the way up to large lizard-like creatures that spit poison. Each is capable of killing you quickly if you’re not careful, especially in the early-game, but they do contain resources you’ll need to survive. A solid spear can kill most enemies and they’ll supply meat, for a start, which can be eaten raw for minimal effects or cooked on a small fire to provide substantial health and hunger recovery. My first death in Windbound came from starvation, but there are other options to meat. Across islands, you’ll be able to find berries and edible mushrooms that restore varying amounts of health and hunger.
At the ‘level exit’ of each chapter, you’ll make your way through a cove and rocky waves. At the end you’ll be able to spend the currency you receive for lighting towers, breaking special vases or from totems found on islands at random. This is where the rogue-lite elements come into play. You can buy power-ups that increase your damage, add bleed effects to your weapons, double the currency you earn and more. One power-up I purchased was a special bow that doesn’t break and slows downtime when you nock an arrow. After I got that I was basically unstoppable as long as I could find the sticks, rocks and feathers to make arrows.
The suggested difficulty for Windbound, ‘Survival’, will include proper rogue-like elements that include starting the game from the beginning if you die. You’ll retain currency, power-ups, ‘held’ items and everything you’ve learnt along the way. The first couple of deaths I had it was a slow build back-up through the next couple of chapters but after you’ve learnt to craft better weapons, purchased and equipped certain upgrades, it becomes a breeze. The game is certainly not super-punishing in the rogue-lite department, but for those that desire a more straight-forward respawn system there is a ‘Story Difficulty’ option that will keep your chapter progress upon death as well as all your items.
It pays to start searching the islands that don’t have a tower as they can reward you with either currency to spend on power-ups, or with permanent HP or stamina increases.
Each time you do die you bring back what tools you’ve crafted. So you’ll go from building a small canoe with some twigs to using an axe to chop down wood and build a proper floating yacht. Your ship will need upgrades as you continue your journey and being built of stronger materials is just the start to survive whacking against rock beds or being attacked from a sea creature. You can also build fires aboard your ship if it’s big enough — several even. The moment I knew I’d crafted the ultimate craft was when I had several wooden sails, a drying rack, clay kiln and a cooking pot all aboard as well as several chests built to hold excess materials.
As you move between islands you’ll spend a lot of time as captain of your raft and it’s not as simple as pressing forward. You have to pay attention to the wind direction and loosen and tighten your mast to steer into the wind. You can cheese yourself to move forward against the stronger winds if you’re determined — as I was at once — but it’s not advised.
Most of the time you’ll die from fighting some beast, especially in the early chapters. This might not always be your fault as the combat is often finicky. There’s no proper lock-on system even though it’s obvious the combat is inspired by Breath of the Wild. You can dodge but in later chapters I encountered several frame rate issues that led to me being impaled. One time I did jump off my boat and the FPS dipped to what I could only assume was three, but otherwise, it has slight hiccups, but sometimes devastating ones.
Windbound is all about the feeling that comes with pushing through, building, collecting and surviving the journey. This is why there’s a rather repetitive nature built into not only the gameplay but also the story. It’s five chapters of lighting three towers and making your way through the same section of water over and over. You die, you start again but slightly more powerful and with the knowledge to get past what may have killed you. That said, I wished there was more variety in the islands. Later in the game, you have swamps and desert-like islands but for the first three chapters — the ones players are most likely to play the most — don’t feature many changes. There’s only a handful of creatures and the surprise of new things around the corner can quickly wain.