The survival genre has been around for decades, but it seems that the rising prominence of indie game development over the last decade has led to survival games experiencing something of a renaissance, much like the Metroidvania and roguelike genres. Windbound – the newest release from 5 Lives Games – is the latest entrant in this long lineage of survival games, then, with the main hook here being the obvious influence from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. All comparisons aside, Windbound implements its survival mechanics well enough to stand on its own, and though it isn’t exactly a game that demands you rush out to buy it immediately, it’s still an enjoyable experience that’s worth looking into.
The story of Windbound follows Kara, a silent protagonist who finds herself shipwrecked and alone after a dangerous encounter with a massive Kraken-like creature. Kara’s goal is, of course, to find her way back home, but there’s a bigger narrative at play which is slowly unwound by encountering a series of mysterious magical shrines dotted about the islands of the strange waters she's been cast into.
Broadly speaking, this story is about the rise and fall of an ancient civilization, while offering more backstory on the Kraken you encountered. It’s all interesting enough in its own right, but as you’d probably expect, the narrative isn’t exactly the central focus here. Still, it nonetheless offers a nice backdrop for the mostly chill gameplay and helps to give it some context.
Windbound is a roguelite survival game at first glance, in the sense that your moment-to-moment action consists of a continuous search for food and materials for crafting, but the influence of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is unmistakable. Elements like exploring the stony ruins of a technologically-advanced ancient civilization or the meandering and low-key sense of open-ended exploration certainly call to mind Nintendo’s seminal open-world adventure. Even so, the similarities mostly stop there, as the underlying mechanics don’t feature any puzzle-solving and combat is kept to a simplistic minimum. Kara’s adventure notably echoes Link’s in some ways, then, but her primary struggle is always against nature itself and the uncaring, unfair way that it treats its inhabitants.
The typical flow of a session of Windbound consists of five chapters that are nearly indistinguishable from each other. Each chapter sees Kara and her boat dropped into a big, circular cutout of the ocean, and her task is to sail between the islands to find three magical shells that unlock a gate (and a random upgrade) so she can further progress. Islands are randomly generated and dotted around the map, and the resources that they hold are similarly unpredictable.
This unpredictability proves to be the source of the most enjoyable sort of tension that Windbound has to offer, and is sure to keep you hooked at least for a few hours. Kara has a stamina gauge that governs her ability to run and do other actions, but its cap is constantly being eroded away as she goes longer without food. If it runs out, her health bar starts to go instead, possibly resulting in death. Your primary goal is to find all those shells, then, but pursuing that goal will necessarily require you to search every island along the way for goods that you urgently need.
You may very well arrive on an island and find that there’s no local wildlife to hunt and eat, but there are some berries to take the edge off your hunger and some palm fronds to help you build a new mast for your boat. The reverse may be true the next island over; you never really know what you’re up against with Windbound and that’s what makes it such a joy to play.
That sense of desperate improvisation makes each decision you make meaningful and impactful because you’re constantly having to balance the cost against the risk. Do you try to take down that Gorehorn for its parts, or do you pass because your spear is likely to break mid-fight? Do you sail for that island on the distant horizon, or stick with a closer one that you’re pretty sure doesn’t have the food you need?
Whatever choice you go with, you’re sure to make at least some progress towards making the journey a little easier. Kara can use various materials she finds on her journey to build things like a stronger boat, new weapons, and new tools for getting better materials. None of this is necessary, of course, you can feasibly go through the whole journey with just your starting knife and nothing else, but it's far more enjoyable to set for yourself a series of mini-goals for new tools that’ll make it that much easier to see Kara through her quest.
For all the subtle intensity of having to survive in the wild, it’s remarkable how relaxing it can feel to play a session of Windbound. Other than the encroachment of hunger, there's no rush or sense of urgency to your actions, meaning that there are plenty of stretches along the way where you can explore islands at a leisurely pace and sail this way and that as the wind takes you. Chill moments like this prove to be another strong point of the Windbound experience, though they soon give way to repetition, which is the largest shortcoming of Windbound’s gameplay.
Kara controls just fine and the survival mechanics are solid, but as the hours wear on, Windbound slowly begins to feel more like it’s dragging its feet. Each chapter has a bigger explorable radius than the last, which leads to a lot more dead time just sitting on the boat as you go between islands. And once you’ve got yourself a decent stockpile of materials and tools, collecting for survival becomes more of a chore than it does a joy. A lot of this comes down to how Windbound doesn’t introduce a ton of new content as you move through the chapters, which can make the overall experience feel homogenous and overlong.
Things are made even worse if you choose to play on the harder of the two difficulties, which will kick you all the way back to chapter one if Kara should be unfortunate enough to bite the dust. Considering that there can sometimes be accidents and attacks that are entirely beyond your control – prepared or not –losing four hours of progress can be quite discouraging. When faced with this, it’s hard to muster up the will to try again, as there’s not nearly enough variance in the gameplay loop to justify sinking all that time in to get back to where you were.
Presentation is another area where the Zelda influence is strongly felt, as the art style almost perfectly mirrors that of Link’s adventure. Characters have realistic proportions, but there’s an overall cartoonish, cel-shaded look to the art style that’s pleasing to the eye. Monster designs are mostly pretty cute, and the world itself has a brightly-lit and diverse colour scheme that keeps the seascapes visually interesting.
This is all supported by some solid performance, too; we only saw one or two times where Windbound dropped below its 30FPS target and the drops weren’t too significant. All of this is accompanied by a near-nonexistent soundtrack, with the odd piano or violin piece occasionally fading in when you’re exploring. This is a good choice, though, as it allows the visuals to speak for themselves, and the music can make itself known when it needs to, such as the pounding drums that start-up during intense fights.
Windbound is most certainly not the Zelda-lite adventure that you may have expected it to be, but it still manages to pull off an impressively well-made survival experience that’s fun to roam around in for a few hours. The open-ended progression, pleasing art style, and relaxing pace make this one an easy recommendation for fans of the survival genre, though it’s held back from greatness due to issues with repetition. Still, it’s tough to go wrong with what’s on offer here; you might want to give this one a look.