REVIEW: Windlands 2 (VR)

A cross between Spider-man and Horizon: Zero Dawn, with Saturday morning cartoon graphics and a steep difficulty curve

Author: Avatario
Steam: Released
Type: Single-player
Genre: Virtual Reality, Action, Co-Op,
Leaderboard, Single-player, Adventure
Developer: Psytec Games Ltd
Publisher: Psytec Games Ltd
Release date: 15 Nov, 2018

Intro – “Let my spirit carry me”

Windlands 2 is a title I was very excited to get into, so I jumped right into the game the moment I got it. I intentionally didn’t write an intro as wanted it to be neutral and unbiased, so here is the basic info from the mouths of the developers:

A first person grappling hook exploration game. Return to the world of Windlands, alone or with friends. Armed with grappling hooks and a bow, soar through the ruins of a fallen world. Embark on a journey to destroy the gigantic titans and save the world from an ancient danger.

– Grappling hooks focused locomotion with parkour platforming.
– Variety of expansive areas that reward exploration.
– Single player or up to four player Co-Op.
– New Bow Weapon to use alongside the hooks in epic titan battles.
– Fully voiced storyline with NPCs and world events.
– Full Original Soundtrack
– Optional skill based Speed Run Races and collection challenges with Leaderboards.
– Multiple advanced modes, including “no hooks”, “one life” and “hook anything”.
– Collectables, Easter Eggs and Achievements.
– Support for Knuckles Controllers

Story – “There’s a playground in the middle of the highway”

Windlands 2 is very much a story-driven game with a fairly long campaign.

The first few minutes introduce you to the world in a cinematic pop-up book kind of style:
It explains there is an ancient evil force that was sealed away, though remnants remain. While your people have been prosperous during the time of peace, the machines have begun to awaken and fight back.

Once you control your character, you start in a small sailboat, sailing the sand-flows of the world, with quicksand for the world’s oceans. You run into the first of many NPCs and are informed of the tasks to be completed in order to progress.

Things move quickly and while the story element is always present, it doesn’t throat-gag you with unnecessary garbage or long cut-scenes.

Character interaction is mostly limited to long-range radio communications, with the occasional face-to-face exchange; an example is after defeating the first boss… your mentor shows up and jet-packs you to the beginning of the map. The next time is when you meet the token “Techie chick

At the time of writing the first patch was applied and the first boss was nurfed to make it slightly easier, I had already beaten it and did not feel it was too difficult, though it does show that Psytec Games is listening to the fan base and adjusting the game to best suit the player-bases wishes.

There are many types of environments and locations in the game, and these actually have a rather meaningful impact on gameplay. Below is a map of the world provided as concept art, as you can see there are many places to visit, with each taking several hours to complete; the forest, village, and ruins were 2.5-4 hours, but keep in mind your skill level and dedication to tracking down hidden artifacts will determine the amount of time spent.

Characters have their names displayed above their heads and have spoken dialog. The NPCs mouths do not move during speech which can be distracting and does negatively affect how much emotional investment can be felt. Its a shame as the colorful and interesting visuals are otherwise fantastic and the characters suffered the most.

The “X” Factor – “Tourist trapped in Ipanema quicksands”

The original Windlands felt like a beta or starting point to a game, with little to do. However, the swinging mechanic alone was great and provided a new way to explore a virtual world. Obviously, many agreed as they had high enough sales to warrant a sequel.

From the very outset Windlands 2 establishes the swing mechanic and it has been really fine-tuned. Though still not perfect, it is quite amazing and there is nothing else like it in terms of wow factor. The first time you launch a hundred feet above a boss and take out 2-3 shields, then grapple and swing past it in a flurry of grab and release combos to next swing up to a vantage point and pummel it again is unlike anything else on the Steam store, VR or not.

Technical issues & Glitches – “I’d fly above the trees”

Not many glitches to mention, the developers have been informed by the player base of a few, but addressed them in the first patch

Music & Sound Design – “Soaring like a superhero”

The musical score is actually quite wonderful, with each area having its own ensemble of musical instruments and thematic feeling set to the tone of that part of the world, all the while maintaining an overall feel that is relaxing or better put, “not stressful”.

The music isn’t really dynamic which can lead to a few odd encounters where enemy combat goes on with soothing music in the background, or the battle theme carries on a bit too long. For the most part, though, the music does a decent job of setting the mood.

Lately, a lot of Japanese games and imports seem to abuse the soundtrack and try to use it to shoehorn in excitement or tension during mundane tasks or weak and boring-ass gameplay elements. Role-playing games are the largest victim here, with titles like Bravely Second and Octopath Traveler standing out with intense heavy-metal shredding during excruciatingly long turn-based combat sessions.

