When people talk about some of the greatest role-playing games of recent memory, a few come to mind almost immediately. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an obvious choice, but if we're willing to look back a few years further, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim would likely be at the top of many people's lists. Despite the bugs and the save data debacles, Skyrim has stood the test of time as one of the largest, finest RPGs of the past few generations. Though many games have tried to replicate the success of Skyrim, most have failed. By now, it should come as no surprise that creating a game world as massive as it is wondrous is no easy feat. However, that doesn't stop developers from trying.
Windscape, developed by Magic Sandbox and published by Headup Games, wears its Skyrim influence on its sleeve. The game takes place in a sizable open world, tasking players with everything from exploring the land and its cities, felling enemies and conquering dungeons, and crafting and foraging items to better your character. Unlike Skyrim, however, Windscape eschews realism in favor of a distinct, cel-shaded visual style. The result is a game that plays and feels like an Elder Scrolls game, yet looks more akin to something like Rime or The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.
It's an interesting setup, especially when you consider that the game was developed by a small team, and is priced at a modest 20 bucks. Unfortunately, Windscape is held back by a bland world, mundane combat, and an overall lack of polish. For those craving a new Elder Scrolls experience, there's certainly a serviceable RPG to be found here if you're willing to look past the obvious flaws. For most, though, you're probably better off sticking with Skyrim.
Windscape opens on a quiet home tucked within the mountains. Players assume the role of a young girl, Ida, who lives on a farm with her mother and father. The game starts off with a short tutorial, which tasks players with picking various crops from the family's garden to create a stew for dinner. After completing the task, Ida is asked by her father to make a delivery to a nearby city.
While this is essentially the "call to action" that sends Ida on her journey, the narrative of Windscape lacks any real urgency or driving force. In Skyrim, you play as an escaped prisoner enlisted in a rebellion. In The Witcher 3, you're searching for Geralt's daughter, Ciri. In Windscape, by contrast, you're simply running what amounts to a series of banal errands. Compared to these other, awe-inspiring RPGs, Windscape's story feels mundane.
This carries over to Windscape's world and inhabitants. While the land is vast and varied in its locales, and is complemented by crisp visuals and vivid colors, there just isn't that much to differentiate it from other game worlds. If you've played any game in a medieval setting, such as World of Warcraft or Oblivion, then you'll likely be familiar with the cottages, towers, and marketplaces that dot Windscape's various settlements. Same goes for the game's NPCs, which offer much of the same, vanilla dialogue you might expect from the genre. From describing a recent encounter with a group of bandits, to lamenting the recent disappearance of a close family member, NPCs offer plenty of thoughts, with little in the way of substance or flair. That's not to say that Windscape's world and its characters are bad, per se; compared to its contemporaries, though, Windscape fails to do enough to stand out.
Exploration is a little more fruitful. As mentioned before, Windscape's visual style has a nice pop to it, and it can be a joy to meander through forests and grottos on the way to the next quest objective. The game also implements an interesting, Zelda-like approach to dungeons, which has players completing a series of mini-objectives in order to access a boss room. Upon beating the boss, Ida gains an additional health container, before being warped back to the overworld. It's not terribly original, but the mashup of Zelda mechanics in an Elder Scrolls setting makes for a novel experience.
Unfortunately, the experience is dragged down by cumbersome and plodding combat. Enemies and bosses don't offer much challenge in terms of attack patterns; however, they do have generous health bars, which make them feel more like persistent annoyances than formidable foes. Couple this with Ida's sluggish attack animations, and combat feels too lethargic to be truly exciting. Like much else with Windscape, combat is serviceable, especially if you're partial to the floaty sword swings found in Skyrim. It's just not going to set the world on fire for those looking for something new.
Windscape also suffers from a general lack of polish. The game's menu screen feels cluttered and unintuitive, with little in the way of guidance when it comes to outfitting Ida with new equipment or managing her inventory. Meanwhile, dialogue boxes typically flicker when you first approach NPCs, and have frequent, noticeable spelling errors. While these examples are far from game-breaking, they pulled me out of the experience and hurt the immersion factor of Windscape's vast, colorful world.
It's a shame that Windscape feels so bland, because it offers some interesting twists to the Elder Scrolls formula with its striking art style and Zelda-like approach to dungeon design. Unfortunately, the game's uninspired characters and repetitive combat prevent it from capitalizing on its strengths. Throw in some other rough edges, from wonky UI design to dialogue quibbles, and Windscape solidifies itself not necessarily as a bad game, but as an average one, through and through. Die-hard Elder Scrolls fans may have some simple fun scouring Windscape's world for quests and bosses, but it's tough to imagine many others wishing to dive into Ida's unremarkable world.