Hands-on with Windborne's early access

Screenshot -- Windborne

The breakout success of Minecraft has inspired a slew of creative sandbox games since its release in 2011, and the trend has shown no signs of dying down given the ever-increasing number of sandbox titles hitting the market. Hidden Path Entertainment's in-development title Windborne is certainly one such game, and at first glance one might be tempted to write it off as a clone of Mojang's golden child, but that would be more than a little disingenuous.

The folks at Hidden Path were generous enough to provide me with a key to get some hands-on experience with Windborne, but I'd like to make special mention of the fact that the game is currently part of Steam's Early Release program, which of course means that it's still unfinished and under constant development. With that in mind, I dived into Windborne's world of mystical floating islands, and I've got more than a few thoughts about the game, where it's going, and where it needs to be.

Let me start with a disclaimer to try to keep from angering anyone later down the line: As I said, Windborne is still in-development, and though I may comment on polish issues like bugs simply to paint a clear picture of the state of the game, don't tally that as a point against it; bugs are expected, after all. That said, let's get to the game.

The most immediately noticeable detail of Windborne, to someone who has spent plenty of time in a number of voxel sandboxes, is the distinct lack of 90-degree angles in the terrain. Though the world is still technically comprised of hundreds of cubes, Windborne's cubes are rather flexible, allowing for more organic-looking environments, such as wavy sand dunes and rolling hills alongside craggy mountains and sheer cliff faces, and the results are much more aesthetically pleasing to me than the usual hodgepodge of perfect cubes common to the genre.

Unfortunately, the current build of the game is rather limited in terms of island creation. The only size available is "small," and there are only three biomes available: grassland, desert, and forest. I'm not certain if more biomes are planned, but I hope to see at least a few more. I'm also not sure that I'm a fan of the way each biome is so starkly defined. On the one hand, it does lend somewhat to the fantastical atmosphere of the game, but on the other, it's a bit boring that each island contains exactly one of each biome (at least of all the islands I've seen so far), with each segregated into its own little corner of the island.

Screenshot -- Windborne

The core gameplay, as it stands, is fairly standard creative-sandbox-game fare: harvest blocks to gather resources, refine resources into materials, craft materials into items, use items to build cool things. While many similar titles require players to craft tools in order to effectively harvest resources,

Windborne players gather blocks through the power of mystical tattoo magic or something like that. You point your hand at something, it glows for a bit, the block goes pop, and the resources are yours.

I'm not sure that I like this method very much, frankly. A lack of upgradable gathering tools means that it will never get any faster, and removing each block one-by-one at the current speed gets tedious quickly. I'd really appreciate a way to either increase gathering speed or increase the area of blocks that can be removed at one time.

On top of that, if you happen to release the harvest button (RMB by default) too early, you have to go through the entire gathering process again, rather than it picking up where you left off. It's not a big deal, in the grand scheme of things, but I wouldn't mind seeing it changed. And though it's a minor gripe, resources from destroyed blocks drop in little bubbles that seem to be largely frictionless and subject to their own laws of physics. Having to chase after a precious resource that sprung from the block like a horse out of the starting gate is not terribly fun.

Once you've gathered your resources, you'll need two things: a stove and a shaper. The stove is essentially a furnace, powered by fuel (such as wood or coal) that melts anything that needs melting. A shaper is an all-purpose machine used to chop wood into sticks, shape raw gems into precious jewels, or cut stone into bricks. When refining resources, each item created -- say, each marble brick cut from raw marble -- can be common, fine, or superb, which is essentially a rarity scale. Common items are common (obviously), fine ones are uncommon, and superb ones are rare.

Some crafting recipes require materials of a specific quality, but thankfully you're not wholly at the mercy of the RNG when it comes to acquiring resources of the quality you need. Once you refine an item of a certain quality for the first time, you're granted a recipe that allows you to make one item of that quality using five items of the next lowest quality. For instance, once you refine a fine granite brick, you gain a recipe to create a fine granite brick using five common granite bricks, and likewise for a superb granite brick using five fine ones.

Fine and superb quality resources can also be tossed back in the shaper to produce three resources of the next lowest quality. Unfortunately, the tutorial quests never mentioned that bit, so I spent a good deal of time frustrated that I was getting so many fine and superb bricks when I needed common ones before I had the bright idea to stick the superb bricks in the shaper and see what happened.