I’m so relieved that Psytec didn’t try and “force” exciting moments into the game by blasting high bpm tracks during cut-scenes and boss fights, like the old Dragon-Ball anime where they jump-cut between two static images of contorted faces while intense music plays and the voice actors scream at each other. We are no longer 7-years-old, that crap isn’t going to cut it anymore.

The sound FX are OK, I would have liked a bit more customization of the grapple tools to select a look and matching sounds for each type. Landing a grapple in the leafy part of a tree and on a cactus have the same sound, and the impact of hitting the ground is underwhelming when you fall 600 ft and stick the landing to a soft thud, and no character wincing or voice-over work…

Voice acting for you, the player, is missing altogether. I’m fine with a silent protagonist, but interaction sounds and a slight idle noise that gives off some personality would have added some much-needed flair.

There is a lack of variety in the enemy and environmental sounds. This is the biggest weak spot in the game and could have been done much better. Having a random selection of sounds for each creature type with some taunts and perhaps a little depth would have made them far more interesting. A great example is with the Horizons game, which also is based on robot combat, having the enemies search around and perform random actions with interesting sounds that make a sound like they’re frustrated, lost, or bored would have added personality to VERY bland mobs.

Key Audio Features:
• Good Music
• Thematically matched to the environments well
• Decent voice over work

Missed Opportunities:
• Sound effects are weak and do not convey much
• Some music doesn’t match or blend with the events taking place, not dynamic enough
• the enemies sound too similar and do not have any personality

Graphics – “snatch the rope grappling hook grab, swing past the moat”

The graphics style is going to be off-putting to some, but has its technical advantages; by keeping the poly count down and using colorful contrasting colors it is able to run at the ever important 90 FPS and while objects fly by at breakneck speeds you always know what you can grab onto as they wiz by.

Each environmental type has a very large range of pastels, but the devs manage to keep the feel of what you can grab onto consistent (whether it makes sense or not, grab the leaves, not the branches, um ok…) Enemies all have mute gray or black colors and are very clearly metal and not like anything else around.

Objects are well defined and have a cartoony shape, but not in a cheap or scaled down way, it doesn’t feel like Psytec cut corners or chose the look to keep the dev times down, the world is beautiful and the style is EXACTLY what was seen in the pre-release concept art, major kudos for making a world that feels cohesive.

The world scale in Windlands 2 is mind-blowing and the giant Mechs that you fight have a colossal scale to match. When you progress the world takes on a verticality and often times there are jumps that might take 20 tries to make, when you miss its a good 10 seconds to impact the ground. Its when you get the hang of how dual grappling slightly offset objects and makes a slingshot out of your grapple hooks that is the learning curve. Pull all the way to the apogee and then fling yourself far into the sky and soar for a good minute to the lower floating islands in order to get a sense of the scale I’m talking about. It is both utterly massive and impressive they have it running so well that it can render it all.

It is not all rainbows and sunshine though… One of my biggest gripes was the animations; a lot are god-awful. The grapple hooks simply fling out into the world all rigid with no sway in the line or wind effects, then it instantly pops back into your hand upon release. The non-boss monsters hardly move and when they do their move, it looks rigid and stiff. NPCs mouths do not move when they talk, and their idle animations are total crap.

A few weeks of animation design and polish would have made the non-player characters feel alive and part of the world. Ding Ding Ding!

The Purdies:
• Distinct palettes for object types have a positive impact on gameplay
• World scale is AMAZING
• Clean lines and bright colors

The Dirtiez:
• Repeat assets
• Mouths do not move during the voice-overs
• Limited enemy and NPC animations

Gameplay – “Think you can cook? I got a grappling hook”

Most if not all games that are not legendary original IPs tend to fall into a development pattern where a game needs X, Y, and Z to be of “whatever” type to appeal to the fans of that style game. Some developers push the boundary and even occasionally co-mingle genres to try and make a game original and fresh. This can lead to brand new and exciting games that spawn new genres and countless clones, while others fall flat on their face and are laughed out of the release window into infamy.

Windlands 2 does have a few new fresh ideas to season it, but! What it really has going for it is the way it makes the old boring tropes and failures from most games the focus where the real “marrow” of enjoyment is to be had.

Let me explain…

You will find you have a large world to explore, somewhat barren and lifeless, loads of obstacles but mostly trivial. Then you get a dash of combat and a few additional life forms to interact with. Said NPCs ask that you “fetch” an object, generally guarded by a boss, and then make the long ass trip back with said object to just get shoveled away before being asked to hunt down the next “thing”. *cough* GARBAGE TROPE *cough*

What is interesting and new is that the world and the travel done within it, IS the focus of the gameplay. The “trees” you need to grapple are spaced out and easy to target and despite being difficult to travel around at first, the game provides just enough sense of accomplishment once mastered. Then you’re flying through the trees and bolting from destinations like its nothing. The excellently placed grapple points allow for combat to be fluid and enjoyable yet difficult to master. You will die a LOT, but eventually you will be able to catapult into the sky, throw down some bow action fire, and begin to recover and swing right back into evasion mode.

