Windward is a game I’ve been struggling with for a few days now, both in the abstract and in the literal. In essence, it’s a sandbox RPG in which you control a ship on the high seas while fighting pirates and trying to help one of four factions to dominate a randomly generated map. You would be forgiven for thinking it’s a simple game, then.
Windward is one of the best kinds of games; one with a rich subset or core systems, cleverly disguised by their easily digested delivery. Thinking back on a game like FTL, it was never difficult to familiarize myself with, even though it is rich in clever mechanics. Windward is a gem that does many of the same things right.
Tasharen Entertainment has struck a gold mine of nostalgia within me. The notion of playing as an underwhelming, relatively ineffectual single ship within a larger world, all while multiple factions battle it out in a larger 4X strategy-style meta game is immediately familiar to anyone who’s played games like Drox Operative or Space Rangers. I positively adore games in which the player is not the be-all end-all to the game world, instead being just one of many cogs in a larger machine, helping others of a chosen faction to “win” the game. Of course, like any great game of the type, you are free to switch allegiance during your adventures, even opting to side with the pirates if you see fit.
In essence, the objective of Windward is map domination. A world is randomly generated at game start, and you must help reclaim it from pirates and competing factions in the name of your flag. All the while, you will earn experience, gain new abilities, purchase new ships, equipment and crew. You will inevitably complete quests for your faction, trade resources between port cities, establish new cities and defenses, conquer pirate-held ports, attempt to fend off pirate invasions, and generally have a blast with the fast-paced and frantic combat in the game.
As stated above, you are never a hero in the world of Windward. To the contrary, you will often feel at a disadvantage against pirates, and particularly against their numerical supremacy. This forces clever mastering of your ship’s strengths and weaknesses. Will you favour a light corvette and her hit-and-run tactics, or the massive ship-of-the-line and opt for unparalleled ability to stand and fight? These choices are all supported by the equipment and crew members you will come across. Will you focus on short-range broadsides, long-range harassment, penetration, raw damage, accuracy, or critical ability? More durable sails, or a stronger hull? Perhaps diplomacy is your route, affording you better trade prices and a chance to ignore pirates entirely. These all become even more relevant within the incredibly entertaining multiplayer, as team tactics will make everyone’s life easier and more enjoyable.
Where I struggle with Windward is that it’s not a particularly refined game. After a while, it feels like different zones are more of a gear check than a unique challenge, and constant and frustratingly challenging pirate invasions are inevitable unless you hold all cities in all neighbouring territories. I’ve also invested a few dozen hours on the fastest paced setting on offer, and have yet to dominate my first map for my faction, which leaves much room for improvement when it comes to the overall pacing of the game. Even with combat damage at 200% for both friendlies and enemies to speed up the gameplay, taking just a single zone can sometimes take several hours. Here’s the thing, though, I haven’t actually felt the tedium yet. Desperately fighting tooth-and-nail to capture and hold a zone is just as exhilarating as it was on day one. Frankly, I think that’s quite a clever trick for Tasharen Entertainment to have pulled off. Many a time in the last few days have I looked up to realize it was tomorrow. That, to me, says more than any review ever could.