I’ve a love/hate affair with survival games. I love the idea of the genre and the persistent hardships that need to be overcome by crafting or eating. I hate playing them at times because they can be so punishing, and the Live.Die.Repeat cycle wears me down. Of course, that’s the hook that’s built into them to keep you playing where with each incarnation you make a bit more progress and see more of what the world has to offer. I just wish that they’d be a bit more forgiving on the likes of us that lack the patience for incremental gains. It’s with that mixture of feelings that I approached Windbound, a new survival action RPG developed by 5 Lives Studios and published by Deep Silver. On the surface it looks calm, welcoming and friendly, so it’s sure to have teeth underneath… right?
The setting of Windbound is shrouded in mystery, the only things known for sure at the start are that you’re playing Kara, a warrior shipwrecked when she’s left behind by the fleet. Waking up stranded on a small island with no food or equipment, she needs to start figuring out what’s good to eat and what to stay away from pretty quickly. The island isn’t what you’d call big though, and won’t have enough to sustain Kara for more than a few hours, so it’s time to get creative and build a boat to head out into the choppy ocean and see what she can find. Moving from island to island, scavenging materials and fighting off predators is standard survival game fare, though there is purpose in Kara’s journey. By activating strange artefacts hidden in towers she’s able to trigger a portal that takes her a step closer to home, providing she can make it through a trial that is.
Pleasantly, my fears were assuaged within the first few seconds of Windbound when the menu screen offered me the choice of Survival or Story modes. The former treats your adventure in the traditional style with all progress being reset back to the beginning of the game if you die, save for a couple of items you’re carrying on your person. The latter though is aimed at those of us that really do want to see the end of the game instead of the inside of a shark for the 100th time. Death is still part of the gaming cycle, though it only resets to the beginning of the current chapter, and it lets you keep whatever is in your backpack at the time. This subtly changes the pace and urgency of the game and lets you relax into the exploration of the islands dotted within the sea. Of course, there’s the demand to keep hunger at bay and replenish health and stamina, yet the reduced risk of losing loads of progress means it’s not as much of chore as it can be. Sure, the hardcore amongst you will want to take this head-on and relish the challenge of the Survival mode, but it’s really good to see a different option available that lets players get more from the game. Oh, and it’s procedurally generated too so dying means a reworking of the landscape ahead.
Kara’s journey and ability to not suddenly find herself back at the beginning of one of the 5 chapters is weighted heavily towards having a vessel to sail the seas. Starting out with a canoe to paddle to the next island is enjoyable enough, but as the distances between shores become greater, and the perils of the deep become more apparent, a few bits of woven grass aren’t going to cut it. Finding better materials and crafting more capable tools means that canoes become catamarans with decks and all manner of useful kit on board. With most survival games fire is an essential for cooking and crafting, and building new ones as you explore is part of the heartbeat of the gameplay. Here you can strap one to the skiff and take it with you, cutting down on the essentials needing to be carried, and making it way more convenient. Likewise, adding armour panels to the hull will make your craft virtually indestructible and stop those unfortunate moments of hitting a coral reef and losing half the ship into the depths. Gaining that sense of mastery of Windbound doesn’t come easily, and it brings with it a real sense of achievement, especially if it opens up the path to even greater discoveries.
Whilst there’s a lot of sailing, which manages to be calming and frantic at the same time, there’s also a lot of trekking around different landscapes and hunting wildlife. With a real mix of aggressive and passive creatures where each has a unique item dropped for crafting, you’ll need to learn the tactics to take them down. Some can be tackled at close quarters, others are best kept at arms length, just make sure whatever weapon you’re using isn’t going to degrade before you’ve got the job done. Virtually everything has a lifespan in Windbound, and mostly it’s long enough that it’s not onerous to make another one. Food tends to spoil faster than it’s eaten though, so being mindful of how much you need to carry can free up vital backpack slots. There’s a decent amount of inventory management to keep the provisions streamlined, and craftable larger bags make things much simpler. Vitality is simplified too with stamina and hunger sharing the same gauge and a single separate health bar, so there’s not in-depth biology management, yet it manages to be sophisticated enough as you balance physical activity with staying alive.
The purpose of the game though is sailing, and it’s more than just point and paddle. What direction the wind’s coming from, the angle the prow hits the waves when things get choppy, and how tight or loose the sail is will all affect the balance. Getting to grips of how to make headway when the wind’s against you takes a bit of time, and when things are going full tilt it’s quite thrilling… even if that’s just from the danger of being thrown off. There’s not much in the way of markers out in the ocean, so constantly scanning the horizon for signs of land becomes second nature, and watching as the water swells and subsides is essential for avoiding rocks and coral that want to rip a hole in your hull. That’s before you get creatures making a beeline for your deck to munch it out from beneath you. Even though it’s only a few minutes between each piece of dry land, it manages to convey isolation and threat any time you’ve not got it in sight. Practising control through these relatively calm waters will also prepare you for the end of chapter sections, which are increasingly long and treacherous slaloms acting as a passage to the next area.
Helping Windbound hide its survival roots is the art style with the cartoon-esque presentation instilling a sense of ease even when things are deadly. It also really helps sell the water mechanics and highlights the difference in landscapes through the fantastic colour palette. The audio is interestingly done too, with each creature having a unique signature theme rather than animal type noises. The shark equivalent has a Jaws inspired dur-dum as it prowls the waves, insects are like little buzzsaws, and there’s a monstrosity that’s all spindly limbs that sounds like you’re taking a nice stroll through a woodland glade… right up until it poisons you. Again, this adds to a sense of survival without the peril, which clearly isn’t the case, but it makes it more of a game you can relax playing. With no dialogue and only a smattering of text that slightly fleshes out the strange lands, it also leaves a lot to the imagination on what Kara’s journey is all about, and why she’s trapped in this increasingly perilous loop. It’s not all sparkles and rainbows in its execution, with some questionable boat physics when you’re flung back up a wave after hitting a trough, the crafting menus insisting on making you cycle through them each time they open despite displaying the last used first, and if you’ve not played anything with survival elements before you might get lost with the bare bones tutorials. Minor quibbles though, it’s pretty solidly put together.
Windbound is marketing itself as a survival action RPG and it’s accurate, though I think hides one of its best aspects. It delivers on what it promises when playing survival mode, yet offers up a different experience as a story. The danger of resetting is there, and there’s a real pang of loss when you die and find that your hard crafted boat has been snatched away, but it’s not too long before the right bits have been foraged and a new one is setting sail. The islands are varied and interesting to explore whilst giving up secrets right until the end; the creatures never unfair in combat; and the action does feel stacked in your favour most of the time. That’s probably what’s most refreshing about it in that it can be played with that view of anyone being able to get to the end. It’s this that’s given me something special – Windbound is the first survival game I’ve seen through to its conclusion, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.
A PS4 review copy of Windbound was provided by Deep Silver’s PR team, and the game is available from the 28th August on PC, Xbox One, Stadia and PS4 for around £25.