Ostwind/Windstorm — Gorgeous Landscapes, Strange Horse Animation and Shallow Gameplay
Ostwind is a franchise of horse themed books, movies and video games, launched by the 2013 film of the same name. The films are set and produced in Germany, and best known in German-speaking countries. At their center stand teenage girl Mika and the stallion Ostwind (Windstorm in English), who form a deep friendship and supernatural bond.
Between 2013 and 2019, there have been a total of four movies and six books. The first video game in the franchise was released in July 2017 and outsold expectations. A sequel called Windstorm: Ari’s Arrival was released in March 2019. This review is about the 2017 game, a review for the 2019 sequel will follow soon.
At a glance, Ostwind quickly looks like having the highest production value of any horse game ever made, with its highly detailed environments and promises of a big open world. Does that impression remain after a closer look at the horse itself and the game mechanics around it? Find out below.
Once I started playing, I quickly realized that the game had no intention of introducing any of these characters to me properly and was obviously intended to be played as a movie tie-in rather than stand on its own: I decided to watch the movie before continuing.
I don’t intend to launch into a detailed film critique, but I will say that Ostwind (2013) was enjoyable enough.
In it, rebellious teenager Mika bonds with the supposedly dangerous and unhinged black stallion Ostwind. With the help of the eccentric Mr. Kaan’s training methods, she manages to ride him perfectly though a jumping course a mere six weeks after she’s mounted any horse for the first time. The film could be described as a story about employing natural horsemanship over traditional training methods, but there is too little engagement with what any of those training methods actually are and too much of a spiritual, esoteric component to Mika’s supposed “bond” with the horse for that to be entirely accurate.
The movie has various familiar horse girl movie cliches and rather too many pop song training montages for my taste, but the characters — human and equine — are enjoyable to watch for the most part.
The video game does not so much continue or retell any of the film’s story, but guides you along a series of inconsequential tasks without dramatic weight, featuring many of the movie’s characters but no actual plot. You, Mika, return to the Kaltenbach estate after an unspecified time away and receive tasks from Mr. Kaan, Mrs. Kaltenbach and stable boy Sam.
Mission Structure and Story
Windstorm has a clear structure that divides the game into menu, missions and open world.
The game has a lot of dialogue, presented through detailed 2D character artwork and voice acting before going on any quest. Unfortunately however, these narrative tools are wasted entirely on missions that are disconnected and insubstantial. With the exception of the last three or four missions — which lead to a little sequel tease — mission narratives never build on each other: the highest dramatic stakes you’ll encounter in the game are “chase this horse down to bring it back inside before a storm”. Much of the dialogue otherwise boils down to “Hey Mika, try completing this course faster than last time.”
Once you’ve started a mission from the estate screen, you are tasked with riding along a course through various checkpoints, collecting a number of items such as poisonous plants by riding through them, or chasing an escaped horse or cow. These are okay mission types, but they grow repetitive very quickly even through the relatively short total play time of about 3-4 hours. In chasing missions, it feels like you can only win once the game thinks you’ve tried it for long enough. Collecting missions are made awkward by stilted grammar and repetition.
The worst offense in regards to mission structure however, is that the game does not make proper use of its open world. The devs built a beautiful open environment, but instead of letting the player find anything important in it, missions are started through the user interface.
The open world contains some missions, but they are not marked on the map, which makes going out to look for them incredibly tedious. The only other thing to do in the world is gathering collectibles for completion’s sake. Since all missions run on a timer, going off track to explore a little at the same time is not really an option either. As a result, you are always faced with the choice of either wandering aimlessly through the pretty world, or hurrying along a fixed course without much time to take note of your surroundings.
You cannot ever dismount from your horse to continue on foot, which often makes exploring a bit awkward too.
I assume the quest givers were limited to the estate menu because modelling and animating NPCs was out of scope. Even so, I believe there would have been better ways to tie quests and quest givers into the 3D world with the resources at hand, for example by marking the questgivers on the open world map and then opening the 2D character dialogue as soon as you reach the spot in question.
Assets and Animation
The environments of Windstorm: The Game are absolutely gorgeous - I think there can be little disagreement on this point. Never has there been a “horse game” that has had this sort of production value and realistic graphic quality. Grasslands, trees, hills and rocks all look wonderful.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the game’s equine main character, Windstorm. The horse’s rig and animations have obviously been made with much less regard for realism than the environments. Even the deer and foxes that can be encountered in the wild look a lot better.
