Windward PC Developed by Tasharen Entertainment Released in 2015
There has always been an appeal for me in those big, epic space exploration games, where you control a lone spaceship drifting around the cosmos, forging your own path amidst the politics of a scifi world. While there are a lot of options, most that I tried just lost me because of vague control schemes, unclear tutorials, and just having so much ground to cover and so little indication of where to go. A high seas adventure has the same kind of appeal, however, and drifting a boat across water I found a lot easier than barrel-rolling a spaceship in the vast, endless nothingness of space.
This is our square!
Windward is an RPG about pirates, at least to some degree it is. You control a boat belonging to one of four color-coded factions and sail around a randomly-generated world to do quests obtained from towns and fend off any pirates you find on your way. The controls are satisfyingly simple while still demanding a bit of skill. You can simply sail around with WASD, no need to mind the direction of the wind or anything, and your cannons fire at any enemy target on your broadsides. Special skills are mapped to specific buttons and can be aimed with the mouse. Still, while moving you need to mind the momentum of your boat and tactically sail around foes to minimize the amount of cannonballs going into you instead of them.
You use your map to navigate between villages you have discovered and pick up random quests there or buy any goods you intend to sell elsewhere. This uses a handy interface where you can move between tabs for quests, rumors going around town, goods they sell or need, as well as a separate shop where you buy upgrades for your boat. Much like an RPG, these upgrades come in the form of items colored for their rarity, which you fit into slots like crew, captain, hull, sails, and which provide randomized bonuses to statistics like the range, damage, and penetrating power of your shots or the speed and ease with which you sail.
Quests, loot, random pirates, so far this has all the makings of a good game, but what Windward lacks is an element to make it all feel special. I played the game numerous times, both solo and with friends, and so far everybody concluded the same thing: after about an hour they had pretty much seen it all. The game has nothing to progress towards, everything you’ll ever do or see is there right from the moment you start it up. Whether you are level 1 or level 30, the game uses the same randomized areas with the same boats, the exact same quests, the same resources to trade, nothing ever changes and none of it is particularly exciting content.
Quests have you deliver people or cargo to other settlements. Sometimes you get to hunt a lone pirate ship that has no chance against you or do one of a few, rare variations on these quests. The world is cut up in tiny, square zones with random terrain that are separated for a specific level, with the first three zones already belonging to a faction while the rest remain contested or pirate turf. Each zone is the same, however, with the same type of islands and the same settlements that generate the same resources. If you find out a way to strike it rich in the first zone (usually involving a load of diamonds) then there is no reason to ever leave for later zones.
This is a high seas adventure, darn it! Why aren’t there giant sea monsters to fight? Why aren’t there hazards like whirlwinds or vortexes? Where are the treasure maps (or treasures in general)? Why can’t I rob people for resources instead of trading them? The list of actions you’d expect to be able to do is longer than the list of features Windward actually has, and while it does offer a more casual take on seafaring than other titles, that is a role already filled by Sid Meier’s Pirates!
To be fair, some touches in Windward I do really enjoy. I find trading to be fun though it lacks a sense of progression. Stocking my limited cargo space with desirable resources and plotting an efficient path to another village where I sell it off and repeat the process, filling up empty space I am left with by taking on quests that go in the same direction, gives me time to zen out and catch up on some podcasts. But this is marred by pirate invasions or new zones already being pirate controlled, which force me to divert from trading to engage in hours of grinding combat as new pirate vessels are created faster than I can take them down.
Gameplay score: 3/10
No sea shanties?
Windward‘s presentation I would call calm and serene with moments of sudden action. As you sail across the game’s seas, enjoying the atmospheric music and the ringing of town bells as you sail into ports, it’s easy to lose yourself in the experience. When an enemy comes into range the music suddenly swells up, though sadly the cannons in this game sound like pea shooters, whereas roaring cannon-fire would have aided the combat a lot. Still, I recommend muting the game’s sound entirely and putting on some of your own music or a podcast you enjoy; after a while the small handful of tracks begins to grate on you.
The world this game takes place in is hardly exciting though. As I mentioned above, each area is essentially the same and the lack of change as you progress is a major issue this game has. The islands you visit as you move further and further away from your starting location don’t change that much from what you have seen before, except they get different, randomized forms.
What I do like is that there is a good degree of customization. You can find paint for your sails and hull to change your ship’s look from the default of your faction, as well as emblems to put on those sails. There are also some cool boats to buy once you get tired of your little sloop.
Presentation score: 6/10
Enjoy the emptiness
Windward can effectively go on forever because it generates variations on the same few quests for all eternity, so even once you maxed out a village’s development you can keep going there if you find yourself lusting for more fetch quests. At some point you are just going to run out of stuff to buy however, though I will say you are more likely to stop playing the game out of boredom before that happens.
While solo play is particularly hard to stay invested in, with a few pals I found that getting further was less of an issue. I have rarely made as much progress in the game as I did when I gifted a few friends the 4-pack and tackled the adventure together. I could never convince them to play it again, but it was more interesting to play together. Personally, I would like to do some more multiplayer, but server choice is limited with only 1 being particularly active.
The experience in singleplayer is further hampered by the fact that the AI doesn’t do anything. There are a few ships that appear in areas you are also in, but they don’t compete with you for trade routes or pick up drifting chests that you may want, they just aimlessly sail around and flock towards any pirate ships that appear. Similarly, the three factions you don’t pick (or that none of your friends pick) don’t do anything either: they don’t expand or reinforce their territory, robbing the game of possible end-game content. This is an issue that multiplayer would solve as the huge player base that Windward doesn’t have would fight each other for control.
You also don’t have to hope for support from the developer. The game received few patches in the time that I owned it and most of the developer’s recent posts were about a spiritual sequel called Sightseer.
Extras score: 2/10
My search for a game of this kind continues and if you have suggestions for a title that lets me explore, trade, and do a little bit of fighting, then I am always happy to hear it. Windward‘s greatest weakness is that it feels underdeveloped in all four styles of play that it offers: combat leaves you with nothing but pirates to fight, diplomacy just generates generic quests, trade is broken, and there is nothing to really explore in Windward‘s procedurally-generated squares of land and water. It seems to have banked on the shallowness of its mechanics being outshined by multiplayer fun, but with few people online and a lack of retention, servers are either deserted or hostile to visit.