With a development cycle that took up the better part of half a decade, it wasn’t until Eastward was announced for the Nintendo Switch back in the summer of 2019 that this action-RPG from Pixpil, a small indie studio based in Shanghai, China, and British publisher Chucklefish (Wargroove, Stardew Valley), completely enraptured my imagination. Over the intervening two years, it became all but impossible to excavate information about Eastward without meeting comparisons to The Legend of Zelda, especially the legendary franchise’s top-down, 2-D iterations. Aside from a similar camera perspective, Eastward was billed as sharing Zelda’s DNA in its real-time combat as well as its emphasis on puzzle-solving. Likewise, the vibrant pixel art of Eastward was repeatedly said to take inspiration from mid-1990s Japanese anime. This is, after all, how Pixpil themselves described Eastward in their ‘first devlog.’
2-D Zelda? Japanese anime from my youth? That was more than enough to precipitate my utter fascination and excitement over Eastward. I literally could not wait for the chance to play this game on my Switch, and after numerous delays, that day finally arrived on September 16th. So, did one of my most anticipated games of 2021 deliver on the hype?
Scroll downward to find out!
I want to begin with the game’s best features and these unquestionably involve Eastward’s presentation. Aesthetically, Pixpil’s debut sports a lovely, detailed, 16-bit graphical style that makes my inner aficionado for the Super Nintendo’s glory days weep for joy. There’s no other way to put it except to say that I consider Eastward’s old-school visuals to be the consummate representation of anything that one could ever want from pixel art. From its dazzling environments to each one of the character sprites, the designs and animations on display in Eastward are colorful, elaborate, and unique. In a word, on surface appearances alone Eastward embodies absolute perfection. I don’t need video games to ‘evolve’ towards ever greater examples of photorealism so long as artists continually find ways to maximize the beauty they are able to create with pixels. For all else that might be said about Eastward—and I have a lot more to say—the game is downright gorgeous.
Another aspect in which Eastward shines brightly is its musical score. Handled by Joel Corelitz (Death Stranding, Halo Infinite), the synth-heavy, chip music of Eastward ranges from the playful and peaceful to the thoroughly menacing, borrowing from a variety of genres to create a sound that is both retro and modern in equal measure. Each composition conveys a level of veteran craftsmanship and attention to detail that not only accentuates Eastward’s dystopian, sci-fi vibes, but also nicely compliments the great efforts that obviously went into the overall look and feel of every scene. Corelitz’s songs are super catchy (especially the little jingle that plays when you cook meals), and this is no less true of the scaled-back but still excellent soundtrack written for the 8-bit arcade game-within-the game, ‘Earth Born.’ I will have more to say on these further gameplay mechanics below.
Thus, when it comes to Eastward’s affect upon one’s eyes and ears, I have nothing but positive remarks to offer. It certainly lived up to my expectations in these regards. Of course, as incredibly important as these ingredients are in video games, action-RPGs tend to thrive on story, and most essentially, gameplay. Unfortunately, for me, Eastward didn’t hold up nearly as strongly on these fronts. Let’s start with the former.
Narrative and Writing
The tale that Eastward weaves begins as an almost Platonic ‘Allegory of the Cave.’ The setting is a subterranean slum known as Potcrock Isle, a town full of quirky, cantankerous inhabitants who have plenty of stories about the outside world beyond the surface but little firsthand knowledge. After a brief introduction, you take control of the two main protagonists, whom you can switch between at any time. There is John, a scrappy, bearded man whose occupation is that of a digger over at Potcrock Isle’s local quarry, and his adopted white-haired daughter named Sam. Of the two, players are almost unanimously bound to fall in love with Sam, a rambunctious, sassy little girl who is as naive and brave as she is eager to please. John, on the other hand, while boasting mad cooking skills and wielding enormous brute strength in the form of a skillet that he uses for his primary melee attack, is a silent protagonist with the personality of a wet mop.
Although Eastward’s story begins as a simple journey of discovery, new layers of mystery are continually added to the plot as both the world and its characters appear to possess obscure pasts and hidden qualities that become more and more apparent as John and Sam travel eastward, seeking the furthest reaches of known existence. While the narrative is never particularly compelling, it is helped along by solid writing insofar as individual character interactions are concerned. The dialogue of Eastward often felt very idiosyncratic and the eccentricity of its NPCs goes hand in hand with the totality of the airs that Eastward’s world exudes. It’s a strange realm full of weird people, but weird in the most laudatory sense.
That’s the extent to which I found delight in Eastward’s writing. What I didn’t like, and what far more detracted from my enjoyment rather than enrich it, was its multiplying of characters who never really developed any meaningful role in the narrative, or were just capriciously tossed aside from the plot in a way that seemed cheap. The story itself, around two-thirds of the way through, while hitherto bogged down by pointless endeavors that hardly made their significance known in the grand scheme of things, then took an abrupt, unexpected turn as though trying really hard to make the whole experience appear purposeful and profound. Yet, it only left me asking questions like, ‘What the bleep is going on? What was that? What just happened?’ And so on.
