When I set eyes on the artwork for 5 Lives Studios’ survival title, the first thing that came to mind was Disney’s Moana. It was the near-identical font and the prominence of the ocean. There are more passing similarities in Windbound, the most obvious of these being the charm worn around protagonist Kara’s neck. To call this “Moana: The Game” would be inaccurate, though. While the charm does play an important part in the story, your most pressing task is just to survive.
Kara’s raft is overturned by a mysterious giant monster. She’s washed up on the shore of an island within the Forbidden Islands archipelago. Kara starts with just a knife that can be used to cut down tall grass. It’s the first resource to be found and the main building block for many of the first items that can be crafted. Ammo for this is plentiful amongst the rocks that litter the shoreline. There’s not much else on the starter island, so travelling to other islands to find more resources is the only way she’ll make it off the archipelago.
Windbound Review – Everything is by Design
As soon as any resource is picked up or harvested for the first time, blueprints are unlocked for tools or weapons that can be crafted using it. Crafting is incredibly simple and is split into categories: survival, weapons, boat, and boat accessories. The inventory and crafting menus are easy to navigate and items can be crafted on the fly. Item icons are highlighted only if you have all of the resources necessary to create it. The only thing that complicates it is the small inventory; resources constantly needed to be shuffled around to make space.
At the start of the game, the second island is just a short swim away. As soon as Kara enters the water, it becomes clear that she’s not a great swimmer. Her stamina is drained quickly. There’s no way she’d ever be able to make it across the vast distances between many of the other islands. On this island she finds a magical oar that she can use to propel a boat through the waves, but now she needs to craft the boat to go with it.
Boat building is another of the game’s biggest draws as you can create as spectacular a vessel as you wish. At first only the most basic grass canoe is available. Eventually there’s the opportunity to craft a multi-deck boat out of sturdier materials, complete with defenses against sea creatures, sails, storage containers, cooking facilities, and many other customization options. Admittedly you wonder how a burning fire can exist on a bamboo deck, but this doesn’t seem to be a problem.
5 Lives Studios has put effort into making sailing feel like a worthwhile activity, rather than just a way of getting from island to island. Boats are affected by the waves, and battling the wind can be a real challenge. Unfortunately once sails are built, they can’t be taken down. As the first two chapters saw me exploring against the wind, I chose not to build a sail and row everywhere instead as it was far easier. Setting off from an island is as simple as pushing the boat off the sand. The animation for this amusingly sees Kara heft the boat into the air like a ragdoll before it eventually rights itself a bit further offshore. It’s just a minor visual bug, but it never got old.
Windbound Review – Everybody on This Island Has a Role
Most islands have some form of fantastical animal life too. The first creatures are harmless unless attacked — they’re more scared of Kara. Then there was the gorehorn. It’s appropriately named because this giant boar loves nothing more than to gore Kara using its equally giant horn. Kara could avoid it and stand a higher chance of staying alive, but then the aforementioned horn is a vital ingredient in several useful tools. This strategic decision is one of many taken throughout the game, whether to risk your life for precious resources or stay alive but potentially struggle in the future without a vital piece of equipment.
Combat is one of the weaker points of the game. Players can lock onto their chosen target, but it can’t keep up with the speed of many creatures and it’s often easier not to use it. Both melee and ranged weapons can be crafted, although not all are easy to use. The sling is a consistent ranged weapon but takes too much time to charge up and ends up feeling clunky. Spears are quicker but aiming can be buggy. After sneaking up to a sleeping creature, Kara strangely decided to thrust the spear in a completely different direction. The creature woke up and fled, leaving a stream of strong language in its wake.
Each archipelago is procedurally generated. The resources and animals are similar but not quite the same. What is consistent is the need in each chapter to activate three beacons spread across the islands. Light all three and Kara can access the portal to the next area and chapter of the story. Despite aiming to be a story-driven adventure game as well as a survival title, the story falls flat. It’s told in single sentence annotations as beacons are activated and old village ruins are found, and they’re too easily ignored.
The game’s cutesy Windwaker-like graphics seem to invite younger players in, but they hide the game’s difficulty. On the default survival difficulty, players start right from the beginning upon death keeping upgrades and just the items they had in their inventory. Story mode means mistakes are less costly, taking players back to the start of the chapter instead, and retaining more items. In both instances you lose the boat and that’s the blow most keenly felt. Resources can be easily replaced, but the hours spent creating the perfect vessel cannot.
Windbound Review – Every Path I Make, Every Road Leads Back
The hardest part of the game is managing Kara’s stamina, which constantly ebbs away. Once it runs out, she enters starvation mode where her health also depletes until she finds food or dies. The problem is that food isn’t always plentiful and it degrades quickly, so there’s little point in hoarding what you find. The need to stay healthy means there’s not as much time for exploring as you’d like, and you’re constantly propelled from island to island in search of more resources.
The overall result is a game that doesn’t quite achieve what it wants to be. The story isn’t given as much airtime as it needs. Exploration is thwarted by the survival elements, and although the latter are the most satisfying of them all, clunky combat, the driving need to find food, and constant resource management means that there are better and more balanced survival titles out there.
Windbound review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4. For more information, please read our Review Policy.