Sometimes as a game reviewer -- believe it or not -- you don’t want to be a dick. I know, I know… that’s par for the reviewer course, being a perceived dick, but really our job is to try and extract as much good and
bad from any given product, and where games are concerned this is a nuanced exercise. For example a game like Untitled Goose Game
-- an Aussie
-developed gig, universally loved, frustrated me because of its English
backdrop. I wouldn’t drop my score for that annoyance but, I would have much preferred controlling a dickish goose with a backdrop like Howlong
, or Kiama
, for example.
To this end, scolding games and developers is wrought with a sort of anxiety. Which has hit me particularly hard with Brisbane
-based 5 Lives Studios
and its The Legend of Zelda
Windbound is utterly gorgeous and sports a beautiful score and a measured sense of self. When I say this is a love-letter to Zelda
, I mean it. But what’s emerged from the studio wearing its heart on its sleeve is that even homaging Nintendo
from a design perspective, let alone trying to 1Up them, is an exercise in futility. This rears its head most in Windbound because, well, it’s directionless. And so that anxiety I mentioned, that fear of being too harsh hits home here because I get
what 5 Lives has attempted with Windbound -- I mean, who doesn’t want to make a Zelda-like?
"It’s not that the game is particularly hard. Dodging the Gorehorn as they attack isn’t really difficult, but the nature of how all of these things come together builds on that “cumbersome” adjective -- the world partially resets because it’s mostly procedural..."
The initial awe of the game’s visuals and charm wears off quickly when you die the first time. Inputs feel delayed and cumbersome, and the aggro Gorehorn
that stalk you while you’re trying to cook up some delicious Razorbub
fillets, and just China Shop your BBQ like some sort of angry... bovine, resets you again. And again. And again. It’s not that the game is particularly hard. Dodging the Gorehorn as they attack isn’t really difficult, but the nature of how all of these things come together builds on that “cumbersome” adjective -- the world partially resets because it’s mostly procedural. This gets compounded because it’s not a fast-paced game, so travel between islands by boat (another Zelda nod via Wind Waker
), starts to feel like a chore and, well, having to rebuild boats over and over again gets tired, fast.
So, Zelda references aside, what exactly is
Windbound? It’s a third-person action-adventure with survival components. Simply put. Crafting and living off the land, while a gameplay element, never feel fully realised to the extent the studio might have wanted. This is largely because that side of the game is muddied by a chorish exploration loop as well as health management and no *real* reason for worrying about any of it. So the earlier-mentioned “directionless” statement exists because 5 Lives hasn’t contextualised the overall makeup of anything mentioned so far. There’s a lite story, but it’s hardly a carrot on a string. This feels deliberate in that 5 Lives wanted gamers to just *be* in the world, but when you don’t give enough reason to *be* beyond not being hungry anymore, well, you’ve kind of lost me.
"I got excited when I had enough materials to build a sail for my early boat and in doing just that I became windbound. Awesome, right? Nah because the wind didn’t play nice with my new sail..."
Moreover, there are systems here that just don’t play nice. The earliest boat you can build is a straw canoe. You get a magical oar and through a combination of both, you’re seabound. I got excited when I had enough materials to build a sail for my early boat and in doing just that I became windbound. Awesome, right? Nah because the wind didn’t play nice with my new sail, but I couldn’t undo the sail’s construction. I couldn’t just switch to my oar and I was literally lost at sea. Like, couldn’t move. Massive waves were Marky Marking my canoe and it seemed easier to just drown and let the world reset, again. And again. And again.
When you finally understand the game’s systems and its pacing, and if you have enough patience, there’s fun to be had here, but it feels for naught. Like, does it matter? In my go-to survival-crafter, Subnautica, exploration, crafting and survival are key tenets to the forward momentum of your pushing through; you build a base out of necessity, but inside that base you can put in aquariums, coffee machines and even your own posters -- you can make it as big or small as you like. None of the material stuff is important, but with the exploration side of the game being grueling and often quite claustrophobic having a home to go to on this alien planet became a drawcard for its construction, and my personalisation of it.
"Windbound gives you no real attachment to its world. Partly because of a lack of story, which amplifies the lack of context, and everything you craft feels fleeting because of the reset nature of the game’s makeup..."
Windbound gives you no real attachment to its world. Partly because of a lack of story, which amplifies the lack of context, and everything you craft feels fleeting because of the reset nature of the game’s makeup. You’ll move through chapters and gain permanent items or helpful things, but a roguelike or lite this isn’t, and that just helps confuse the elevator pitch more -- what is
There’s a gorgeous game here, and 5 Lives isn’t a stranger to critical success. Satellite Reign
is still amazing and might just be the best game ever made in this country, but with Windbound it’s clear the studio’s vision outweighed their gust behind it. This isn’t a non-functional experience, and there’s a lot of fun to be had in it, but it fails to marry too many ideas and an aesthetic that may be too ambitious for what it needed to be, to work. I’d love to see this survive as a franchise -- all the elements are there, it just suffers identity crisis throughout and needs a bigger hook than “alone among a series of islands trying to find answers”. And unfortunately, that’s the game as is presented -- a solitary experience, directionless and without contextual form. Gorgeous, yes, and presented as an ambitious and familiar package with an equally resonant soundtrack, but oddly empty.