Sometimes you need to establish what something isn't, before you can really get into what it is. And Windbound is not The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. In hindsight, that such a comparison was ever levied against it is a little ridiculous.
I understand where it was drawn from, of course. You need only to take one look at 5 Live Studio's survival game to feel the adrenaline surge of anticipation course through your veins. Windbound has a painterly visual aesthetic that sits on the borderline between cel-shaded and hyper-stylised. It's set across a sprawling archipelago that's begging to be explored, its horizons full of mystery and wonder. Each island awash with curiosities and docile creatures, the act of exploring them elevated by a swelling orchestral score that gently guides you between various points of interest. The surrounding sea a vivid blue sandbox that you'll be eager to sail across in search of adventure. At a distance the Legend of Zelda comparison is apt but, should you close the gap, Windbound reveals itself to be a different beast entirely.
Lost at Sea
The dissociation between expectation and reality was felt most keenly about 20 minutes into my hands-on session with Windbound. After what felt like an eternity of collecting rocks and grass to construct rudimentary pieces of equipment, the session handlers shifted me forward in time and let me loose on a new incarnation of the world – procedurally generated around you every time you succumb to the elements. A beautiful boat sat on the shore, large enough to store bags of excess resources, cook the raw meat that had been harvested from monsters and critters alike, and even hold a decking that gave me the space to breathe when out on the sea.
I pushed the boat out into the water, swam to meet it as it got caught in the coastal current, and hastily clambered aboard. I fiddled around in the finicky menus for a little while, eventually crafting a large sail and snapping it into place easily on the hull – there was no way in hell that I was going to row against the violence of the waves if I could avoid it. I hoisted the mainsail and swung it around into the wind… only for it to get caught in a large gust swooping in from an opposing direction, capsizing the boat in seconds. I'm drowning. I awaken on a new island, the same as before but ever so slightly different.
Windbound might convey a strong Legend of Zelda vibe through its trailers, but the reality is that it has far more in common with Don't Starve. While there is a tinge of adventure to the broader strokes of the story, the focus is on survival. Resources must be gathered to craft weapons and tools, although combat should be treated as a last resort given how floaty and imprecise it can feel, particularly against fast moving foes with poorly signalled charging attacks. With little instruction, you'll need to learn how to navigate the procedurally generated world and wrestle with controls that are desperately in need of a fine-tune. You'll also be responsible for grappling with the elements too, as you do your best to manage your hunger and mitigate your dwindling stamina.
This is a survival game built around four core pillars: Explore, Hunt, Craft, and Sail. They bear the weight of the broader experience well enough, although there were long-stretches of time where Windbound felt exhausting rather than exhilarating. Admittedly, it's difficult to get a full sense of this style of game in just 90 minutes. These types of unrelenting survival games offer an experience where progression can feel punishing and incremental, where small victories pile upon one another until they feel monumental.
In Windbound, it's clear that success won't just be reflected in your enduring survival, but in the quality of the equipment on your back. Enjoyment won't be borne out in the minutes between movements, but in the passage of hours, the escalating size of your ship signalling that you have a mastery over the core systems, and are finally settling into the rhythms of the game's uneven current. There's a lot of promise here, with Windbound proving to be a beautiful looking survival game with a lot of heart. It just needs a little fine-tuning to ensure that its frustrating elements turn fair.
Windbound is set to launch on August 28 for PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Google Stadia.