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'Windbound' Review: Ambitious Open-World Survival That's Perfect For Zelda Fans

'Windbound' Review: Ambitious Open-World Survival That's Perfect For Zelda Fans

Come sail away with me.

Ewan Moore

Ewan Moore

Windbound is something of a flawed gem, but one I can't quite seem to put down. Indie developer 5 Lives Studios has created a beautiful open-world adventure that's paradoxically held back by the weight of its own ambition just as often as it doesn't quite go far enough. Yet in spite of this, its core gameplay loop, colourful locations, and easy-to-grasp crafting mechanics make this one of the better single-player survival games I've played in the last few years.

Equal parts The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, Minecraft, and Disney's Moana, Windbound puts players in the shoes of an amnesiac traveller tasked with exploring the sea to find out exactly what happened to her people. Wordless cutscenes and the occasional ruins of a village attempt to tell a story about the hubris of man and their attempts to control nature (I think), but the narrative never really feels like the game's primary concern. Unlike Journey or The Outer Wilds, you can pretty much sail through Windbound without particularly caring about - or understanding - why you're doing what you're doing.

Windbound /
5 Live Studios

That ended up being a lot more okay with me than I was expecting, because what really propels players through Windbound is the feeling of exploration and discovery. The game is split into multiple chapters, each set in a different procedurally generated part of the ocean. Every one of these maps will be dotted with various islands containing animals, plants, and other materials for gathering and crafting.

Your goal in every chapter is to find the three obelisks scattered across the sea, ultimately granting access to a portal which takes you to the next chapter, and next ocean. You'll do all this while managing your hunger and health, as well as foraging for materials to build and upgrade weapons, tools, and boats to help you navigate an increasingly unpredictable sea. While this might sound a little repetitive on paper, it actually works really well thanks to a steady stream of new biomes and enemies that Windbound introduces you to at a decent pace... as well as a menu that's far easier to navigate than the clustered messes most survival games throw at players.

In chapter one I crafted a crappy canoe out of grass and survived on mushrooms as I quickly skimmed the calm waters and got everything I needed within half an hour. Chapter two introduced larger monsters which could be slayed for leather and bones, helping me to craft stronger weapons and gear. In chapter three I realised I could build a clay kiln to produce more powerful arrows, and fashioned a Breath Of The Wild-style glider that let me soar through the air. Chapter four saw me getting lost in a massive swamp and was nearly murdered by some giant lizard monster that I was not prepared for. Even when you feel like you've seen most of what Windbound has to offer, it finds some small way to surprise you.

One of the game's other huge draws is the sailing, which surprised me. I came away from my brief preview a few weeks absolutely hating the game's main form of traversal... which was concerning for a game that's primarily focused on exploring the ocean. I'm more than happy to hold my hands up and say that my first impressions in this respect were completely wrong. Sailing in Windbound is supposed to feel like a near-constant battle, and when I realised that, I really started to appreciate it.

Windbound /
5 Live Studios

Battling massive waves and the changing direction of the wind as your tiny boat is swatted around is as terrifying as it is exhilarating, and it's this feeling that constantly drives you forward to gather new materials and constantly upgrade your boat. While you'll start with a rubbish grass canoe that you have to paddle everywhere, you can eventually bolt on all number of attachments to create something truly magnificent. Combine wooden decks, extra canoes, armour, and sails to make a fine vessel capable of traversing the great blue sea with ease.

I became uniquely obsessed with turning my canoe into a fully-functioning pleasure yacht, complete with stations for cooking and crafting. I even stumbled across a recipe for a magical figurehead that allowed me to activate a speed boost - perfect for when I was fighting against the wind and tide. This progression would have meant much less if I hadn't spent the first few hours of Windbound struggling along in a pathetic little paddle boat, and I have to tip my hat to 5 Lives for making the reward of a superior vessel really feel like it was worth the trouble.

You also have to really pay attention to exactly how you've assembled the boat, which is a nice touch. I learned the hard way that if there's too much weight on one side with nothing to balance it out, an errant wave can send you and your vessel tumbling into the briny deep.

