As a videogame fan, there are moments where all-out action just feels a bit too much. Maybe you’re having a lazy Sunday afternoon or simply want to unwind after a long day? It’s in these moments where a slower, more peaceful type of experience comes into play. Where beautiful sunsets and methodical gameplay come into their own, you can’t get much more chill than Trebuchet’s latest offering Winds & Leaves, exclusively for PlayStation VR. However, can a VR experience that mainly involves planting trees be entertaining?
The Canadian studios’ previous title was Prison Boss VR making Winds & Leaves a polar opposite, offering beautiful wide-open vistas which go on for miles and a rich tapestry of colours. Freedom is most certainly on offer here, allowing you to adventure out into a desolate, mysterious land and bring it back to life.
Because you are The Gardener, a being deeply linked to nature who can see the bonds between plants and cultivate them using some powerful magical forces. Much in the same way that Paper Beast left you to ponder and imagine your own story, Winds & Leaves does something very similar. There’s no direct narrative to speak of or real explanation of who you are, you’re on a once verdant planet that is now barren the only clues being rock paintings and unusual tree-like structures which have to be reanimated.
This natural link also means you can’t simply wander around as you wish, you generally need to stay near to greenery, setting up the core mechanic of Winds & Leaves, planting trees, planting a lot of trees in fact. Each tree you plant will create a lush green area which can then be expanded upon however you choose, going in one straight direction towards a point of interest or growing a lush forest. That’s one of the best parts about Winds & Leaves, looking back and seeing a once dry, harsh landscape transformed by all these trees you’ve planted.
You’re well kitted out with an extendable digging tool, a mysterious weather vane, seed pouch, an energy-containing tree stump and stilts. Yes, that’s right, locomotion in Winds & Leaves is entirely on stilts and works surprisingly well. The videogame is only compatible with PlayStation Move, having to hold the Move button down then waggling the controllers up and down to walk. It sounds a little unusual but isn’t too much different to the locomotion systems employed in titles like Sprint Vector, you’re just on stilts. They also give you the option to lower or raise yourself, great for picking seeds off the ground or moving faster respectively.
It’s not all plain sailing though. The same system for walking is used for climbing trees. So if you’re too close to one then it’s easy to find yourself going up rather than forward. And it soon became clear that picking the seeds off the trees – a vital part of the whole growing process – was far easier than trying to pick them up off the ground, which was finicky and erratic at times.
As for the whole gardening process, that all depends on how much you like continually digging holes. While that energy containing tree stump allows you to walk a short distance away from the life-giving forests, go too far and the roots will pull you back, so you need to get planting. The challenge in Winds & Leaves is careful management of your seed pouch which only holds a measly six varieties of plants, each one having three attributes making them ideal for certain soil conditions. Because of this, there’s a fair bit of seed experimentation and manipulation, planting two or three together to make a new plant, helping you venture further forward.
And this is where that mysterious weather vane tool comes in handy. Time does move in Winds & Leaves just very slowly so the vane greatly speeds this up, making the trees grow nice and rapidly. It’s one of the best effects during the whole experience, watching days flick by in seconds, cloud formations come and go, sunset and rises…you get the idea. While it was always easier to play during daylight, at night there’s an eerie magical quality as you can see the glowing, pulsating connections between the trees.
The end goal is to completely bring life back to this barren place by venturing into four areas and spinning up the giant windmills you find there, all of which point to a central garden that acts as a sort of hub. Once you’ve unlocked certain tree species these can then be found in the garden should you require a particular seed your pouch doesn’t contain. There’s no fast travel so heading back requires leg work until you unlock the glide ability. Essentially a quick dash, it does allow you to traverse the tops of the trees which is always fun.
So you’d imagine Winds & Leaves offers an idyllic world that’s all about being one with nature? Not initially, as VRFocus’ pre-launch review copy continually crashed, occurring six times in the space of an hour at one point. Thankfully, a day one patch does look to have solved that issue. But there are others, like the sheer amount of pop up, especially in the trees. Played on a standard PlayStation 4, once you’ve got a full-on forest going – the whole point of the game – it did start to struggle with all the foliage.
Winds & Leaves has some nice ideas and for those looking for a nice tranquil VR experience with some light puzzles, it perfectly suits. The problem is Winds & Leaves can be a bit too quiet. Lush green grass and colour forests are all well and good but they’re still devoid of life, no animals suddenly return. So you end up walking through your lovely forest world alone, it all feels a bit soulless. Winds & Leaves was enjoyable for the 7-8 hours it lasts yet there was no desire to return.