By Craig Pearson on March 11th, 2014 at 1:00 pm.
Windforge is an action adventure with a broadly familiar frame: like Starbound and Terraria it’s a 2D explora-ma-jig in a wholly destructible world, though Starbound’s futurism and Terraria’s hyper-nonsense has been replaced with a Verne-esque tale of flying whales and balloon-based battles in the sky. The question is: did it fulfill its porpoise, or did it make me blubber and wail? Here’s Wot I Think.
I’m a menu fiddler. I don’t start games without first heading into the options screen and giving the game a few friendly tweaks (and if you start the game before allowing me to do that, you make the list). I can spend ten minutes in there, happily fumbling at the anti-aliasing options, controls, and setting the music level to silent. I couldn’t do that with Windforge, though: you can change the resolution, the audio levels, and collect a backer reward, but everything else is hidden away. It’s sadly typical of this half-baked action adventure.
In Windforge, you’re basically a secret agent on the hunt for a sustainable source of energy, looking for a new way to power your society that lives in the sky and uses the blubber of a dwindling number of flying whales as a fuel source. You’re hunting myths and secrets in a sky ship, through a Starbound-esque mineable world. You can shape your ship, adding to a frame rather than completely building one of your own, and dig for materials. But there are usability problems at every step.
I don’t mind learning by doing, but a lot of the time Windforge blindfolds you and spins you around a few times: one of the first challenges sends you off to hunt down iron ore with no notion of what that ore looks like, hidden in the messy, ugly, repeating backdrops that’re used to fog areas. The ore in this instance was just a tad darker than the surrounding rock, and my fumbling around for a slightly different looking texture is a perfect microcosm of Windforge’s aimless design: later on you’re told to talk to an NPC, but as soon as you’re vaguely close the direction marker fades out, leaving you to find someone in a town full of people who don’t have name tags. You awkwardly leap around this strange town, looking for a lady with no explanation of what she looks like.
She’ll send you off on the hunt through interminable temples, hunting for treasure that exists simply to drag you to the far corners of the map. They’re not fun places to be: most are tedious, baffling temples, full of jumping puzzles twinned with security measures that blast shaped plasma. In some instances, particularly when there are multiple security nodules, that plasma is almost impossible to dodge. It’s just confusingly punishing and feels like there was little to no Q&A for balance. I suspected this before I got to the first boss fight, and as I fought off a tooled-up gimp that could float and fire in every direction, it became obvious this is a game that needed lots and lots of fresh eyes on it. All I had was a pistol. There’s a whole flipside to this frustration: when you’re flying around in your ship, any damage you incur is essentially meaningless. You have a gun that fixes everything, and all you need to do is waggle it over a hole or a smoking piece of equipment and it magically and almost immediately reforms and at no cost to you.
It’s just bafflingly unbalanced in all kinds of ways: one set-piece has you stripped of everything and locked in a room with a hole out into the sky. The only way is down. So I leapt, and imagined myself clinging onto the back of a whale as it takes me to safety, riding a majestic creature and admiring how the game’s themes cleverly came together… and then I landed on a rock and the game told me to make my way to the main town. Okay, how would I do that? I didn’t have anything to mine with, so I couldn’t build anything. And then a bandit attacked. I briefly thought that I might be able to kill him and steal his balloon, but as is the case if you’re unarmoured, unarmed, and fighting a huge ship, I died. When you die you’re giving the option to resurrect at the town. I already knew that clicking it would resolve this little scenario, and it wasn’t the first time that I’d died and been fast-tracked to the next part of the game.
I’d hoped to explore a little, but you’re attacked at almost every opportunity, meaning you can’t just float up to an island and get off: you have to fight off the creatures and sky-pirates. The combat is at least a bit interesting. The creatures are annoying, but the ships are frames to which you add powers, weapons, and engines, and you’re allowed to be a bit creative with it: the engine blades can kill, and it is possible to use them like a blender. They are also breakable, as are the engines and guns, which adds a little bit of tactical slickness to some of the fights, enabling you to cripple an enemy ship for shits and giggles, and point and laugh as your aggressor resorts to firing handheld weapons at you.
You could just run away, because the world isn’t entirely open: it’s split into chunks, and those chunks are impenetrable barriers to enemies and whales. I’ve tested this out by taking my ship and ramming another all the way to the edge of the section, pushing the crumbling, burning wreck with the prow of my own. I appeared after a brief loading tick, but the little ship I’d hoped to force through was gone. I’ve had fights slice in two thanks to that little feature.
It’s a huge shame, because turning the sky into the sea is the smartest idea Windforge has: enemy airships slip through the clouds and the floating islands, almost always attacking you on sight; whales passively scull through the skies, ignoring you if you ignore them, and spasmodically flailing if you take them on. The whales are the game’s Big Daddy: docile if left alone, but angry and powerful if attacked. The interaction between the player, the sky pirates, and the whales is the best thing about Windforge: you can goad all the sides into a fight, and firing a grappling hook and swinging into a hole in the side of another of your ships as a whale rams you both is sort of thrilling, even if the whales are animated with lurching twists that almost removes their sense of scale and wonder. But none of it matters: such a battle rightly leaves you broken, holes punched in the frame of your ship, limping along trailing smoke. Better get out the gun that fixes it all.
If only that gun could fix the game. I died a few times at the start of the game without being attacked, and it took me a while to realise that the blades of the propellers I’d fitted were invisibly killing me. I couldn’t see them, but my character was wandering into them. I’d use it on that. I refitted them, fighting a psuedo-3D effect that slightly masked where I was intending to remodel things. I’d use it on that. I’d use it on the awful inventory that reminds me of Oblivion’s in how it favours form over usability, with vast, scrolling pages of randomly ordered items. They can be sorted into categories, but that’s it. You can’t even alphabetise it.
It’s such a shame. I was hugely excited about Windforge, but it feels like a game that’s not had enough critical eyes on it during development. It’s awkward, it’s unbalanced, and there’s a sense of resignation in the exploration that saps the joy out of it.
Windforge is out on Steam today.