As a lonely plant whisperer, we transform dusty wastelands into magnificent forests in virtual reality.
Canadian studio Trebuchet sends us back into the virtual world after their debut title Prison Boss VR - this time however, a completely different experience awaits us. Winds & Leaves is a game that explains very little - not a single word is spoken. At the beginning, we find ourselves in a strange world that has apparently fallen victim to a natural disaster. The landscape looks desert-like and dead, and the drought threatens our own existence right on arrival. The only thing that helps us is the presence of growing plants, which seem to have a life-giving effect on us and the environment. After we have collected our first tools and attached them to a strange frame made of stilts - which we use to move around - we can begin our journey. What little we can glimpse of our own physique leads us to suspect that we are embodying an extra-terrestrial, somewhat bird-like being. At least that is what is suggested by the shape of our hands, our shadow and the cave paintings that offer us the only kind of help in the game. Those drawings tell the story that is about to unfold in a very rudimentary way.
We operate our stilts by swinging our arms back and forth, which is our only way of moving at the beginning of the game. Owners of a fitness watch can rejoice, because these movements are quite pronounced and will be counted as steps. While this movement feels weird at the beginning, it soon becomes second nature and fits well into the game. In addition, this type of locomotion also reduces the risk of motion sickness, which some players could experience, especially during their first VR experiences. With our hands, we can also pull ourselves up trees or climbing from one branch to another and it works amazingly well. This is how we get to the fruits from the trees, which we then replant in the dried up areas. At this point, our most exciting tool comes into play: a magical wind wheel that speeds up time. The game creates a really interesting experience here, with a smooth working time-lapse effect, that makes day and night rush by at lightning speed, and allows us to watch our plants grow.
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After planting the first trees and collecting their plump fruit, it quickly becomes clear to us that sowing and harvesting must be coded into our genes as a satisfying way to spend our time. The success stories of games like Farmville or Stardew Valley would underline this theory, but in Winds & Leaves, we can experience this type of gameplay as a kind of abstract, relaxing meditation. The pastel colours of our surroundings and the great situation-dependent music create a really magical atmosphere.
But of course, a game also needs challenges, so we will soon be faced with problems. A tree trunk interspersed by bright blue veins serves as some kind of battery of life, which allows us to survive even in deadly-dry environments. With that equipped we fight our way through a sea of sandstorms to reach new shores and plant new threes. However, the soil of the various areas only allows certain seeds to thrive, and we always have to plant the right ones to turn these deserts into magnificent forests.
On top of that, there is also a simple "genetics system": Each type of tree has three properties, which are indicated by symbols. At certain points, we can create crossbreeds through clever combinations, which will then make new areas accessible. But there are more rules to observe: Trees must not be too close to each other, but need partners close by, to give each other protection from the lethal drought. In the event of nearby weather phenomena, such as dust-dry twisters or aggressive downpours, particularly resistant trees must be planted near those that actually fit better with the soil. This is a really interesting idea and it allows for a lot of combinations.
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In the course of our progress, we come across more and more new archaic devices, which are fuelled with the energy of our trees. But actually, we shouldn't waste too many words on these, because discovering everything by yourself is what makes Winds & Leaves so appealing. Of course, it's easy to imagine that the eponymous winds will also play a role later in the game, or that different types of movement might or might not be connected to that. Also, it's important to find the cave paintings we mentioned earlier, since studying them will help you to come up with clever solutions to the puzzles, which are sometimes reminiscent of classic adventure games.
All in all, a really unusual experience awaits us here, which feels fresh and, with its creative ideas and unique mood, is reminiscent of indie gems such as Flower or Journey. Still, we have to remark on the somewhat lacking technical side. Operation with the Move controllers, which are required to play, works fine in itself, but due to their outdated technology, it can often feel a bit clunky. Also, despite a PS4 Pro patch being available, the graphics appear very coarse and flickering even on the currently second-most powerful Sony console. It looks even worse on the normal PS4, and unfortunately, there is currently no optimisation available for the PS5. Worst of all, however, are the many crashes that occurred with great consistency during our test phase. Really hard crashes occurred pretty much every ten minutes, really. This issue has been improved by a launch patch and a subsequent other patch, which brought the game to version 1.03 - however, it could not spare my save game and that got corrupted, which basically obliterated all my progress.
The bottom line here is that the game will probably only be able to realise its full potential on PSVR2. With clean graphics and proper controller tracking, this creative game could almost be considered a classic. Paper Beast fans should definitely take a look at this game, but don't forget to enable cloud upload, or to copy your only save file to an external USB device after each session.
8 / 10
Fresh ideas, captivating dream-like atmosphere, great music.
Inadequacies of the aging PS-Move system, frequent and potentially game-breaking crashes.