Screenshot -- Windborne

Crafting, as mentioned above, is done through the use of recipes, which can be earned in three different ways. New recipes can be acquired as rewards for completing tutorial quests, found in relic chests scattered across the island, and received from the fairy-like Jin in exchange for your handcrafted items. The recipe selection, even in these early stages of the game, is fairly impressive. In addition to common items like bricks, players can also earn recipes from four architectural styles, each with its own distinct aesthetic. Within each style, players can choose from a wide variety of construction materials and décor ranging from foundations, walls, and roofs to banners, chairs, and mailboxes. While it could never hurt to add more styles to the game, the current array is nothing to scoff at.

Three of the four craftable item styles also require access to one of three different shrines. While items from the most basic style (stone) require no shrine to create, items from the desert set require a desert shrine, the Highborn set requires a Highborn shrine, and the runestone set, unsurprisingly, requires a runestone shrine. Each island begins with a common Highborn shrine at the spawn point, but common desert and runestone shrines must be found in the desert and forest, respectively. Each shrine can then be upgraded from common to fine and from fine to superb. Higher-quality items, naturally, can only be crafted at higher-quality shrines.

Shrine upgrading and recipe collecting are the only real forms of vertical progression currently present in the game, and while it's not exactly laborious to find and upgrade the shrines, the wide range of recipes provides something to strive to acquire. Though additional progression paths are planned for future addition (combat and more quests, to name a couple), Windborne is plenty fun as a straightforward creative sandbox without them.

Screenshot -- Windborne

Despite the collect-'em-all nature of crafting recipes and the wide variety of neat things to create, crafting is also the one area with which I have a major issue. It's a simple issue, but a major one nonetheless: There's no way to craft multiple items at once. Instead you either have to click the craft button over and over until you've eventually made as many items as you need or count your mouse clicks until you've reached the desired amount. While multiple clicks do queue up additional items to be crafted, the counter is constantly counting down as you do so, making it very confusing to keep track of how many items you've queued. The fix is simple: Just allow players to select the amount they want and then click craft. I'd be surprised if it's not in the works as we speak.

And finally, as far as construction is concerned, things feel fairly solid save for a few quirks. Specifically, items that are supposed to align to one another (such as fences, rooftops, etc.) don't always connect in the way you'd expect them to. Usually it's a simple matter of manually rotating the piece in question, but sometimes it gets truly weird. Block placement can be a bit tricky as well, but it never seriously detracted from the enjoyment of constructing my humble little buildings. I know I'm no architect, but at least try to stifle your laughter please.

After all that resource gathering and construction work, your beautiful land will likely be marred by the blocky scars of constant mining. Thankfully, Windborne provides a few land-shaping tools to help keep your island paradise from becoming some sort of cubist hellscape. Players can raise, lower, and flatten land to return it to a more natural state.

However, the terraforming tools seem unpolished, and blocks don't always react in the way you might expect them to, like the raise and lower tools causing blocks to become wider or narrower rather than taller or shorter. This can result in truly bizarre geometric glitches that would give Picasso nightmares. When the tools work as advertised, though, which is honestly more often than not, it's very useful for covering up the evidence of my heartless devastation of the environment (or flattening out land for my next construction project). It would also be helpful to be able to raise, lower, and flatten large areas of land at once. Doing it one block at a time is just too much hassle for anything but the smallest issues.

The only other qualms I have with Windborne at the moment don't fit neatly into any of the above categories, so I'll just throw them out here. First off, I have found no way to actually destroy items. I tried throwing them off the edge of the island into the abyss below, but they just pop back into my inventory a few minutes later. I tried digging a really deep hole and then tossing them into it, only to have them float back to the surface and bobble around accusingly. It's like a horror movie where no matter how many times the chump throw away the cursed book the creepy villain gave him, it keeps showing up again.

Secondly, some kind of waypoint system would be awesome. As it stands, players are able to recall to their original spawn point at any time, but since the spawn point is always in the middle of the grassland biome, those who want to make their homes in the desert or forest can look forward to a lot of jogging. Being able to move the dragon stone (which acts as the island's spawn point) would be remarkably convenient for setting up shop in hard-to-reach locales.

Screenshot -- Windborne

Overall, my time with Windborne left me with the impression that it's shaping up quite well, but in all honesty, I think many of the planned features for the game will change its entire dynamic, and it's obviously too early to tell how that will pan out. As Early Access games go, however, Windborne seems to be set upon a fairly solid foundation. While patching up some of the quality-of-life issues and squashing a few bugs would certainly improve the game as it is, its future success is largely dependent on what the folks at Hidden Path decide to build upon the foundation that they've laid out. If you're in the market for a new creative sandbox to kill some time, you could do worse than picking up a copy of Windborne, but if it's the game's more advanced features (interaction with the Jin and dragon breeding, for example) that pique your interest, it might be best to hold onto your cash just a bit longer.

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