There are a few words that—when I encounter them in a game’s description—typically send me scurrying in the other direction. The terms “roguelike,” and “procedurally generated” give me hives, almost guaranteeing that I will avoid games bearing them like the plague. Combine those words with “survival gameplay” in a game’s description, and I would rather scrape the paint from my front porch with a toothbrush than play that game. I need intentional design in my experiences. I want a nice, hand-tailored game with levels carefully planned out by a human being; a game that doesn’t require me to die every 10 minutes in order to progress.
Somehow, while viewing the advance materials for Windbound, I completely missed the fact that the game is a procedurally generated roguelike survival game. I saw the gorgeous cartoon-ish visuals, saw images of the main character sailing across the open ocean on a skiff, saw what looked like some ancient temples, and my body immediately dumped a truckload of Zelda-flavored dopamine into my brain. I had to play this game as soon as possible.
Reading comments on the internet, it looks like most gamers saw Windbound’s trailer and thought the exact same thing—that Windbound must be a Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild clone. But I’m here today to testify, I’ve spent most of the last week running through Windbound (1.8 times, to be precise), and this ain’t Zelda. Yes, the promotional materials lean heavily into the aspects of Windbound that make it seem like a Zelda-like, but Windbound is a completely different thing. It shares a bit of DNA, but Windbound is indeed a roguelike, procedurally generated narrative survival game. And it is utterly delightful.
Every now and then a game comes along that breaks through the barriers I have carefully constructed in my mind and reveals to me why people enjoy certain genres. Windbound has done that for me. It turns out that when done with care, procedural generation can create natural-feeling worlds that are a pleasure to explore. Roguelike mechanics can add stakes to a game that make it absurdly exciting when things begin to go wrong. And survival games can be awfully satisfying when you learn how to actually survive.
I have played through the game in its entirety with my seven-year-old daughter perched by my side, and we have had a complete blast riding the ups and downs of the experience. The first time I died (running my grass canoe into coral and then drowning) we both howled in horror. The time I saved myself from starvation at the very last second by following a wild hog around until he finally unearthed a truffle for me to eat, we both cheered with delight. Every discovery, every triumph, every setback, we have enjoyed together. This is a great game to play with kids, especially ones that won’t freak out when you put an arrow through the back of an Eevee-lookalike’s skull. It’s a survival game. Gotta eat ‘em all.
Windbound begins with a bunch of folks attempting an ocean crossing that goes terribly awry. As the sea rages, everyone is thrown off their boats and into the drink. A young woman named Kara awakens on the beach of a tiny island, her companions nowhere in sight. Armed with just a knife and her wits, she must survive.
You likely know the drill, but the way it is implemented is smooth as butter. Kara needs to find something to eat and materials to build up her inventory. The player ventures onto the first island and starts poking around for goodies. The first island is none-too-threatening, and Windbound does a nice job of offering just enough environmental sustenance—berries and such—for players to survive, but not thrive. To really get things off the ground, you are going to have to take a series of increasingly risky gambles. Killing a little pig is one thing, but eventually Windbound will have you facing off against much deadlier foes for materials. This isn’t Monster Hunter, but there are still patterns to be observed, and one wrong move can lead you to a sad Game Over.
Each new material Kara picks up for the first time unlocks a new recipe (or three). Grab the grass off the ground, and Kara learns how to make a little grass canoe. Grab a stick, and she can make a spear. Pick up a few animal bones, and now she can add a tip to that spear, making it far more effective. Materials are steadily added to the game to allow for a very nice upwards curve to Kara’s abilities. Of course, the further you get, the more you stand to lose if you stupidly fall off a cliff.
The focal point of all of this crafting is your boat, without which you won’t get very far. Losing all your materials when you die is rough, but that stuff is easily regained. Losing your boat feels like a kick in the gut. After the coral incident, I vowed that I would never be sunk at sea again, and worked proactively to build the biggest, toughest boat I could. When it all comes crashing down and you lose your boat because you foolishly overstep yourself in a battle with a poisonous lizard-thing, that loss hurts.
Mastering the sailing mechanics in Windbound can be challenging at first, but the experience of learning to navigate the sea is ultimately rewarding. When you finally manage to get the feel for how to get your boat moving in the right direction, you will still likely have a few close calls. At sea, you are very much at the mercy of the elements, and the wind and ocean currents are not the least concerned about your tiny boat and meager ambitions. Vigilance and practice are required, but completing a tough journey through a rocky atoll is rewarding enough to elicit cheers. Windbound’s sailing mechanics feel extremely new and unique. They are like nothing I’ve ever encountered in a game before.
Setting a course into the open sea in hopes of finding land feels deliciously dangerous. Do you have enough food to survive the journey? Will you be attacked along the way? Do you have enough materials to repair your boat if it gets damaged? At one point, my hull got destroyed beneath me, leaving me in the middle of the roiling ocean on nothing but my deck to use as a raft. The struggle to get back to land was intense and intoxicating.
All of this exploration has a purpose. After a bit, you will know exactly what you are looking for, you just won’t know where to find it. The flow of Windbound comes into focus after you complete the first of five “chapters.” In each chapter, Kara starts on a fairly friendly beginner island. She can run around and gather a bit of food and a few materials, before setting out to explore the sea.
The open map in each chapter typically contains five or six large islands to explore, and any number of smaller islands often containing fun secrets to discover. For the most part, I would just jump into my boat and go straight out to sea. The islands can be tackled in any order. Kara is seeking three keys, found at the tops of towers that are randomly scattered throughout the area. I don’t want to spoil too much, but these keys will allow Kara to progress to the next chapter.
However, players should not just find the keys as quickly as possible and run off to the next level. This will result in Windbound eating your face for breakfast. Take the time to explore each area thoroughly, as new materials and secrets are sometimes located on islands that don’t have towers on them. If you are rushing through Windbound, you are missing out on much of the game’s magic and charm. The feeling of freedom and exploration delivered while sailing the sea or crawling over an island is superb, and procedural generation means that you truly are exploring an area that no one has ever seen before.
For cowards like me, Windbound has a couple of difficulty levels that might ease the sting of exploration a bit. On “Story” difficulty, Kara will start back at the last island she visited if she dies, retaining all of the stuff she is currently carrying on her person. However—and this is a big consideration—when I drowned the first time, Windblown started me off on an island that I had absolutely stripped of resources before dying. I had my stuff, but it wasn’t enough to build a boat and get the hell off of that island. Even on this easier difficulty, I was forced to start the entire game over. A bitter pill, but one that made me better at the game.
My suggestion is to just skip Story mode and go for it with “Survivor” difficulty. Windbound is difficult enough to offer a decent challenge, but I expect that genre veterans will find it easier than I did. And once you have mastered the early chapters, you will whip through them quickly enough to take some of the sting out of dying. While playing, you will discover tricks and shortcuts, and you will feel like an absolute boss tearing through Windbound’s early content. Dare I say that there is pleasure to be found in the repetition?
I enjoyed my experience with Windbound tremendously, with only a few minor quibbles. For a game that relies on inventory management, the interface to deal with all of your stuff leaves a lot to be desired. Things aren’t too bad when you only have one bag to manage. But before long you will have extra bags and chests on your boat to store extra goodies, and the interface to shuffle things between these destinations is an absolute nightmare. I ended up dumping everything I owned out on the beach every couple of islands, and then sorting it all out into the appropriate receptacle. This was mad irritating, and overly time consuming while your stamina/hunger meter is slowly counting down to your eventual death.
I also had a bit of a problem with the boat-building interface, which can be a little finicky. But once I discovered that I could move around my boat with the interface to add additional features still open, I figured out how to overcome the situation. Still, I imagine a lot of players will struggle while building boats—which is one of the key features of the game. Its usable, but I couldn’t help but feel that a better solution could be found.
I eventually came to the point where I was hoping for more out of to the towers and chapter-ending sequence as well. Once you have been through it once, you have seen most of it. By the fifteenth time you climb the same tower, you are pretty much over it.
But these quibbles, while a bit bothersome, can’t do much to taint the overall sterling experience delivered by Windbound. I’ve been enjoying dipping into the game just to exist in its world for a while. Before playing Windbound, I never thought that I would find a survival sim pleasant, but Windbound has made a convert of me. Check this game out. You won’t regret it.
Windbound is a delight. With a few UX issues and a bit of repetition holding it back from all-time-great status, this game is still a wonder to explore and discover. The sailing is fantastic, the island exploration is intriguing, and the sting of dying isn't so bad that it should scare away roguelike-haters. The world of Windbound is so well made that you may want to dip into it just to hang out for a while. Fun, exciting, and rewarding.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Howdy. My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids. During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I am intrigued by the prospect of cloud gaming, and am often found poking around the cloud various platforms looking for fun and interesting stories. I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I've since added an Oculus Quest 2 to my headset collection. I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.
My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then. I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep. Currently, I play on Xbox Series X, PS5, PS4, PSVR, Quest 2, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, (RIP Stadia) and a super sweet gaming PC built by John Yan. While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.
When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect. I also co-host Spielberg Chronologically, where we review every Spielberg film in order, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts.
Follow me on Twitter @eric_hauter, and check out my YouTube channel here.View Profile