Ah, the sea. And sailing. And cel-shaded graphics. And procedurally-generated levels. Well now, you're really speaking my language aren't you! As you may have noticed by now, I love the ocean and sailing. Wind Waker is probably near the top of my rose-tinted games because of that. Windbound comes in looking very similar to Breath of the Wild (which I do NOT like) and brings along with it some twists for the better and adopts some things that are awful for playing. Let's get this over with.
Roguelikes are Overdone
I do like some roguelikes and find the genre interesting as a concept, but in practice usually don't enjoy them. I understand the desire to be cautious and think out every step, but the game has to balance random events and unforeseen actions with the ability of a player to react. Windbound is extremely unforgiving in its randomness, and dying (which only takes a couple hits by the way) will start you back at the beginning of the chapter (if you choose normal) or all the way at the beginning of the game (if you choose difficult). Though you keep your gear and boat in normal mode, the entire chapter resets, throwing out your previous map and generating a brand new one. Will it even have the same steps along the way? Very unlikely.
This game is excruciatingly light on story to the point of it not even really having one. Technically it does, though it unfolds via some expositional cut scenes in an unveiling mural. It's not deep at all, though. There's an option to skip the story and go on an "endless" adventure. Because they know what you're here for and it's definitely not to hear about why she's sailing through these random islands.
Windbound takes a roguelike approach to an open world exploration game, which means you'll have no real idea what the hell is going on any time you start a new chapter. Lucky for you, they've made it so each chapter requires you to light three beacons (or something similar to that), which then gives you some magical sea powers to unlock abilities between chapters. Abilities like "lose stamina a bit more slowly" or "add a bleed to your attacks."
You start with basically nothing and have to craft your way out of these situations. Each island has different resources - some will regenerate, many will not. This means that you cannot farm on one chapter to get an amazing boat and tools. You can't even farm multiple chapters to be able to take down some bosses along the way. No, you have to die many, many times to get all of that gear. And remember, dying resets the entire chapter (if you went normal mode). If you die trying to light the third beacon, that means you're back to lighting the first and second and they're in a different place now. Just to collect more materials to make better weapons, boat hulls, storage containers.
There's a sense that they went for too much realism in punishing ways in this game and I can't understand why. As an example, you can barely carry anything in your pockets and will have to craft new pouches or bags. But those bags have side effects like weighing you down and causing stamina to drain faster. But then your stamina also affects your hunger, and if your hunger goes down too much, you die. If your stamina runs out and you over-exert yourself, your hunger goes down. You can barely run in this game because your stamina is so low. Oh, and it goes away when you attack or dodge, too. And if they hit you, guess what, your health and stamina are going down. You need to have food on you constantly. But not too long, because it will rot within a day. Why? Who knows. It can be incredibly frustrating to have to save some berries or mushrooms across the map because you know you can't take them with you before they turn. Unless you WANT them to turn for some potions (which you do, but you don't know that yet).
That's not even mentioning the sailing itself. Once again, you start with nothing and have to craft everything. This means you are crafting your boat. First you can make a grass boat, then a bamboo boat, and finally a wooden boat. Maybe there's more beyond that, I didn't finish the game. You start with a monohull, basically a canoe, and a paddle. From there, you can work up to catamaran or trimaran and really blast across the sea. As long as you monitor the direction of the wind. Oh, and the waves. If you take on a wave in the wrong direction, you're going overboard. Your boat will stop for you nearby, but it's not ideal. You damage your boat doing that kind of stuff as well, so make sure you have extra supplies to patch it up on hand.
And back to the punishing nature of this game - at some point a shark starts to stalk you as you go around. This shark attacks your boat and can knock you off, but it can also destroy your boat. If it does, too bad. It's not only a shark though, no sir. You also have these little crab things that fly out of the water and chew on your boat until it breaks. You have to stop holding the rudder and attack them before they break it, then make sure you repair it before you get hit again. Oh, and did I forget to mention the giant kraken thing? Because that will also kill you. Remember that hard mode send you back to the beginning of the game with no items. The kraken and shark can appear out of no where and really screw you. You can't plan for it. Who decided this?!
You know how I said you have to repair your boat from damage? Well guess what buddy, all of your items ALSO become damaged and break. You need to craft weapons to hunt, but they last a mere few hits before breaking and requiring a new one to be made. There aren't enough supplies to do this! So you have to die. Makes sense? The durability of items in this game make the items in Breath of the Wild look everlasting. I hate crafting.
Controls and Combat
The sailing is based on real sailing, so you have to monitor wind and mess with your sails as if you were really sailing. This can be tedious at times, but I actually loved it personally. I like sailing, what can I say. My big complaint is that you have to "lock on" to things to do them: to steer or attack things. It's difficult to do those things quickly, which makes it difficult to stop enemies from brutalizing your boat before you can dispatch them.
The combat controls are ok for melee but leave much to be desired for distance. Your earliest ranged weapon is a sling and there isn't a reticle as such, but a few lines. I still don't know how to read them and missed my target so many times because of it. You can upgrade to bows later and they're easier, but there's not a great way to tell how far you're shooting. On the plus side, you can usually recover some arrows from the area. On the negative side, your bow WILL break in a fight and then you're stuck trying to dodge giant beasts or fast attacks or tongue whips. The enemies aren't the toughest thing I've ever faced, but they're not easy and they hit HARD. One mistake can cost you a restart. It has a lock-on system that is ok but I had issues with it losing an enemy when multiple would pop out.
I wish I could say the combat was fun, but it isn't. Every enemy plays similarly to the last, so once you get a pattern down to beat them, it's more of a test of your patience and reaction times than anything else. Unless you get multiple enemies after you, in which case you're better off running and hiding for a little until they cool off. There's not a good system to switch between enemies or attack multiples.
Is Any of This Worth It?
Not really. Despite being pretty and having fun sailing, everything else about this game is a huge drag. I've never wanted to play something that I hated more. At least for a few days. Then I finally gave up. There were too many "almost there" moments where I got stuck and had to die. Too many death-grinds. Too much crafting. Too much harvesting. Too much. This game is not a fun time. They made it punishing for a reason, but I don't know what that reason is. If they eased up on durability and starvation, it would be doable. Alas..