Windstorm’s movements are stilted and wooden, his eyes and ears not used for conveying emotion at all. The footfalls of his gaits are technically correct, but awkward due to his strangely hunched shoulders and oddly deforming model geometry. Animations of Windstorm rearing and playing look rather like they were animated based on a very rough idea of a horse’s movements rather than any detailed observation.
2D Character art and user interface are solid, if perhaps a bit indie and artsy in combination with the AAA-looking visuals. Unfortunately that quality doesn’t translate to the 3D model for the main character, and the other characters don’t have 3D models at all.
The inconsistency in asset quality between the world and the horses makes me suspect that the former may have been either reused from a different project or taken from stock assets entirely. Such frugality is not a bad thing per se, as long as it leads to a quality end result. In a game about a horse but with so little care put into the actual horse however, the beautiful environments serve as little more than a constant reminder of “we don’t care about horses all that much”.
With every mission you complete, Windstorm and his stable gather a bit of dirt, so eventually you cannot go on another mission without first cleaning his hooves and coat and mucking out. These mini games are standard fare and their implementation is not bad, but as usual, completing them takes entirely too long for there to be any real satisfaction in it.
For what it’s worth, I’ve tried about a dozen hoof picking minigames at this point, and Windstorm’s would be the best by far if only the chunks of dirt disappeared at one click instead of requiring the player to press and hold the mouse over it for drawn out seconds.
Since the horse care mechanics pop up whenever you want to start a mission but your dirt meter is too high, they feel inherently limiting. The horse care thus boils down to a “we’re not letting you continue before you do this again”, rather than anything the player may want to do because they enjoy caring for their digital companion. Designing for empathy with companion characters is not easy, but it seems that instead of attempting anything of the sort, Windstorm simply assumes that players will already care about the equine main character enough not to mind the tedioum.
Completing any of the horse care tasks happy triggers a bizarre hopping animation that looks far from any movement a horse would be likely to make, and must have been animated without proper reference footage.
In the introductory mission, we get a refresher of the three core principles of riding as they presented in the movie: balance, coordination and rhythm. If these core concepts are perhaps not exactly what I’ve heard any horse training method explicitly name, they at least seem plausible enough as to not stand out as wrong.
Your challenge in riding lies in steering left and right to hit large orange checkpoints. You can go at a walk, trot or gallop, with a limited meter of “sprinting”. This division in three gaits plus sprint is no doubt a peculiarity of the translation from German: in that language, one does not generally think of the canter and gallop as two entirely different gaits. Equestrians differentiate between a work gallop and a race gallop, but colloquially only “gallop” is used.
You jump over obstacles by pressing the spacebar, which if done in just the right moment fills your stamina bar for sprinting and thus offers a practical little challenge at least.
Generally, the riding tries to be interesting by making you ride narrow curves, but mostly fails at offering non-frustrating difficulty: You can slow down to a trot, but doing so takes several seconds to take effect — naturally with no way of preparing your horse for the transition as you might in real life.
Completing missions gives you experience and eventually skill points, but I never noticed any significant difference in maneuverability despite spending all my skill points in Agility.
Mood and Light
Windstorm was made in Unreal and has the sort of beautiful lighting effects the engine is known for.
While the movie shows Windstorm and Mika in bright grassy fields however, there is a constant somber note in the game’s tone, even though absolutely nothing in the narrative warrants such a mood.
This is partly caused by the game being relatively dark and high in contrast. You can barely make out Windstorm’s features when brushing his coat. The world’s weather system seems to disproportionately feature cloudy, rainy and stormy moods with bright sunlight being relatively rare, at least in my playthrough.
Another culprit in the game’s odd mood is that the soundtrack has been reused from the movie. To the game’s disadvantage though, many of the happy movie scenes and training montages are actually overlaid with cheery pop music, reserving the score for the parts that are sad, dramatic, or tragic.
As a result of this disconnance between narrative tone and audiovisual mood, you end up racing through fields and forests under brooding skies with dramatic music to complete mission goals like “Find Sam’s Tractor” and “Let’s see how fast Windstorm can go”.
Windstorm has obviously had a significant budget and effort put into it. It is all the more of a pity that the game gets so many comparatively basic things wrong.
The result is a game undoubtedly high in production value, but which fails to follow up with any sort of substance in its mechanics. If the same visual quality at least applied also to the titular horse rather than only to everything else, I would recommend the game as a stylish but shallow bit of entertainment. But between the awkward looks of the horse and the boring mission design, pretty trees and rocks will not be not worth spending 20$ for most horse-hungry gamers.
From a brief but positive first impression, I suspect players will be better served with the sequel. Stay tuned for TMQ’s review of Windstorm: Ari’s Arrival.