There’s an old adage in sports journalism that goes, “No cheering in the press box.” It means that no matter how much you’re rooting for one team or outcome, you must remain neutral as a member of the press.
Reviewing Windforge has been my cheering-in-the-press-box moment because I’ve been eagerly awaiting its release since I first found its Kickstarter page that promised a Contra-meets-Minecraft building-block RPG. It had Steampunk aesthetics and flying whales and shipbuilding – the description basically read like a checklist of my most-wanted gaming features.
I didn’t come into Windforge as a passive reviewer, I came in wanting to love the heck out of it and champion it as the next can’t-miss indie smash hit. And that makes writing this review all the harder, because for all of its promise and potential, Windforge has a lot of issues.
On its surface, Windforge is an easy game to love. It’s a 2D-style crafting game similar to Terraria, but with gorgeous graphics and a greater focus on narrative to help drive your exploration. In an era when so many indie games are going the 8-bit nostalgia route, it’s refreshing to see a studio go all-out with their art style, and the visuals are one of the game’s biggest selling points along with its wonderful soundtrack.
But for as good as Windforge looks and sounds, problems arose almost as soon as I took control of my custom-created character. The first thing I tried to do was examine my ship’s engines and I got kicked back to my desktop. Twenty minutes later I died by walking into my ship’s propeller and chose the option to be spawned in town and got kicked back to the desktop. The latest patch that I auto-downloaded nuked my manual save file (guess where I got kicked when I tried to load it?), forcing me to load from an earlier autosave instead. From then on I saved nervously every couple of minutes just in case I hit another glitch, and that’s something no gamer wants to deal with.
Patches will surely serve to even out some of these glitches (I’ve seen multiple updates being pushed through both pre- and post-launch), but even when Windforge is running smoothly from a technical standpoint, the gameplay still hits its fair share of rough patches. Your on-foot character feels like you’re controlling a mini airship rather than a person, making even basic navigation a chore. The best way I can describe it is ‘floaty,’ and your character glides at such speeds that I actually started to get a headache after extended sessions from the detailed scenery rushing by. Jumping onto the back of a flying whale and blasting away until it crashes to the ground below should be great fun, but more times than not I felt like I was battling the controls as much as my enemies.
Crafting and building – the other half of this Contra–Minecraft marriage – also comes with its set of frustrations. Everything can be broken down and mined for elements in Windforge, but the tradeoff of the beautiful graphics style is that element blocks are not as clearly defined as they are in other mining games. That makes mining feel imprecise, like you’re waving your mouse at a cluster of ground that’s producing blocks rather than selecting each individual block to mine. Building also felt clumsy, and trying to get turrets and propellers to ‘stick’ to the right spot of my airship was unnecessarily touchy.
Of course, you need to explore in order to mine resources, and Windforge pulls no punches early. You’ll be under constant assault from winged monsters and human enemies as your underpowered airship scurries from one floating island to the next, and often times I found it best to just put my head down and run to the next objective rather than deal with the constant assault as I scrapped for resources.
It’s too bad, because there is a framework to a good game in Windforge, and one that will hopefully emerge as Snowed In Studios continues to patch and tweak it. But right now that good game is stymied by bugs and a general lack of polish. The soundtrack and art style are both some of the best in the indie gaming scene, but those ultimately feel like a shiny coat of paint on a house with some serious structural flaws.
Windforge PC Video Game Review | Snowed In Studios | March 11, 2014
(This game was reviewed with a download code provided by the publisher)
(Cameron Gidari is a freelance writer and the author of Manhattan Before8 and Seattle Before8. Follow him on Twitter at @CGidari)