Platforms PC, PSVR (reviewed), Vive, Rift
Developer Psytec Games
Publisher Psytec Games
Release Date April 5, 2016 (PC, Vive, Rift)
October 13, 2016 (PSVR)

Review code provided

Windlands is a first-person exploration game that centers around players hurlng themselves between floating islands with a pair of grappling hooks. It asks the age old question “do you want to feel a bit like Spider-Man?” and then gets you to stick on a VR headset and play a game that makes you feel a bit like Spider-Man. Which is as worthy a use of VR technology as I can think of.

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There’s not really much of a story to Windlands beyond that, to be honest. The game barely even comes with many goals, beyond swinging between magical, floating islands across huge, gaping drops that will make the bottom of your stomach drop should you dare look down. That’s not a negative statement, some of the best games don’t really have stories or concrete goals for you to accomplish.

The main goal in Windlands is simply to explore. Where you go and how you get there is up to you. Those questions are also the main thrust that drives player motivation. Sure, there is usually something to collect wherever you’re going, something that you can plug back into the central hub and reveal a little bit more of the backstory of the world. But my sole motivation while playing Windlands was to see if I could get somewhere really high or far away.

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And I always could. Eventually. Somehow. In Windlands if you can see it, you can reach it. Even if it looks impossible there is a way to get there. Your job is to figure out how, armed only with a pair of grappling hooks and a very floaty jump. It has to be said that Windlands is a fantastic introductory experience into VR. Swinging across the vast expanses while sitting in a room in my pyjamas was a monumentally cool experience, with Windlands delivering a fantastic sense of presence in its virtual world.

Perhaps too much. Anyone who follows me on Twitter might remember that I had to take a break from VR games for a spell, thanks to injuring my neck while playing. Windlands is the game that I was playing when I sustained said injury. In the game, you aim your grappling hooks by looking around. If you’re playing on a difficulty above easy then you need to aim for trees, which are the only things you’ll be able to grapple.

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Windlands is one of the most physically demanding games I’ve played in virtual reality. And I’m not talking about motion sickness (though if you suffer that while in VR, it’s probably best to avoid Windlands altogether). While the game positively exudes a serene, calm atmosphere while you’re exploring, if you attempt a more complex or ambitious path through the game world, it can be very physically demanding.

And painful if you crane your neck about too much trying desperately to get that grapple point while wearing a VR headset (which isn’t light). You can use the right stick to look around. Windlands even has a couple of options for this – you can have the analogue stick behave normally or you can set it to turn by degrees, which is incredibly disorienting while in virtual reality. Neither option works especially well.

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The first option can’t really help you while in mid-flight, as it’s more confusing than anything else when you’ve already trained yourself to look by moving your head. The latter option almost feels like the game is suffering from massive framerate dips (it’s not) as your view skips from side to side. Both options are uncomfortable. So you’re left with looking around as your primary form of, well, looking around.

Movement itself can also feel a bit weird. When you’re in full flow, swinging from tree to tree, Windlands feels amazing. If you grapple a surface at an odd angle, which happens a lot given you’re not working with the most precise of controls,  one of two things will generally happen – you’ll veer wildly of course or you’ll end up dangling awkwardly from whatever surface you’re grappled to, with very little recourse. While that’s part of the challenge of exploration, some tighter controls would make the game a much more fluid, enjoyable experience.

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Windlands also suffers from a bit of a problem with momentum. When you land you’ll usually carry some forward momentum, which can make sections where you’re trying to land on smaller platforms a bit hit or miss. Literally. And while the world looks very pretty and colourful from a distance, ably aided by VR, it does have some fairly low-resolution textures that are very noticeable when you get up close and personal. As well as an issue with players clipping through a lot of the scenery, which is a total immersion breaker.


Summary

Windlands is a fantastic VR experience. I can’t deny that soaring through the air as you grapple from island to island isn’t a fantastic, unforgettable experience. It is. Getting to that unreachable looking summit the first couple of times is great. But the longer I played, the more frustrations soon started to become apparent. The lack of control during more complicated maneuvers, the fact that the game was uncomfortable to play over extended play sessions, the clipping and odd turning mechanics that break immersion. Windlands is a great VR experience, but it’s built around a fairly average game.

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