Players of survival games know what they’re in for. The titles help. Don’t Starve, This War of Mine, Rust, The Long Dark: what else would they signify but the primal and the pragmatic, the slow wheeze of decay, and the constant threat of doom? Let us picture these players, their high spirits swathed in waterproof canvas, pressing on into the night and greeting the inhospitable with a smile. But what of Windbound? Who might we imagine gearing up to bask in its breezes? Gentle, hippyish souls with hearts aflutter? Or perhaps those with a nose for adventure, eager to gust into the unknown? I fear both may be swept away.
The tale turns on Kara, a young woman at sea who, having been sundered from her clan in a storm, washes up on a beach. The game is adrift in influences. In its surf-drizzled premise, and in Kara’s appearance—robed in fur-trimmed cloth and tribal tattoos, with a bun of ice-white hair—there is a hint of the marooned child from Rime. (Keep an eye out, too, for the early shot of Kara, gripping a guy rope on her raft amidst the tempest, mirroring the rain-lashed hero of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.) Yet the story is of the myth-and-moral variety, rich in symbolism but lightly sprayed, as in Abzû and Journey: scenes of rapture and downfall told in sandy murals, and so forth. These themes, both the grand and the personal—the urge to decode the enigmas of the past while getting back to your people—are pinned down by Kara’s most pressing needs: namely, don’t starve and, if possible, avoid the long dark.
Death doesn’t so much loom, in Windbound, as lurk in plain daylight. It’s there in the steady-burning ebb of your stamina and health, and, in more clear and clawing fashion, in the various predators that roam the isles. Take, for instance, the Gloomharrow, a skulking purplish lizard reminiscent of Randall Boggs from Monsters, Inc.; wreathing itself in black cloud, it vanishes and reappears, ready to pounce at your back. The beast can be felled with arrows, whipped up from freshly hacked wood and fired from a silk-strung bow. You can poke it with a spear, whittled from a stick and, in a sturdier variation, tipped with bone. Or you can creep past the creature entirely and bag yourself a razorback pig instead. These island routines—the dodging of hairiness and harm, and the acquisition of a flame-roasted lunch—are spiked with a rogue-like streak. Should death befall you in the default mode, “Survival,” you’re booted back to the beginning, with all but a few items lost.
Though, I have to say, I wish you weren’t. One of the draining effects of a popular genre is that it may be donned, like an ill-fitting suit, without warrant. When Dark Souls saw fit to clobber you without mercy and to mug you of your amassed currency, you sensed that death was being wielded, by a judicious developer, like a knuckle-wrapping ruler. It was done to teach and to tinge: to encourage you to bolster your combat prowess, and to smear the world with mortal cruelty. Here the clashes yield no such complexity (simply lock-on, lunge, and leap out the way) and the regular elements of play—the foraging, crafting, and cooking—are established early and with ease. So why strip away our story progress?
At its best, the power of the rogue-like is twofold: first, to provide mounting weight and momentum to your journey, sharpened by the knowledge that, in death, all is lost; and second, not to impart wisdom but, rather, to demonstrate what has already been learned—to shine a light on the shrinking of once-daunting challenges. The problem with Windbound is that, when borne back ceaselessly into the past, you find you haven’t gained so much in skill and experience that you sail ahead. You still beat on, scrounging for materials and hunting. The actual work of advancement is hardly compressed. The other problem is that the plot isn’t as faint as it often is with rogue-likes, and repetition doesn’t do it any favours. It lives in painted tableaux, unlocked at the end of each of the five chapters, and in gnomic quotations, like, “Our love is dead. Our souls are broken, brittle, hollow things.” After losing a substantial swath of headway for the second time, the feeling was going around.
Why, then, is Windbound worth your hours? In a word: boating. The archipelago that you explore, over the course of Kara’s quest, is served up in stretches of open sea, and I was never happier than when I was surging between islands. Early on, as you collect clumps of thick grass, you are able to twine them first into rope and then into a small canoe; soon after, you stitch yourself a sail, and you’re away. As I was skiffing along, tightening and loosening the sail to fill it with bigger lungfuls of wind, and arcing my little ship against the bullying heave and bob of the waters, I couldn’t figure out why so few games had cribbed the happy conceit of The Wind Waker. Granted, there is no magic, gale-taming baton for Kara to brandish, but that just means you have to master the art of tacking: curving around unfriendly bluster so as to catch it at slanting angles. While on the ocean, you’re also propelled by a sombre-hopeful piano melody of the sort that might blow through an unsettled Hyrule afternoon.
Indeed, the game abounds with Zelda. Its constituent parts are a pleasant blend of bits of Breath of the Wild and The Wind Waker, with a cel-shaded art style, dream-bright and dusky, pitched between the two; note, when crafting a new item, how it appears—poof!—within curls of creamy smoke. The more I played the less the goings-on of the narrative—something about ancient, sacred squid—bothered me, and the more I relished the wavelike rhythm of the action: the roll and crash of sailing and breaking to alight for supplies, glimpsing new islands as they emerge from a mist of draw distance and procedural generation. Which, indeed, you could say of Windbound itself. It has been generated through the procedures of genre, the commingling of mechanics and inspirations—some more crumpled and awkward than others—into something, if not wholly new, then subtly distinct.
Developer: 5 Lives Studios
Publisher: Deep Silver
Available on: PlayStation 4 [reviewed on], Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
Release date: August 28, 2020
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