Windbound sold itself being advertised as a combination of Breath of the Wild and Windwaker, two of the world’s favorite Zelda games. It’s the idea of sailing around an open-world ocean and discovering what the world has to offer that attracted the attention. Well, it is what’s advertised, but not in the way anyone expected. It’s really only a combination of some of the worst parts of both games, and the rest is filled in by some pretty standard survival gameplay.
Wild out of Breath
So let’s start with what it borrows from Breath of the Wild. First, you have the look, which you can’t quite complain about. The graphics of Windbound might actually be its greatest strength, striking a balance between a styled cartoony look and a down to earth fantasy look. It’s rolling blue waters are a treat to look at, the character designs of its wildlife are fantastic, and at times it’s hard to remember that you are looking at an indie title and not a AAA game.
Similarly, the sound design is great and has the same minimalist feel of BOTW. It very often leaves you alone with your thoughts, allowing you to ponder which way to go next. Sometimes you’ll just chill out listening to the ocean waves, which tells you how engrossing the environment audio comes across.
Then we have the storytelling, and this is where the formula starts to break down. Windbound attempts to tell its story through no dialogue whatsoever. Instead, everything is environmental. You are one character lost in the wilderness and you uncover what is going on via murals and monuments, ruins and relics.
This is an incredibly ambitious task, and kudos to Windbound for trying to tell its story this way, but it just doesn’t work. Don’t get it wrong, the story tidbits are interesting enough, but they always seem disconnected from the environments we’re traveling in.
This kind of storytelling worked in BOTW because the ancient ruins you learned about were the ruins you were currently exploring, the memories of a ruined Hyrule with all its landmarks are the memories of the countrysides and landmarks that you have to traverse.
In Windbound it feels a whole lot more, JRPG in style. You wander an area, perform a task, and then uncover a piece of the story. That story is not necessarily connected to the place you just traveled through or the task you just did. It reveals more about the overall plot, but since it’s so minimalist it never feels like a payoff for progress.
Waking the wind
Now let’s talk about the inspiration it takes from Windwaker. First, there’s sailing. Every area of the game is a small archipelago and to make progress you will have to sail from one island to the next rather frequently.
Sailing on the open sea is fun, to a degree. The thing is, that fun drops off really quickly as the distances you have to cover start to expand.
You start the game with just a small raft and can only progress from island to island at a snail’s pace through calm waters. Eventually, you can upgrade your ship with sails and planks and all manner of bells and whistles making sailing a bit easier. The only problem is that you lose your ship every time you die and get stuck with a raft again. This can happen anywhere on any island, and to allow for this, the entire game needs to be completable with just a raft. This makes every upgrade for your boat pointless, or at least the only point is to reduce the frustration of your slow sailing pace, but that frustration is easily evened out by the frustration you feel by losing your boat.
The game structure is also reminiscent of Windwaker as you are ferried from chapter to chapter rather than set out to explore a big open world. This is actually pretty frustrating, as that was BOTW’s main draw. But instead, you explore an archipelago, activate some towers, sail through a gate, and get to the next archipelago. It’s a bit repetitive and repetition is easily Windbound’s downfall.
Again, the game is held together by survival game mechanics, and they simply don’t play well with each other. Stamina, for example, is a nightmare. Much like in BOTW you use stamina to dash and perform various acrobatic maneuvers. However, stamina is also your hunger meter. Your max stamina falls if you don’t eat, and it falls at an alarming pace. This means you are always hunting for food with Windbound’s somewhat janky combat or foraging for berries, to keep yourself healthy and alive.
This constant grind for food takes up the majority of the game. You never get a chance to really explore the world because you are constantly worried about where your next meal is going to come from. You might think you can just get a bunch of food and horde it for your journey, but food spoils! So you always have to be actively searching for it.
So instead of the wild open-world adventure of BOTW, Windbound instead constricts you to tight areas that you have searched over and over again because they are reliable places to get food and supplies. You inch your way over to every tower and after every sailing journey, you never get a chance to explore your new surroundings because you first have to find food. Is this realistic? Sure. But realistic doesn’t equate to good or fun. We didn’t play any Zelda game because it was realistic and we aren’t playing this stylized island-hopping adventure for realism either.
Speaking of realism, advanced sailing is INFURIATING. You are, for the most part, at the mercy of the wind. In Windwaker you were able to control the direction of the wind to help you sail. Here, you will be stuck onshore as you wait for the game to decide to allow your craft to sail in the direction you want. Once again, this is realistic, but it’s not fun.
Another thing that sets Windboud apart is that many of its areas are procedurally generated, and this was one of the things that originally drew us in. The idea of a BOTW clone with heavy replay value, constantly discovering new areas to explore, was alluring. However, in practice this just makes every new archipelago feel… samey. There are a few exceptions, moments when you get to explore very wild and borderline supernatural areas, but for the most part, the shores of one island look the same as the shores of the next, and since you are doing the same thing on each island, i.e., looking for food and materials to slowly inch your way to important landmarks, the whole game feels like one repetitive loop with no variation.
The experience with Windbound was frustrating, not just because the game was frustrating, but because it had so much potential. We wanted to love this game, and not just because it was a Zelda derivative. It had good ideas, it’s just that many of these ideas work against each other. Massive open-world adventure and strict survivalist simulator just don’t really work together because the goals of one impact the other (especially when death sends you back to the beginning of the game.)
BOTW worked so well because it was a space that the player was able to experiment in. If they saw something interesting on the horizon, they were encouraged to check it out and very often rewarded for doing so. Windbound, on the other hand, punishes you for doing this very same thing. However, you NEED to do so to make progress. You NEED to do so to upgrade your tools. You NEED to do so to uncover the story. So almost all of the Windbound experience is being punished for doing the things the game wants you to do, and that’s just not fun.