Windbound Review: A Stunning But Ultimately Empty Adventure

Windbound seemed to be another one of those PS4 gems, a title that would sweep players away in one character's very solemn but nonetheless compelling journey through an expansive and at times stunning world, and at times it is. Unfortunately, that is a somewhat fleeting feeling, as most of the time you find yourself a bit bored, wishing there was more in this world to not only interact with but also to witness and learn from. The love and passion the teams at 5 Lives Studios and Deep Silver put into the game is apparent from the many developer breakdowns of the game, but most of that just doesn't translate into the actual game, and that's truly a shame.

Windbound is a part of the survival genre, tasking players with gathering resources, building tools and equipment, and hunting for food as they look to solve the mystery of this world and survive to see it through. Your first task is to explore the island you wash ashore on and learn the lay of the land, gathering tall grass, palm fronds, rocks, and more, all so you can build a grass boat to start sailing the stunning sea in search of the next destination.

Before you leave you'll find a glowing pillar with a piece of magic that will join up with the necklace you wear around your neck, and that stone of blue magic will unlock doors and activate objects throughout the game and is the key to moving forward in the story. You'll then sail towards another island, activating another structure that illuminates the sky with a blue light, and once you've unlocked all 3 you can then progress into the next area. By the way, navigating the waters in your boat as the sun sets and clouds move across the sky is quite peaceful and serene, and the amazing soundtrack kicks in when you've departed an island, furthering that sense of adventure and making it feel as if you're really in an altogether different place.

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(Photo: 5 Lives Studios)

That sounds awesome so far right? Sure it does, and you'll still be sold as you enter the rather cinematic in between chapters sequence that takes you along the rolling rapids towards a structure that lets you use shards you've collected to bestow a blessing, and that gets you even more excited for what comes next.

Now, imagine feeling that excitement and then learning that you're back where you started. Don't get me wrong, as you have all your items and shards, but you find yourself on another island, washed ashore by the waves, and three icons appear yet again at the top of the screen. You'll find slightly different islands, but you think, well, maybe this is just the beginning part and the crazy stuff is further in, but that never manifests.

Instead, it's another explore the map, activate three structures, and go through the portal once more. Then it's the exact same rapid water sequence, followed by yet another portal, followed by...you guessed it, being put on another island.

There is fun to be had here sure, but after the game's first level you've really seen the entire game, and unfortunately, the other captivating aspects of the game can't carry the weight of the experience alone. The game presents a cool character for you to play as, but we don't learn anything about her, with the only real story here being presented in vague narration and text at key points. Murals present themselves after you complete each chapter, but the game doesn't properly set the stage in any way, so becoming invested is difficult.

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(Photo: 5 Lives Studios)

What the game does well though it does extremely well. There's a joy to trying to figure out where to get items and ingredients you need to create equipment, and the game doesn't really tell you where to find anything. If you want to chop that tree, you'll need an axe, but one of the ingredients is an animal, and there's no bestiary or anything telling you where to find it. That means you'll just need to search and keep going until you find a different sort of creature, and fingers crossed it's the one you need. The first moment when I figured out how to start a fire that could cook meat and turn skin into leather at the same time I genuinely smiled, feeling like I had accomplished something, and taking down the bigger creatures also gives you that same sense of satisfaction.

Most of your crafting will be dedicated to your boat, which will go from a simple grass or bamboo canoe into an impressive combination of separate hulls, decks, and masts, allowing it to capture the wind and turn your slow-moving canoe into a fast-moving ship atop the water. You can also add compartments to your boat to hold extra items and you can even have a fire going on your ship to cook food and keep things moving if a landmass isn't nearby and your stamina is low.

Building an impressive ship is only worthwhile though if you have something compelling to sail towards. The islands themselves aren't different enough to get excited over, and on top of that, there's nothing really to find there aside from another structure to activate and more resources. Being able to finally wield a bow and arrow and sail the seas in a quick-moving ship is great, but they just mean you are doing the same things more efficiently, and without a compelling story structure or the details needed to get invested in the lead character, none of that really matters.

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(Photo: 5 Lives Studios)

It's kind of boggling when you look at the official Windbound website too, as the developers have posted lengthy breakdowns of murals that reveal some really interesting backstory to this land and its people, as well as Kara's place in it, but if you asked me to name Kara after a few hours of this game I would have had trouble recalling it. None of that history and lore is really conveyed in the game, and while I appreciate the material, it needed to be better presented in the actual gameplay to reach its full potential. Arise: A Simple Story didn't feature much in the way of voice acting or cinematics either, but it still conveyed a brilliant and emotional story through small scenes and innovative platforming gameplay, and Windbound doesn't meet that admittedly high bar.

The platforming isn't where it needs to be either, and while the game will automatically cling to the platform in front of you, there are times where you need to jump, and the mechanic just doesn't feel like it should, and will cause a few deaths. Combat is fine, but that could've used a bit more touching up as well, as like other aspects of the game it doesn't really evolve much.

As it stands, Windbound has moments that show immense promise, but the lack of things to interact with in the world combined with the repetition of tasks and gameplay hold it back from that potential, making what should have been something special into something you might not remember in a few months.

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Rating: 2 out of 5

Windbound is available on PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC.