Look at a screenshot of Windbound and its art direction (a vibrant, watercolour style), will likely remind you of a very well-loved Legend of Zelda game--Breath Of The Wild. Watch a video of Windbound in action, and seeing its focus on sailing through vast oceans might instead remind you of another Legend of Zelda game--Wind Waker. Actually start playing Windbound, however, and it's quickly very clear that despite those stylistic influences, it plays nothing like a Zelda game. Which is, honestly, a relief.
Windbound is the second release from 5 Lives Studios, a team of Australian developers who previously released Satellite Reigns, a spiritual successor to the much-loved Syndicate games. Neither of those games are like Windbound either. Alright, alright--Windbound is a third-person survival game, the kind where resource gathering and crafting tools and supplies to stay alive are the main concerns that dominate the second-to-second gameplay loop. These things are very popular, I hear.
Windbound structures its survival as a single-player rogue-lite, much like Don't Starve. You start the game as a woman named Kara, who is shipwrecked and separated from her clan. She wakes up on a tiny island, which barely has enough resources for you to build a basic canoe to row your way outta there. From there, your goal is to head towards the next procedurally generated landmass that makes up Windbound's archipelagic world and hopefully find a way to get back to your people.
The next island, in all likelihood, will contain more resources that will allow you to keep Kara fed, as well as start building out her boat into something a little more efficient. Maybe something a little more robust, too, in order to survive the increasingly treacherous water hazards that will likely come up later. The boat-building system allows for some creativity in how you want to put together your craft--I was able to eventually add multiple decks, sails, and defensive spikes to create a pretty big, if slapdash, vessel. Once I had a respectable boat on my hands, catching the wind in my sails and cruising across the ocean felt pretty good--relaxing, even. You can even install a cooking station and a number of storage containers on it, and get things done while your boat heads toward the next location.
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Windbound is also being pitched as a survival game with a supposed "provocative narrative.". I wasn't able to get a sense of that at all during the limited time of my demo session, but noted that the game was divided into a total of five chapters, with an overarching goal for each. If you happened to die, you start all the way back in Chapter 1, with most of your gear wiped. The segmentation of the game is an interesting variation, and it makes sense if the game has a hefty story to tell and characters to develop. The does also feature a "Storyteller" difficulty setting that supposedly makes the rogue-lite elements of Windbound less severe, and creates checkpoints at the beginning of each chapter. All of that certainly has the potential to make the daunting prospect of actually finishing a survival rogue-lite game feel a little more feasible.
Of course, survival games need good threats to keep you juggling your priorities at all times, and Windbound certainly has that. Vicious oceans aside, islands can be populated with aggressive wildlife of all shapes and sizes--a lot of the much bigger than Kara. You have the ability to sneak past them if necessary, but taking them head-on naturally yields rare materials you'll need for advanced recipes, as well as meat to eat (provided you cook it before it spoils).
Kara is thankfully equipped with an unbreakable knife she can use as a default weapon, but naturally, you can craft stronger melee options with the materials you find, as well as ranged weapons like a sling and bow. The ability to dodge attacks and the need to watch Kara's stamina meter add to the concerns you need to keep in mind, but combat otherwise felt quite straightforward in my short time with it, and I couldn't see any immediate avenues for complexity other than creating more powerful gear. Shooting Kara's bow may evoke those great Breath Of The Wild combat moments, but Windbound's core focus is definitely more on survival.
Don't Starve was one of the specific influences cited in Windbound's development, and having played a lot of that game, Windbound definitely seems to capture Klei's particular brand of survival loop quite closely, albeit with its own twists. Between that and the pleasing artstyle (which also echoes another game quite closely), it's enough to make me interested enough to at least play a little more. Whether the survival loop continues to vigorously keep your mind racing past the two-hour mark is an unknown factor, as is how much Windbound's purported focus on telling a narrative and supposed "personal journey" actually comes into play. If it can build and balance the telling of a strong, directed narrative within a genre that has almost always been associated purely with emergent player-driven storytelling, that would certainly make it special. Windbound isn't the Zelda copycat it may initially appear to be, but I'm hoping that it has its own unique identity to reveal, too.
Windbound is slated for release on PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Google Stadia on August 28, 2020
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