The act of sailing is, more often than not, a calming experience containing occasional bouts of excitement. There's no part of drifting on open water that really gets your heart pumping, just like there's no part of keeping your ship afloat during a storm that will grant serenity. I mean, unless you count drowning. Windward, a game specifically about sailing, matches its subject quite well. When you find yourself in the midst of a massive, six-ship brawl with a friend by your side, the thrill is overwhelming to the point that nothing else can grasp your attention. Outside of those instances, though, the game is equal parts calm and soothing, if mildly repetitive.
For a game priced at $14.99, Windward does a fantastic job of getting the most out of its engine. The ocean feels crisp and active, and the island vegetation feels appropriately lush or barren. In combat, your ships and cannonades seem to have weight and impact. As the wind tosses your sails from side to side or blows away a cloud of poison gas, you get the feeling that you are in an active world. Unfortunately, that’s where the game’s vitality ends. There is very little to indicate that the ports or the islands that house them are harboring any actual inhabitants, making you wonder if you've survived some sort of apocalypse that wiped out everyone but the sailors. The game's soundtrack harmonizes with this feeling. It’s a technically sound product that hurts from repetition or lack of variation, occasionally making the entire world feel devoid of life.
Let's address something before we move on: Windward as a game appears to be built from the ground up for co-op. An option for solo adventuring exists, but given the repeatable nature of the questing and lack of any real story, it's hard for me to imagine myself getting very invested in that area of the game. Your time in the game is split between seizing territories from your opponents' control (be they pirates or enemy factions) and running quests in peaceful territories to attain the experience points necessary to advance. Of course, the two experiences will occasionally blend together: the traditionally peaceful quests will sometimes guide you into combat, and pirates will crop up from time to time to damper your peaceful cargo trading business. To a large degree, though, these two acts are done independently, which gives the game a nice flow.
Where the game falters significantly is in the length of these sequences. Too often, I found myself lazily ambling across uncontested waters as I waited for the various quests, trade routes, and random loot to push me across the experience threshold needed to access the next territory. Unfortunately, the game opens in the downswing of this flow, and were it not for the presence of my co-op partner, I can’t say I’d have the desire to move much further.
To compound the game’s frustrating start, Windward does little in the way of intuitive explanation. There’s not an overwhelming amount of mechanics to grasp, mind, but the time you spend in the first two or three zones will involve a good deal of you trying to find out how the game’s different cogs interact. As we’ve learned through the Souls series, this has the potential to be right up some people’s alley, but it’s worth mentioning for those that have little time for pondering.
Luckily, the co-op game play is well worth the struggle. A quick co-op overview is in order. You and your partner(s) each control individual ships, free to roam the game world as you choose. Should you be of a mind to engage with your fellow captains (which, I mean, it’s a co-op game, so yeah), you’ll be sailing/soaring/boating in tandem from town to town, fighting pirates, solving quests, and trading cargo all the while. In doing so, you’re constantly upgrading the different sections of your ship and gaining experience to invest into talents, whose benefits are split between passive perks and active abilities. These will usually affect your combat prowess, though a few upgrades are more esoteric. Ship-to-ship combat can range from a slight annoyance to an adrenaline-fueled brawl. Early in the game, it amounts to little more than you and your opponent circling each other until one of your ships decides it’s done being a ship and would much rather live out the remainder of its days as a floating pile of detritus. Adding more opponents, teammates (both human and AI), and abilities do much to give the combat system depth and longevity.
The excitement offered by Windward reaches its absolute peak the moment you enter a new territory awash with pirates or enemy factions. As soon as you set foot (or aft, or what have you) in these waters, you and your partners are scrambling to seize any sort of foothold possible from your bloodthirsty foes. From there, your empire slowly expands through buildable lighthouses and sentry towers. In these segments, I found myself and my co-op partner employing all sorts of defensive hit-and-run tactics to weaken the enemy as we pushed for a ruinous strike. Unfortunately, these tense, exciting segments make their peaceful opposites seem that much more inconsequential and a tad long-winded. Perhaps this speaks to the game’s strength, but I found myself wishing for a bit less time spent running quests and trading cargo in return for more pirate massacre.
Windward is a bit of a tough one. Were it an exclusively single player experience, well, I wouldn’t be reviewing it, but I also wouldn’t find a great deal of motivation to push me beyond the game’s first couple zones. The combination of solid co-op gameplay and action-packed, multiship battles serve to make the game well worth pushing into despite its plodding start. At a $14.99 price point, it’s hard to argue against dedicating an evening or more to the game and seeing if it’s for you. Should you be a tad more adventuresome, the Steam version of the game sports a 4-pack that’ll allow you and three friends to set sail for a reduced overall price. If you’re willing to plow through a slow introduction, obtuse knowledge transfer, and misaligned gameplay flow, Windward is a fantastic game that’ll see you and your friends engaged in tense combat on the high seas for many hours.
Oh, also you can name your own towns.
Take of that what you will.