The Nautilus’ Garden In The Sun
HIGH Perfecting my all-bamboo watercraft.
LOW Dying because I was too weak from hunger to hunt for food.
WTF Seriously, how is there not a hunger meter separate from Stamina?
I’m a fan of games about exploring archipelagos. Give me a canoe, the open ocean, and some kind of a weapon, and I’m happy. Windbound seems like it would be an ideal title for me — craftable canoes and rafts, randomized islands to explore, and a gorgeous cartoon aesthetic? It had me right away. As I worked my way through it, though, I found too many issues to make it an easy recommendation.
Windbound starts with a terrifying cutscene. As a flotilla of rafts do battle with enormous Nautili, a woman gets knocked into the water as her ship is smashed. As she drowns, she finds herself whisked away to a mysterious island. From this point, it’s up to the player to guide her through building a grass canoe and setting out to explore. Each major island contains a tower which holds a key to open the the next stage of the Nautilus’ world. Climbing these towers and progressing to subsequent areas is the main goal of the narrative.
Gameplay is built entirely around scavenging resources and transforming them into valuable tools. This involves cutting grass, chopping down trees and slaying monsters for their oh-so-recyclable bones.
When this system works, it’s a thing of beauty. My character would find some rocks and grass, make a sling, use it to kill a boar, then turn that boar into a bone spear to ready herself for the larger beasts inhabiting the next island. There’s a wide variety of weapons and tools to be unlocked, as well as food recipes to deal with the character’s ever-increasing appetite.
Speaking of food, hunger is the perfect place to start discussing Windbound‘s problems, almost all of which come down to balance issues.
For starters, the main character gets hungry way too fast. Her stamina meter drops a chunk every minute or two, and it doesn’t have many chunks to start with. This transforms Windbound into a constant rush to find enough food to keep from starving to death, which is easier said than done since there aren’t enough plants to satisfy the character’s hunger — it generally took me more energy to find berries and mushrooms than was recovered by eating them.
As such, the only reliable way to get food is to hunt animals — or it would be, if it weren’t for the fact that the developers have failed to give the character a Hunger bar separate from the Stamina bar. It’s a strange choice for a game with stamina-based combat.
That’s right, fighting enemies involves sprinting, dodging, and finding the perfect moment to strike with a melee weapon. Every one of those actions requires stamina, of course, so the longer the player has gone between meals, the more difficult a time they’ll have hunting down their next one. This transforms would should be an intriguing experience about gradually exploring mysterious islands into a constant rush to stuff the main character’s face, lest she fall into a failure spiral in which she’s too weak to track down her next meal.
This is all exacerbated by the way Windbound makes it impossible to build up a stock of food — edibles degrade even faster than the main character loses stamina, and while food’s condition can be reset by cooking it over a fire, the moment it goes into the player’s inventory, the decomposition clock restarts.
It’s possible there are methods for cooking longer-lasting food or items to preserve the food that’s cooked, but Windbound‘s slightly off-kilter crafting mechanism made it difficult to uncover new recipes. Instead of talking to NPCs or finding them written down, the game teaches players new crafting recipes as they find or construct the prerequisite items, which would be a fine system if the randomization didn’t create islands bereft of resources.
I got halfway through the campaign without finding any of the small creatures that transform into string when killed. There’s a giant toad that drops a plate which can be turned into boat armor, but since I only saw one in my entire run, I never managed to make my raft shark-proof. Axes are necessary for harvesting the logs key to high-level raft construction, and they can only be built from the jawbone of a teleporting poison lizard. I made an axe in the second (of five) zones, but it ran out of durability in the third, and I didn’t see another lizard until the final area, at which point I was ready for Windbound to be over.
When conditions are favorable, there’s so much to like about Windbound. The combat was a blast when the character had enough energy, and I had a fantastic time taking a grass canoe and transforming it into a six-hulled behemoth that sped me across the waves. It’s just unfortunate that every moment of joy has to be sifted out from a pile of annoyances and frustrations — the developers had a beautiful exploration experience within their grasp, and they diluted it with some of the harshest survival mechanics I’ve seen in ages.
These are all simple balance issues that I’m sure could be patched out, but for now, Windbound just isn’t the game it deserves to be.
Disclosures: This game is developed by 5 Lives Studio and published by Deep Silver. It is currently available on PC, PS4, XBO and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 12 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB this game is Rated E10+ and has no content warnings, which is weird, because the game has plenty of violence. Parents, as long as you’re fine with your kids hunting some fairly frightening monsters for food, I can’t imagine there’s being anything objectionable about this game for them.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played the majority of the game without sound and encountered no difficulties. Sound is a useful cue to let players know when a monster is attacking them, but there are onscreen indicators to help them when combat gets started. This game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, the game’s controls are not remappable. The game uses standard controls for third-person games. The left stick moves the character, right stick the camera. Face buttons are used for attacking and dodging, as well as selecting options in menus. Shoulder buttons aim ranged weapons and open crafting menus.