Commandeering the open sea has long been the template for a seemingly great game. With areas to explore, deals to make, conversations to be had, and combat to engage in, it lends itself well to the mechanics and setup we like to see in games today.
Windward takes this idea and twists it in some interesting ways by making it more of a quasi-management sim than an adventure quest. While it has a number of impressive traits, it ultimately focuses more on the in-depth technicalities of its systems than delivering on any excitement or tension.
As a ship captain, you’re basically responsible for keeping the peace and spreading your reign over a number of different locations. This is done through trade, completing quests, and capturing cities. The more you trade and the more successful you become, the greater increase you’ll see in the size and scope of your different cities. Additionally, fellow NPCs will eventually follow you as you increase your rank as the ship’s leader, and upgrades can be applied to your ship to make it more durable in combat.
There’s a lot to dig through in Windward’s progression. Which is good, except it seems to get so caught up in its different mechanics that it becomes a bit more tedious than perhaps it could be. A bulk of the game consists of staring at trade screens, deciding what to sell, buy, or trade with different towns. Quests can be taken, but they largely consist of delivering items or people to another port or making trade/purchase decisions.
The ultimate loop of gameplay often drags because of two factors; one, it’s slow and plodding, as it apes the movement physics of a massive ship. Two, it doesn’t seem to deviate very often from merely traveling back and forth along coastlines.
Its procedurally-generated map does make for an interesting change. Having an all-new, completely unfamiliar landscape to traverse gives exploration an interesting edge, and difficulty gradually ramps up the challenge throughout.
Windward is more of a management game centered on the economics of cities than it is the adventure and exploration game so many have called for. There are elements of each, but they’re diluted to the point that they don’t feel interesting or engaging beyond their first two seconds.
Of course, it is still an Early Access game whose alpha is far and away more impressive, beautiful, and technically sound than so many others in Steam’s preview program. The realistic water effects showing the movement of a candy blue ocean contrasted by a brilliant white beach and lush vegetation gives Windward a very calming, tranquil feel, particularly as you sail around the map. While they seem tedious, the trade systems and mechanics have clearly been very well thought out and considered, with each of them integrating and tying themselves in nicely with each other. Music is light and airy, sound effects mix nicely with the action, and the casual greetings of fellow NPCs in your fleet make Windward feel more like a pleasant walk in the park on a mild summer day than a high seas adventure. Since it is not a finished product, there is room for changes to be made and fixes to be implemented. Currently, Windward is an interesting game whose ideas seem grander and more interesting than their actual implementation.