An interesting aspect of games that emphasize survival as a core gameplay mechanic is that… well, most of them usually aren’t really about survival in a sense so much as colonizing.
Sure, in games like Minecraft or Terraria or the like – or multiplayer survival boxes like Conan Exiles or Fallout 76 – you start out with survival being a very real risk. But your actual goal is to build yourself a stronghold, collect more powerful stuff, and before too long you’re actually transforming a good chunk of land to ensure that you have made your mark on this boundless landscape. A little bastion of civilization, as it were.
Windbound is not one of those games, and in fact has a very different core flow that makes it interesting to start with. While this particular preview was limited in scope, the game has some notable potential in that alone. It’s not about making your place in the world, but about moving through places, and as a result it adds a unique tension to the core conceit.
Windbound launches on August 28th for PC via the Epic Games Store and Steam, Stadia, Xbox One, PlayStaion 4, and Nintendo Switch. The PC version was played for this preview.
The story of Windbound is very, very thin – which you’d probably expect, since the game is a survival title and thus chiefly focused on the ludonarrative. You play as Kara, a young woman sailing with the rest of her tribe in a manner reminiscent of the Maori covering the sea and searching for new islands. Something huge comes out of the water, and the next thing you know, Kara is washed up on an island with nothing but her clothes, her knife, and a pendant.
This in and of itself would be enough to cover a fair amount of gameplay, but Kara quickly gets more story right away. She’s in a set of islands, yes, but she also is finding mysterious structures with glowing arches atop them, and they appear to be the key to unlocking progress through this network of islands. There are ruins of lost human settlements. And there’s a mysterious oar she’s granted very early on, as if she’s walking a path she’s supposed to go along…
However, all of this is intentionally vague. There is story in Windbound, but it seems to be more about giving you a motive to keep pressing forward and finding new things even above and beyond the obvious lack of resources. Indeed, Kara’s goal of survival seems to be motivation enough… but the tantalizing hints of “maybe all of this makes sense” works well enough.
I’d call it akin to a Souls game, but those games actually do have an ultimate meaning and story. At least from the preview, there’s not so much a driving force behind what you do as hints about what happened to you above and beyond “keep sailing and surviving.”
If it weren’t clear, “keep sailing and surviving” is clearly meant to be the main spine to your motive in this game. And it works, in part because Kara is not able to find refuge on the various islands. She’s not supposed to.
Very early on, you’ll find yourself faced with two important facts. The first is that there are limited resources on any given island, and they don’t seem to respawn. You only have so much thick grass around you to weave into rope, so many berries and animals to kill for food, so many leaves and the like. The second is that some of the things you need to make tools or weapons are simply not found on your island.
So what do you do? You make a boat and you go.
Instead of having a home base, you have a boat. You can modify your boat, break down canoes you no longer need, make platforms to build between them, and add things like storage lockers and such to your boat. And sailing is a joy in the game, to boot. You cross the waters at a good clip, have to learn to navigate and work the sails to avoid having yourself dashed against the rocks as you draw in closer to the islands, and so forth. It’s a good core loop.
Somewhat less good is the combat. Early on, of course, this isn’t as big a deal. The wildlife on the first islands is very docile and will rarely attack you if you don’t attack it first. But even then, many of the animals you fight move quickly and you don’t feel very well equipped to fight them… despite needing to kill them to make better equipment. This is compounded by the fact that the sling (your earliest ranged weapon) has a really weird set of mechanics for firing and a targeting interface that never felt instinctive to me.
Later on, of course, this becomes much more important. The preview of the game consisted of two sections – one at the start and one at the later midgame portion. And once you move into biomes beyond the gentle grassy islands, you can find much meaner critters and obstacles that will put you at significant peril.
However, I’m willing to put the combat down to quirks that I simply hadn’t learned yet. And the game certainly gives you options, giving you spears, slings, and arrows to craft out of the limited resources available to you even as you refine and improve your boat.
Again, the core pressure here appears to be that you are always fighting dwindling resources. You cannot simply go out and get more food from a place filled with it. Every piece is valuable. Every bit of meat needs to be cooked for maximum efficiency, and there are only so many animals to hunt for meat. There are only so many berries and mushrooms. There are only so many sticks. Would you rather use this wood to enhance your boat or make a new tool, keeping in mind you might not be able to get more easily?
What makes this work is that it’s not a constant pressure, but a consistent thing to keep in mind. You are always juggling the needs of the moment with the possibility of running out and the possibility of not having enough space to grab something else valuable. Because of your nomadic existence, you also don’t have the luxury of space. It’s a unique way of keeping that pressure on you at all times, to refine that sense of scrabbling so that it runs throughout the gameplay instead of just being your early moments.
Graphically, the game has opted for a stylized but not overly simplified look. It’s nice enough that it looks pretty and the lack of detail feels intentional rather than accidental. Some of the models can look a bit awkward in the right framing, like a cel-shaded look that didn’t quite have outlines applied, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.
It’s also not a mark on the game’s animations, which are universally good. Trees sway nicely, Kara’s movements control fluidly, and the ebb and flow of water is well-handled. There’s a lot of very distinct character in the animals and landscape, which makes up for any issues in terms of overall fidelity.
There’s no real voice acting and the music is generally understated ambience, but that part works too. It’s far more concerned with a feel than with anything else, and as a result you consistently feel like you are, well… alone on a series of islands with animals. The music in the swamp biome feels tense and oppressive, for example, which… is exactly what you already feel from being stuck in the swamp. It’s immersive and aids in your experience.
The tutorials also helpfully pop up on the left-hand side of the window without forcing you to wait through anything, which is nice. They’re there to guide you, but they do so in a fairly unobtrusive way as the game needs to introduce you to concepts that might be otherwise unclear. There’s also a lower-difficulty option if you want easier combat and mostly to just explore; I thought that was a nice touch, too.
I’ve said in the past that the most interesting part of survival games, at least for me, is the start. When you’re trying to scrape yourself together, getting excited about little upgrades, and struggling to manage even the most basic upgrades… that’s when the game is interesting. Once you have your luxurious two-story house and you’ve stored your valuables and figured out how to farm food and some useful resources, the game gets much more boring.
So I can appreciate Windbound trying something different in this regard, because you are never fully established in this game. You will never have your house full of stored items that’s safe from attack. It’s an interesting shift in approach, with more time giving you better capabilities but also still requiring you to carefully ration your assets in the hopes that you won’t lose any of them.
Of course, if that’s the part of these games you like, you might not much care for this one. It’s a flip on the usual formula. But if you’re in the same boat (pun intended) as I am and enjoy the early sense of looking for things more than the later parts… well, this one might be well worth checking out on release.
Game provided by Deep Silver for preview purposes. All screenshots courtesy of Deep Silver.