For my first few hours with the new roguelike survival game from Five Lives Studios, I walked a knife’s edge–blissful relaxation on one side, speedily encroaching anxiety on the other. You would be forgiven for being lulled into a false sense of security. The sunny skies and gorgeous ocean are inviting. The art style charmingly stakes out a familiar middle ground: cartoonish gloss, realistic proportions. The monsters are memorably designed, and even the most imposing are at least a little cute. But as welcoming as it can look, the red and yellow gauges at the top of the screen are a constant reminder that this world isn’t friendly.
You’ll stumble around early on, unable to do much of anything. Okay, you have grass, but what can you do with grass? Okay, you crafted a grass rope, but what can you do with a grass rope? You may try to wade into the water in hopes of swimming to the closest island, but your stamina gauge will quickly dash those hopes. Deplete it and you’ll wake up on the beach, back where you started. Eventually you’ll find a shrine on the island where you’ll receive an oar, which is, in some way, legendarily significant. Locating this artifact will unlock some new crafting recipes. Turns out you can craft a grass boat with enough rope and some elbow grease.
From here, Windbound’s waters open up. A tower in the distance, which tapers into a stony crab’s claw, beckons. You search for two more, each with a portion of the key you need to progress to the next level. After finding all three, you search for a gate, carved into a massive outcropping of rock. Pass through the gate and you’ll find your boat, waiting to take you on a river ride through a stone cavern. Hulking sea creatures breach the water as jaunty music, which threads the needle between sea shanty and battle theme, guides you along. This moment is genuinely climactic and cool and had me on board for whatever came next.
But, then it repeats, largely unchanged, four times. In fact, as the game progresses, all of these beats from the opening hour repeat four times. By the end, what was once fun and interesting becomes rote and boring at best and deeply frustrating at worst. There are always three towers to find but by the fifth level, the play space has expanded and the islands have become smaller and more numerous. Finding the towers in the latter half of the game feels like searching for a needle in a haystack, except the needle’s location is scrambled every time you die.
Well, at least that’s what happens on the Survivalist difficulty. Windbound can be played as a roguelike with permadeath or as a more forgiving, level-based survival game. I want to recommend the latter, because Windbound’s sluggish pace is a poor match for a roguelike’s structure. At one point, roughly three hours into a playthrough, a shark suddenly appeared and destroyed my boat, killing me instantly. I was playing on Storyteller, so I was able to begin again at the start of the level instead of at the start of the game. But all I could think about was how much effort I would have wasted if I had been playing on the more punishing Survivalist setting. Three hours of searching for towers would have gone down the drain in a blink of an eye. I can’t fully recommend playing on Storyteller, either, though. Searching for food to shore up your stamina gives structure to the Survivalist mode, and that’s missing on the easier setting. Your stamina gauge depletes much more slowly on Storyteller, so most of your time will be spent in the water, searching for towers–an act that becomes painfully tedious as the game stretches on.
A lot of that tedium stems from how difficult it is to steer your ship. Early on, you row your boat with an oar. It’s straightforward, but it will take you a long time to get anywhere. So you’ll want to craft a mast which allows you to harness the wind. But, once you do that, it becomes very difficult to sail against the wind. You’re supposed to loosen your sails when the wind is at your back and tighten them when you’re moving against it, but sailing against the wind never really feels natural. It seems like you’re supposed to sail at a diagonal or slalom back and forth. Both options feel pretty counterintuitive, and I came to dread sailing between islands. It’s also difficult to see a tower until you’re very close to it, so instead of seeing a point on the horizon and sailing to it, you’re frequently sailing to the horizon and hoping that a point materializes.
As much as I disliked the act of sailing, I did enjoy the process of building a sturdy boat. In typical survival game fashion, as you find new materials you unlock access to new recipes. After building grass and bamboo boats for hours, it’s exciting to finally find the key ingredient needed to craft an axe and gain the ability to chop down trees. After that shark made short work of my grass boat, I went back to the drawing board and created a powerful wooden boat with multiple hulls and strong, defensive armor. Building a strong boat that can effectively brave the high seas is satisfying. And the absence of huts or houses helps the game maintain a sense of forward momentum.
When you are on dry land, you spend a lot of your time running from monsters. Some, like the docile bison-like Gorehorns, will leave you alone unless you invade their personal space. Others, like the creepy Gloomharrow, which slinks around like Randall from Monsters Inc., attack on sight. Some craftable items require parts from these creatures to make, and you quickly gain a sense for whether or not a fight will be worth it or not. If you’re flush with arrows, taking down a Gorehorn is as simple as clambering onto a rock just out of reach and pelting them with projectiles. But, if you’re running low, you’ll need to get up close and personal with a spear, or worse, with your knife. These fights mostly involve locking on to your opponent and waiting for them to make a move before you dodge and hop in for a flurry of attacks. Combat isn’t a huge part of the game, though. Fights are a risk-reward proposition and a major drain on resources, health, and stamina if you don’t manage to down the monster and/or if they don’t drop much meat. But it works well enough when you need to engage and each creature behaves distinctly enough that I never forgot where to get a certain part.
Overall, Windbound has its moments. Much of the time, it was relaxing enough to zone out and search for crafting materials. But the game is built around finding towers, and that process becomes significantly less fun after the first level. There are only so many times you can search for a tower, no matter how winsome the presentation.