Up until now, we haven't seen much from Wonderstruck, the creative minds behind Boundless. Boundless is another in a large set of procedural sandbox games that have sprung up in the last half decade or so. The game has been in early access on Steam for about four years, and has finally received its full digital release. So how does it stack up against the rest, and what sets it apart from the few dozen others like it, not to mention Minecraft, the reigning giant? Let’s dive right in and see what Boundless is all about.
Boundless starts pretty quick, dropping you into a sanctum, of sorts, surrounded by shallow water, monoliths, and above you, a set of planets for you to make camp on and explore. From the moment you select a point at which you will begin on one of the large orbiting planets, you turn a monolith into a portal to enter the wild, and it seems to be as open as can be from there. At this point, your directives are simple: gather materials, craft tools, make shelter, and do your best to not get royally messed up by the local wildlife.
As soon as you touch down you're given a few quick directives. Initially, use your totem, the default tool, to break down minerals and trees in order to gather materials. Sounds simple enough, but it sure is tedious. It takes quite a few swings, which are rather slow, to break down a single dirt block or tree. Additionally, base materials, like wood from trees, can be surprisingly hard to find. More often than not, breaking materials down takes upwards of six or so swings, meaning that resource gathering can get very redundant very quickly. It's not clear if the sparse nature of certain materials is a direct result of other more experienced players scavenging before we could get our grubby mitts on them, or if the world generation could just use some tweaking to make start up a little more new player friendly. Either way, it certainly doesn't help the flow of the game.
To layer on to that, the crafting system is a simple series of expandable and collapsible menus that allow you, given the requisite materials are in hand, to craft just about anything you could want. In our travels, we stumbled onto another player’s base camp - though it was more like a sprawling castle than anything - and it had some of the neatest things we could imagine. Inside were several high fantasy crafting mechanisms and a spinning globe of the world amongst many other items that seem to be vacant in other similar sandbox builders. This variety is really what kept us coming back, despite the slow and usually clunky gameplay.
Speaking of gameplay, we've already gone over some of the specifics, but the strength of Boundless lies more in how it feels than in how it plays. Sure, mechanics are important, but in a game that visually looks like Minecraft with the colour palette of No Mans Sky, a slower pace and nice presentation can elevate the experience. The highly polygonal style is very much reminiscent of Minecraft, but many of the smaller details are what set Boundless apart. For example, much of the flora on each planet reacts to external stimuli, and it's little things like this that make the environments feel alive. The only detractor from the game's visuals is that it suffers from a great deal of texture pop-in, which feels very abrupt at times.
Unfortunately, Boundless is also completely devoid of good sound design. Sounds and music are either highly repetitive with no variation or, bizarrely, absent altogether. In games like this, sound design is something that can really enhance or detract from the experience, and ultimately, it's a standout flaw here.
Boundless is formed around a seamless online experience, in that any of the worlds that you can discover are also open to other players. This adds a nice, anonymous online element that's at the heart of the game. Additionally, by default, any other player's placed projects and items are locked, so our natural inclination to move things around just for fun was thwarted pretty fast. This is obviously a helpful feature, as it prevents players from mucking about with your stuff.
Boundless is a game that sets out to join the crowded genre of sandbox building. Mechanically the title needs some work, and issues such as frequent texture pop-in, gameplay pacing, and poor sound design bring the game down a fair few notches, but there's still some fun to be had in what is surprisingly unique experience.
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