Just when the novelty wears off they throw a curve ball and you are in the desert with tiny cacti to grapple on, and now the world is mostly vertical. Those long-range jumps and fluid swings across the huge chasms do little to no good here, and you’re back to feeling like a noob. Then it clicks, you start getting good, BAM! They add thorns to the cacti so you have to time your release to avoid contact at the apex, “Man I suck AGAIN!”… 30 minutes later you’re back in full swing , only to then get “TINY floating cacti with time release thorns” that kill you if you hold on too long, RIGHT ABOVE A HUGE BOSS FIGHT!

The pattern persists and you just keep having to adapt and get better, which makes the peaceful long ass hauls to drop off the “thing”, not only relaxing but enjoyable because you’re heading back through the world where travel is easier WITH your new skills!

Genius People, pure GENIUS! #slowclapforthedeveloper

Locomotion – “Oh the warmth in your eyes swept me into your arms”

Virtual Reality locomotion is a very personal and divisive aspect of the medium. Many FPS and FP-RPG games were forced to add smooth locomotion, and several great games suffered low critical acclaim and sales because they failed to include one form or another. Windlands kind of sets a new bar for a different style of world traversal, it is not for the VR novice, although they have a bevy of comfort options, I do suggest you have your VR legs for WL2.

The game has seated and stand support, colorblind options, fully customizable controls, and personalization options in spades.

Controls – “We will rope swing to river swim”

The game does have some odd choices for the default layout that make it difficult to enjoy until you customize the controls to your liking. The key thing here is that they added the ability to customize the controls to the smallest detail. Like to touch to walk and not press, you can do that, want two in-game actions mapped to a single button, yup you got it. Hate that the jump button and fractional turn are on the same pad, which is effing stupid as hell, Erase that shit and move on.

Anyone who complains about the controls in this game are freaking idiots, because it is up to you how you want them. Gold star to the Development team on this!

The one Lingering & reoccurring issue that in my personal opinion brings the fun to a screeching halt is the on/off pulling toggle on the grapple hooks.

I think some form of programmable “assist” to avoid getting stuck to close to a grapple point, or dangling 30 feet from it with no momentum and needing to reach something 100 feet away is probably the worse thing about Windlands 2. Had they opted to modify the swing arc to avoid running directly into the grapple point or putting in an option to retract and deploy the cable length at will, it would have made the worst part of the game just vanish.

Despite the few flaws above, I’m very grateful to Psytec Games, as one of the best features of Windlands 2 is the massive list of options and customization.

Verdict – “I won’t cross these streets until you hold my hand”

The Good:
• a gradual and consistent learning curve that reliably pays off
• Fluid, reliable, and stable engine that performs well and looks nice
• A Musical score that is a little too static, but enjoyable
• amazing world scale and design
• Amazing levels of customization for all aspects of the game including graphics, controls, colorblind options, etc.
• Co-Op play

The Bad:
• boring static and lifeless NPCs
• animations that feel rushed or incomplete
• awful choices for the default control layout

The Ugly:
• Grapple pull mechanic can lead to frustration and unnecessary difficulty
• Sound FX are bland and shallow
• Very linear and repetitive gameplay
• Weak enemy AI, very limited Enemy list that grows stale fast

While the game has limitations and flaws, it is also very fun. The locomotion mechanic and the scale of the world to explore with it are equally amazing. While the NPC’s and enemies are some of the weaker points in the game, they’re just there to facilitate the story, and the real core gameplay is the travel itself. The developer took a great level of care to accommodate nearly all styles of gameplay and include a multitude of options to tailor-fit the controls, graphics, and style of play to maximize your enjoyment.

Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed the review.
Did you guess all the song titles to the lyrics referenced in the headers?

Title Quotes:
• Intro: Fly like an eagle – Steve Miller band
• Story: Rope Swing – Thingy
• The “X” Factor: O Menina – Beck
• Technical issues & Glitches: Fly Away – Lenny Kravitz
• Music & Sound Design: Highest Trails Above – Ramones
• Graphics: Brother ali – Shadows on the sun
• Gameplay: Fett’s Vette – MC Chris
• Locomotion: Winter Winds – Mumford & Sons
• Controls: Virginia in the Rain – Dave Matthews Band
• Verdict: Swing Life away – Rise Against

Written by
Dead Parrot
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January 2019

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