It’s always an exciting moment in gaming when a unique genre comes to the forefront. There’s been a trend over the last few years towards games that focus on crafting. It started with a really ground-breaking game (it had something to do with Mining and Crafting, but you probably didn't hear about it). It was then followed by a slew of games inspired by the same concept (Terraria, Don’t Starve, Starbound, Rust, Epic Inventor - throw a rock at Kickstarter and you’ll likely hit another half a dozen). When I learned about another game that made use of this crafting mechanic, but which also combined it with a Contra-style shooting mechanic, it sounded to be a match made in heaven. Enter Windforge.
The crafting system - the springboard for most of the game - is pretty run-of-the-mill. It’s nothing you haven’t seen in something like Terraria. However, where this becomes a problem is that Windforge doesn’t have as plentiful or available resources as Terraria. For example, say I’m playing Terraria and I need copper. I’d simply go to a mine, and if for some reason I don’t have a mine or there’s not one close by, I could just start digging on the spot and there’s a pretty good chance that I would run into either A) a copper vein or B) a series of caverns from which I can burrow deeper into the earth and perhaps find the copper. In Windforge, the whole game world consists of a series of islands in the sky. This means that if you need copper and you just start digging away, then you run a pretty good chance of digging through to the other side of the island and potential falling to your doom.
Furthermore, even if you're just looking for a copper vein in the rock, for example, you'll never know if you're getting close to one or not until you actually bump into it, because Windforge uses a tricky line of site system where everything looks homogeneous until you burrow into it. This mechanic is actually kind of neat when you’re pushing your way through a dungeon, but when you’re looking for resources in the ground it just makes life miserable.
As for the 'Contra-style' combat; the shooting controls are not as intuitive as you might like. You move with traditional WASD controls and you shoot with the mouse. This works great if you’re standing still, but if you’re getting shot at, you’ll want to jump and dodge and move around. However, if you jump, the whole screen moves, which throws your aim off. You'll move the mouse to correct your aim mid-jump, but that will usually cause you to over-correct. It eventually got to the point where in order to ensure that I would hit my target I would either have to be within point-blank range or resolve myself to taking some hits. This makes Windforge's dungeons nearly unbearable.
As an avid and life-long RPG player, I love expansive, developed worlds that allow you to get caught up in exploring. With Windforge, however, I didn’t feel like I had been given a massive and varied playground to explore; I felt more like I’d been dropped in a desert and told to trudge my way across it. The world of Windforge is divided up into 3 Zones, with each Zone being divided up into roughly 30 sectors. Each sector looks just like the last - same background, same enemies, and the same islands. And each sector takes around a minute to cross, although if you're going full speed you can make it in 20 seconds, but then the odds are pretty good that once you change over to the next sector you'll slam into an island that you have no way to prepare for (this happened to me more often than not). The repetitiveness is made all the more grating thanks to the apparent lack of fast-travel.
The dungeons are an extension of this: massive dungeons that seem to go on forever, all the while looking identical. They're packed with more of the enemies that you've already been battling as well as massive, devastating turrets. The turrets feel like they've been added in order to play up to the title's Contra leanings but they take an awful lot of ammo to destroy and, especially early in the game, hit really hard. What I ended up doing more often than not was trying to drill into the wall behind them and hit them with my jackhammer, thus making them explode without giving them a chance to hit me. That does bring me to a positive aspect of the game's design - the walls of the dungeons are made of natural stone, so it’s possible (and even sometimes necessary) to drill through the walls of dungeons, which plays with the classical notion of “clearing out a dungeon.”
Windforge's dungeons feature boss battles. The first boss that I encountered was a massive demon hovering in a room so large that when I dropped through the ceiling I immediately fell to my death.
–Load my last Save-
This time I lower myself into the room using my grappling hook, find a ledge I can stand on, and start shooting the Demon. He’s strong enough that he kills me pretty handily without appearing to take too much damage and I notice that he can ram through the walls of the dungeon. Interesting.
–Load my last save-
This time I’m ready; I open his room, goad him into a fight, and start fleeing my way back through the dungeon. I hit a dead end and, before I can drill a hole in the wall I wind up dead.
–Load my last save-
This time I cut myself a loose escape route before I start the fight so that once I call the demon out I have a dedicated route to take. I still die - multiple times - but I finally have a plan that seems like it's eventually going to work. After about five more attempts I finally kill the boss and grab the tablet. Nice. However, now the temple starts falling down around me. Chunks are falling from the ceiling and the walls are turning to sand, making them harder to drill through or grapple hook onto. I die pretty swiftly.
–Load my last save-
So I decide that I need to beat the boss near a persistent piece of earth that won’t crumble. After another five or so tries I accomplish this, and as the temple crumbles, I grapple my way to the top of the right-side of a cliff face. The problem with that is that I had previously parked my ship on the left side of the temple, so I’m stuck half a sector away from my ship with a crumbling temple in my way. I don’t think I can make it across, but I try anyway, and curse myself for being right.
-Load my last save-
So not only do I need to be near the edge of the temple - I need to be near the left edge of the temple in order to get out of this unscathed. I eventually manage to pull this off, but the tablet ended up landing just inside the dungeon.
-Load my last save-
Same plan as before, except this time, by the time I reach the entrance of the dungeon, I haven’t yet killed the Demon. I keep firing shots at him as I head towards my ship, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing because my ship has a big machine gun mounted to the side of it which is much bigger than the one I’m carrying. I get into the ship and start firing at him, but he does enough damage to my ship that he pops my zeppelin balloon and I start to drop rapidly. I have a repair wrench that I can use to repair said balloon and the rest of my ship, but when I disengage the ship’s control panel, I fly out of the open door and fall 3 whole sectors to my death (which meant roughly 30 seconds of watching myself plummet). But hey, at least I got an achievement for it.
-Load my last save-
I actually prefer the plan of finishing him off with my ship because of the ship’s big gun, so this time once he starts chasing my ship I start hovering at the very left edge of the sector so that I can leave the sector the boss is in and fix my ship if I need to. Over 90 minutes after I first saw the beast and 3 rounds of cheap, mid-fight ship repair, I finally manage to kill the demon, grab the tablet, and escape with my life intact.
Some will read that story and call it an epic encounter with a mighty foe. I call it frustrating and a waste of time. It took me roughly an entire day of gaming to get through the first dungeon and over 90 minutes to kill the first boss. Windforge stopped being fun and became tedious very quickly. I could delve into the narrative regarding the shortage of whale oil in the game's universe, or the massive blue whales that swim around in the sky for you to either fight or tame, but neither of those elements saved the game for me.
Windforge is fraught with design flaws, from an auto-save system which has no rhyme or reason to floor hatches and stairs that are, in and of themselves, an annoyance to negotiate. Old school video game design - where the player's hand is not held and you are made responsible for your own mistakes in a deadly, almost frustrating fashion - this is not; it is simply poor game design.
This review is based on a digital copy of Windforge for the PC, provided by the publisher.