IMPRESSIONS: Winds & Leaves

Tuesday, September 21st, 2021

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I’m not a exactly a green thumb (I can barely keep a houseplant alive), but I am very fond of trees. Growing up, I was surrounded by them, either from the woods that stretched out behind my house, or during my frequent visits up to the Adirondacks to visit family, where we’d spend hours blazing trails through the forests. They’re a meaningful part of my life, so when I was offered the chance to review Winds & Leaves, a PlayStation VR title all about planting trees and restoring nature, I jumped at the chance.

Set in an unspecified post-apocalypse, the game opens with you waking up as a caretaker on a secluded island. Around you are scattered the tricks of your trade: a special vitality lantern that, when filled with tree energy, protects you from encroaching death when not beneath the beneficial boughs of trees; a pouch in which to hold myriad seeds; a planting stick to sew said seeds and regrow the forest; and a strange artifact that, when held aloft, accelerates time. Cryptic rock paintings explain the basics of how each item is used, along with helpful hints scattered around the area, and you’re off. There are also large, dilapidated windmills dotting the landscape that you need to “resurrect” by growing enough trees. That’s it. Restore the forest, player!

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I’m a big fan of minimal narratives, so I jived with this immediately. The rock paintings were reminiscent of Journey, one of my favorite games ever, and the on-screen prompts directing you to plant specific seeds in specific soil were simple but effective. Each seed has its own unique hieroglyph, and when digging in the soil, the game will prompt you on which hieroglyph is appropriate. It is beautifully efficient. As you progress through the game, you’ll find more rock outcroppings with directions on everything, from how to cross-breed seeds to hints at the calamity that left the world a barren, tree-less expanse in the first place. I loved it. That being said, beyond these simple paintings, the game gives no real direction or hints at where you’re supposed to go or what to do if you get really stuck, and the cross-breeding isn’t as clear as you’d think. The very first instance of cross-breeding has to take place in a special incubator that will sprout a tree that gives you a required seed, but the painting for the cross-breeding only includes an image for the seed, not how to get it. I spent way longer than I wanted navigating the world, trying to find what I was missing before I finally just tossed the two seeds I had on me into the incubator in the hopes it would work.

Speaking of seeds, the only way to obtain them is to climb the trees you’ve already planted and pluck them from their branches. I actually really like this mechanic – it’s fun to perform and it leans into the whole cultivation narrative the game is going for. Unfortunately, you can only carry so many seeds with you at a time, and only certain seeds grow in certain soil. In order to venture out into the wastelands, you have to plant seeds and grow them into trees to grant you cover, or you’ll die. I often found myself running out of seeds and having to trek back across multiple islands to gather more, which hindered the overall exploratory aspect the game has going for it. Thankfully, exploring is actually somewhat fun thanks to the environmental storytelling and movement system, but it was still tedious.

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I really love the movement in this game. Most VR titles employ the “teleport” method of movement, where you point a cursor toward a location and teleport to it, but in Wind & Leaves, you manually move everywhere yourself. By pressing both center buttons at once on the PlayStation Move controller, you use your stilts to walk around the environment. Pressing one at a time lets you climb trees to gather fruit. Tilting the Move controller pivots you in that direction, and pressing X and O will spin you right and left, respectively. It’s a really intuitive system and feels incredibly smooth when in motion. The act of moving about an orchard or embarking out into the wastes always feels purposeful, and the desperate struggle to get back to safety if you’ve strayed too far, left an impact on me the first time it happened. It’s this kind of intimacy that VR is particularly good at capturing, and I wish more titles used intuitive movement like this rather than teleporting.

Unfortunately, this movement style also lead to an abundance of clipping through the scenery, causing me – very literal – headaches. Positioning in front of objects is always something of a hassle in VR titles, and that was no different here. In order to refill your vitality lantern, you have to place it inside a tree. Reach is limited, so you have to stand directly in front of the hollow where the item sits, but I often found myself halfway inside the tree rather than in front of it, or just slightly too far from it and unable to reach. This also often led the game to think I was out of bounds, which brought up the OOB grid. But nowhere was the clipping issue worse than when climbing a tree. The act of climbing was fluid and graceful, but maneuvering toward fruit could often be a pain, particularly when the leaves and branches of the tree obscured my view. Most of my climbing sessions involved me staring through the center of a leaf, or needing to crane my neck so that I could see the fruit in order to interact with it. The clipping got so bad that it caused me actual headaches and I had to turn the game off, which is frustrating because visually and mechanically, I really love this aspect of Winds & Leaves.

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I play a pretty decent amount of VR titles and this is the only one that’s ever given me VR sickness. And it’s not an issue with my headset being on wrong, because the game also made my husband nauseous when he tried it. He also experienced severe clipping, got stuck in the ground, and the death animation didn’t stop, soft-locking his session. Halfway through my roughly six hours of playtime, my character clipped into the ground and I had to restart several times and “climb” out of the earth in order to continue playing. Coupled with the VR sickness, these technical issues ended up being too much and I had to set the game aside, which was truly sad because there’s a lot I really liked about Winds & Leaves. Trebuchet developed one of the most fluid, intuitive mobility systems I’ve used in a VR title; the world is vibrant and beautiful with a soft, watercolor aesthetic; it’s got really haunting, moving music; and I’m a sucker for the minimalist narrative and environmental storytelling. But when playing the game made me nauseous and gave me severe, long-lasting headaches, those pros weren’t enough.

Winds & Leaves is available on PSVR for $29.99 USD. If you’re looking for a laid back, exploratory experience, it’s worth a gander, just beware of technical issues. Hopefully if you try it out, it won’t cause you VR sickness the way it did for me.

About Leah McDonald

Leah's been playing video games since her brother first bought an Atari back in the 1980s and has no plans to stop playing anytime soon. She enjoys almost every genre of game, with some of her favourites being Final Fantasy Tactics, Shadow of the Colossus, Suikoden II and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Leah lives on the East Coast with her husband and son.