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During the Nintendo DS and Nintendo DS Lite era, I thoroughly enjoyed the Lost in Blue games, wherein you play as one or two characters shipwrecked and marooned on a deserted island. You search the island for food and resources to make tools and improved weapons, all of which help your explore farther outward from your home base in your efforts to escape the island. Recently, I had an itch to get back into the resources management and survival aspect of Lost in Blue, so I went looking for something similar.
The closest I found was Windbound, an adventure RPG available on the Nintendo Switch, which to my eye looked like Lost in Blue but with sailing. So like The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker, a sailing mechanic I found very fun for exploring. Windbound promised the ability to upgrade your ship, hang glide, and explore islands. There were negative reviews, but what games doesn’t have those? I jumped in anyway.
That… that was a mistake. Let me explain why.
In Windbound, you play as Kara, seemingly a seafaring voyager along with her tribe of white-haired people, a la Moana. In fact, a quick comparison of the cover art of each goes right about here:
Peep that text. How both the Os swirl. Peep that art style. Peep that boat, which looks an awful lot like Moana’s. Now guess which released first. Guess.
Inexplicably (maybe explicable later in the game than I progressed), massive mollusks rise from the sea and destroy the ships. Kara seemingly dies and is transported to an afterlife world where she runs on the surface of the sea and can interact with a mysterious statue.
Once she’s ready for adventure, Kara runs into a portal of light, which transports her into a zone surrounded by a perfectly circular storm. Presumably, you’re in the eye, the center of calm, where you can build a boat out of various materials and navigate to different islands. Generally, each zone features about three islands with strange towers, some of which require solving a puzzle to access, others of which just require a lot of jumping and climbing. At the top, Kara activates the tower, which allows her to access the top of a locked island and battle a random enemy to move on into the next zone.
Between zones, back in that liminal afterlife world, a theater of images slowly reveals the strife between humans and their gods, the mollusks, whom the humans eventually ate to survive. The mollusks didn’t like that. As a result, getting out and to the next zone requires racing a massive tidal wave generated by one of these mollusks chasing you through a maze of canals in presumably a test of your (probably very bad) sailing skills. I never got caught, despite riding on the back of this wave one or two times due to mistiming wind direction changes. So I’m not sure anything happens there.
And that’s all I know, because I didn’t get nearly far enough into the game to find out more.
To begin with, Windbound is billed as an adventure RPG on Steam, exactly the kind of game I tend to enjoy. However, it features elements of a roguelike structure, almost the exact opposite of games I like to play. I probably should’ve gotten the hint when the beginning has you choose between Adventure Mode, wherein you get to keep what’s in your inventory when you die, and Survival Mode, wherein you lose all the items in your bag if you die (but not what you have in your hands). But hey, I rarely play roguelikes. How was I supposed to know?
I didn’t die once until I hit the third zone. Why this zone suddenly ratcheted up the difficulty level so much more than the previous two, I don’t know. But not only did I keep dying, I started noting that the islands—while still in the same location with the same resources and boss creatures—would change their layouts, dangers, and puzzles. One benefit that came from dying was the chance to change out Kara’s stats to better suit the dangers of the zone. But otherwise, I completely lost my progress within that zone.
This would almost be okay, except for the survival part.
Windbound requires Kara to forage and hunt for food to replenish constantly depleting energy as well as to sate hunger. So while you’re making progress through one island, you also must pick up food along the way, some of which fights back. Then you have to cook it, which takes not only both resources and energy to build the fire, but also time. A whole lot of time.
The main and probably only gripe I had about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was the time sunk into gathering resources and cooking food. But even cooking in Breath of the Wild didn’t take as along as it does in Windbound, nor did the food rot as time passed. Windbound features a mechanic for making jerky to keep food longer, but all the food starts rotting about the time you arrive at the next island, forcing you to start all over again once you make landfall.
Once I started to ask myself what I was even playing, I read reviews for Windbound. Most of the negative ones (and most were negative overall) harped on the difficulty with the sailing mechanic. I had eventually figured out what the game wants you to do when sailing across the wind direction, but only because of a loading screen hint, which really should have appeared in the initial navigation instructions. (Hint: you have to keep the flat of your sail perpendicular to the wind direction. Doing so allows you to sail into the wind while tacking back and forth.)
Overall, Windbound just wasn’t that fun. I really wanted to enjoy Windbound, but when your partner starts commenting on how much you’re grumbling and swearing at a game, it’s probably time to give up. (Even now, the screenshots of later gameplay entice me.)
The fog of war over each map obstructs finding all the islands, which could often result in passing one by while following the wind direction and needing to double back when the wind is against you. I liked that tacking actually works, since that’s an option in real sailing, but the sailing mechanic itself just didn’t really feel enjoyable. The maps were so big that I constantly double-checked my progress against passing landmarks to make sure I was still moving.
Again, hunting/gathering food, cooking it, using it before it rotted, and then hunting again, often with a nasty critter breathing down your neck, just took too long to be of any use during exploration and progression. I kept climbing up onto each island’s ring of big rocks to give myself enough breathing room to cook because the baddies couldn’t path up there. That’s obviously not the gameplay intent, which didn’t feel great to need to exploit.
Still, all this I could’ve overlooked. I’m accustomed to playing less-than-stellar games if the narrative or the style appeals to me. But on top of everything else, I felt tricked into playing a roguelike that hadn’t been specified or really hinted at on the purchase page.
I just wanted to play a game like Lost in Blue.
Have you played this game? I’d love to hear what you thought about it in the comments (game discussions are, after all, the whole reason I write these reviews).
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Featuring “I Hope This Email Does Not Find You!”
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Little Blue Marble‘s anthology of speculative climate fiction and poetry from an international slate of authors mourns and hopes in equal measure for the fate of our world and its ecosystems.
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