Windbound has a lot going for it, and I've had so much fun darting from island to island with a boat that keeps getting bigger and arguably too extra for its own good. That makes it all the more disappointing when it doesn't all hang together thanks to the occasional glitch and ill thought-out mechanic.

Windbound /
5 Live Studios

Combat is easily the worst offender, and really feels like it could have more time put into it. You can hunt and fight enemies with a bow and arrow from long distances, or get up close and personal with a spear. There's also a sling you can craft to hurl rocks and other projectiles, but that's so clunky to use that it's barely worth a mention.

Taking on the wildlife of Winbound with a bow and arrow works absolutely fine. It's when you have to fight with the spear that things can become a real problem. 5 Lives has clearly taken inspiration from The Legend of Zelda, in that players can lock on, dodge around, and attack.

Unlike Link however, your character in Windbound can do just one thing with her spear: jab slowly and very often imprecisely at enemies until they fall down. Despite the variety of monsters in the game, every fight boils down to rolling and jabbing. This is just about tolerable on the larger enemies, but on the occasions when you're swarmed by multiple smaller opponents that can move much quicker? Having to lock onto one of them at a time and blindly thrust your spear is a serious pain in the butt.

As annoying as this can be - and it can be very annoying - the combat in Windbound is fairly minimal and only really required when you're on the hunt for specific materials. The focus is really on the aforementioned crafting and sailing, and the game does those things brilliantly. Alas, the glitches then hold back the experience even further.

Windbound /
5 Live Studios

There have been more than a few occasions during Windbound where it's become painfully clear that the game isn't quite finished to the level I suspect 5 Lives would have liked. I want to stress that this is by no means a broken game. It's perfectly playable for the most part, in fact. But I definitely bumped into a few more issues than I would have liked, and there were times that it negatively affected my experience.

While sailing through some of the challenges that you're thrown into in between chapters, my boat would behave super erratically. Regardless of the direction of the wind and the tide, it would randomly turn in different directions and throw me off. At one point it pinged into the sky so hard that it threw me out of bounds, forcing me to restart from my last save. During this same section the game also crashed unexpectedly on two separate occasions.

There was another, more troubling instance. Windbound has two modes: Survivalist and Storyteller. The former is a much more brutal mode in which death takes you all the way back to the start of the game. I opted for Storyteller, as in this mode death simply takes you back to the start of whichever chapter you've gotten to.

Having managed to get through to chapter five without dying thanks to a good sense of when to just run the f away from enemies, I was feeling pretty bold. I got into a fight I couldn't handle and died. Except rather than take me back to the start of chapter five, I was taken all the way back to the very beginning of the game, as if I'd chosen the Survivalist difficulty. That hurt, especially given how much I loved the boat I'd built.

Luckily I wasn't able to replicate this issue, which implies it was a very rare occurrence. A quick email to the developer also confirmed that they couldn't reproduce what happened either, but that fixes are already being worked on for the next patch.

Windbound /
5 Lives Studios

Honestly, I'm willing to shrug stuff like this off from time to time... especially given the context. If I was reviewing a AAA release and had to deal with these problems, I'd probably be a little more damning in my verdict. As it stands, this is an indie studio that's built a game with some big ambitions - and it manages to deliver on most of them in style. What I really have to consider is whether or not the fun I had - and continue to have - with Windbound outweighs the handful of bugs I saw, and the answer to that is an emphatic "yes".

Windbound might not be a perfect game that delivers on all of its promises, but it comes close. Those of you looking to scratch that open-world survival itch could do a heck of a lot worse. While it could definitely have used a little more time in the oven to really smooth over its rougher aspects, 5 Lives has still managed to create a seafaring adventure that, for the most part, feels truly grand.

Pros: A gorgeous open world, some lovely water effects, crafting is easy to grasp and navigate, sailing and upgrading the boat is an absolute joy

Cons: Combat is incredibly dull, quite buggy in one or two places, story feels like an afterthought

For fans of: The Legend Of Zelda: Wind Waker, Minecraft, Moana

7/10: Very Good

Windbound was tested on Nintendo Switch with code supplied by the publisher. The game is released August 28th on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch. Read a guide to our review scores here.

Featured Image Credit: 5 Lives Studios

Topics: Switch, Review, zelda, PC, Indie