Developer/Publisher: Tasharen Entertainment || Overall: 7.5/10
Hardware Used: Windows 8.1, i7, Nvidia GTX 780
Sandbox games are varied and plentiful nowadays. Needing to strike the right balance between theme and progression is important, otherwise interest can be lost quite quickly. Windward, a naval-themed sandbox game, is one such game with an interesting theme and progression system. While the game can feel rewarding, you may find that you are stuck in an endless grind cycle on the high seas that will test your resolve in more ways than scurvy can.
With no formal tutorial, single player might seem the obvious first choice for a new player of Windward. When starting a game, you’ll be asked to create a character, choose a faction, and start a new procedurally-generated world. Once you establish a new game and character you’ll enter the map that you’ve generated and with your little starter boat you’ll find your way through figuring out the mechanics and progression the game offers. Little help tips at the top will pop up in lieu of being initiated through a tutorial. This may feel a bit cryptic at times depending on your ability to understand and find things with little direction as the help tips seem contextual and will change or pop up as you stumble across a new feature or thing it wants to tell you about.
While the maps are probably never the same, not much is unpredictable in the way the regions are laid out. To actually play the game you’ll visit a town, take up quests, complete the quest, then get more quests, and repeat the cycle. Quests usually fall in a couple of categories, such as killing pirates or traveling from Point A to Point B (which is what I named a couple of my towns). Quests can be framed differently (such as hunting down a pirate/defending a town) but the end result typically is a variation of those two main quest types. You’ll build up your resources and get equipment as you complete quests. You also build up XP which allows for the assigning of talent points that increases your ships stats at certain thresholds (essentially levels, but they’re not really framed that way). Selling the gear/random items you find is probably the fastest way to earn gold, but you can also dabble in trading cargo between towns — although that isn’t as straightforward as you would think as not every town is willing to accept all cargo. Quests and Cargo both take up cargo space, so it usually ends up being more worthwhile to take a Quest instead of spending money to buy Cargo. Depending on the faction you are in, you may fight against other factions (players and/or AI) who are vying for control of your region.
The first couple of hours I was in single-player mode, the grind became very prevalent. Once you “get” the point of the game, there’s not much left to really “do.” There is general game progression: leveling up towns by completing quests, and capturing/establishing new cities, and capturing zones until you ultimately capture everything in the map you’ve generated. The progression in single-player is very slow and that is purposeful because the game actually seems to be balanced for a multiplayer environment where there are a large group of players completing quests and upgrading towns instead of just one person doing all of the work. With that said, the game gets a lot more pleasant and less daunting if you play on an Internet server where you can find upwards of fifty people playing depending on which server you look at. Albeit they are typically spread out on the world map, you do interact with people using the chat system and can potentially coordinate zone takeovers/defense by following orders.
The character you make at the beginning of the game will carry through to any new Worlds you generate and can be used online as well. Your progression is saved locally, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were server settings that force a cloud save for your character, which may mean starting from scratch. You can also enter an Instance, which is separate from the main world you are currently playing in. In Instances you fight against pirates and capture towns in a completely fresh region, offering gear and rewards from doing so. Once you leave the instance, it disappears and will put you back into the persistent map you’ve been previously playing on. Moving through the World’s map requires you to gain talents as regions have a minimum requirement to enter. Being exposed to the multiplayer chat on a larger server, talent levels seem to extend past at least 100 and may extend as the game is updated.
The equipment in the game increases your stats, and generally improve your ship and abilities. Combat can be a strategy-laden ordeal depending on what you get yourself into and equipping the right gear will allow you to hit harder challenges and capture towns/towers faster. Most of the strategy comes from the way your ship is facing and making sure you keep within the firing arc to maximize your damage. The equipment is ship-themed, such as hull, sails, crew, and captain among other things. There are nice in-game customization items that change the look of your boat, as well. You can also upgrade by buying larger ships, which take a significant amount of gold. Apparently you can also get airships/blimps but it seems to take a very long time to get to that point. It also seems that more ships are currently being added from chatter in-game on the server I played on.
Visuals of the game are nice to look at, although you’ll mostly see the same stuff over and over. The game’s visuals all have an island/beach theme and you don’t see the art taking much of a varied approach to try different things. It would have been nice to see different tile sets for regions so everything in the game doesn’t look and feel exactly the same. The music in the game is very nice, but most of the tracks seem to be very short and loop quite often. Water also looks really nice and I can appreciate the quality of the visuals existing in the game considering its scope. Altering terrain is also an interesting aspect and you can make areas passable where they weren’t before. Combat is also visually pleasing, although it can be a bit funny to watch cannonballs bounce around like basketballs and then disappear.
Perhaps the worst part of the game comes from its user interface design and potential quality of life enhancements that aren’t included. My biggest problem is that the on-screen mini-map doesn’t display town-names, forcing you to open the larger map to see which town is which and how to plan out your quests better. The larger map is also not resizable, so you wouldn’t be able to have it open as you were moving around. I was also pining for an auto-travel or a way to constantly change direction of your ship without having to click down the whole time. Positively, your ship’s abilities are able to be re-bound on the fly by right-clicking them and then assigning a key which reduces any sort of option-hunting. The old-paper style of the UI is also very pleasant as it keeps with the naval theme and it’s more-or-less easy to tell if an item is an upgrade or not due to color-coding.
The most admirable aspect about Windward is that it is completely designed and programmed by a one-man developer. It also seems that regular updates are coming through, as my game has updated at least two or three times since I started playing. As far as a future update plan goes, nothing was currently readily available on the Steam Community that I could find. I personally experienced no game crashes or frame rate drops and had a very positive technical experience. The server I connected to a few times never dropped me and I was able to connect without much difficulty.
Windward is a nice, slow-paced experience that can definitely just be used as a time waster or a multitask while watching Netflix. If the theme resonates with you, you may enjoy it more than others, but the grindy progression system could be a potential turn-off. There’s no story and not even really an ultimate goal other than getting the best gear and ships, so the motivation to play is driven solely by progression in power level, which can easily get stale unless you get into the persistent PvP aspect of the game.
Windward is currently available on Steam for $14.99.
A reviewable copy of Windward was provided to Squackle.