To sum up, narratively speaking, Eastward was profound in the end—profoundly disappointing and confusing, ultimately turning John and Sam’s whole effort to reach the eastern extremities of the land a giant question mark that even now remains unclear to me. I wish I could say that the means justified the ends. As stated, Eastward has its moments—of humor, tragedy, characters who are deeply endearing. Still, they weren’t enough to keep me from feeling boredom more than a few times. You’d think the gameplay would at least come along and make up for this, right? I mean, we’re talking 2-D Zelda here, remember? It’s not like Zelda games require mind-blowing storylines to elevate them to legendary status!
So, what about gameplay?
A good portion of your time in Eastward is spent in villages and cities, trading pleasantries with the locals and helping them with their problems. This being what it is, and the fact that Eastward often feels like it is moving at a tortoise’s pace, some people might be turned off. I personally didn’t mind the urban settings that comprise the bulk of one’s time spent in Eastward, as well-designed as they are, and while the dialogue-heavy gameplay frequently felt both meandering and protracted, there was, as mentioned, as much for me to appreciate as there was to criticize. Where I found myself possessing less tolerance, or being simply let down, was in the abundance of mundane fetch quests that John and Sam are tasked with completing; in the linear layout of areas outside of (or below) each town. These combat-driven sections serve as a sort of respite from the game’s lackadaisical narrative, featuring some puzzles and secrets. They are Eastward’s ‘dungeons,’ so to speak.
Regrettably, combat is another element of Eastward that comes across as tremendously unpolished when compared to the rest of the game. Although John has a few different weapons that he can acquire and level up, for the most part fighting in Eastward comes down to mindlessly spamming the attack button. There is no evading or dodging enemies other than trying to run around them, and this never feels very efficient given the relative quickness of enemy movements (relative to John and Sam, I should add) or the number of them that mob you at once. There’s also no block button, although you are able to temporarily stun foes by switching to Sam and using one of her energy skills, which then requires a moment or two to recharge. Even if you are whaling an opponent over the head with John’s skillet, several foes can still launch assaults that go right through your attack and cause you to relentlessly take damage. There was a type of bird enemy that I encountered on a few occasions which was particularly annoying. It would fly around, being too high to strike, and then land right on top of me, causing me to suffer repeated blows until I moved to the side and drove it away. It’s one example of many others where the combat in Eastward not only struck me as simplistic to a fault, but unsatisfying and—what’s the word? Ah, yes!—‘bullshit-y.’
Don’t misread my criticisms about Eastward’s combat as a complaint about the game’s difficulty. Although it’s inevitable that you’ll lose lots of Hearts (like many action-RPGs, your characters’ shared health bar is ripped straight from Zelda), Eastward is very forgiving in its auto-save system, placing you at the start of the room where you died should you receive a ‘Game Over’ screen. Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid death by stocking up on meals, purchasable at a number of vendors or cooked yourself via ingredients retrieved along the way.
Eastward’s cooking mechanic is done exceptionally well. It too is quite straightforward but remains consistently fun due to both the variety of courses John can rustle up and the slot-machine mini-game that determines the quality of each dish. Basically, when you come upon a stove, add three foodstuffs from your backpack onto the pan, pull the lever on the spinning reels that appear on screen, and poof! Dinner is served! Line up two or more reels for a chance at increasing whatever stat boosts the meal has to offer. There’s not much else to it and yet the simple exercise never grew old for me. I suppose, for whatever reason, slots are just intuitively addictive. It certainly isn’t hurt by the snappy beat that plays during the process and which always had me bobbing my head.
Eastward has its share of puzzles, most of which are fairly easy and unremarkable. One point that’s worth noting, however, is the way that John and Sam must work together at solving different contraptions. As the two almost invariably travel together at all times, allowing you to swap between them, many puzzles require that you have them cooperate as a team. You can separate the pair at any given moment (although you can’t leave a room without the other). Thus, if a floor switch requires the placement of some weighted object to unlock a door, for example, you can use Sam (or John) to step on it while the other character passes through.
Many of Eastward’s challenges utilize this two-player mechanic in a way that I found reminiscent of my time with Rebecca and Billy back during the GameCube days when I first played through Resident Evil 0. I enjoyed that style of gameplay then and I did now in Eastward too. My only wish is that the developers would have found a way to incorporate actual two-player co-op. This seems like it would have been an especially natural fit for Eastward.
Despite the praise owed to Eastward for some its more creative puzzles, on the whole I still think they could have involved a little bit more complexity and forethought. That said, sometimes simpler is better, and that brings me to one of Eastward’s great surprises: Earth Born.
Earth Born is an 8-bit arcade game that you can play at various locations in Eastward, and it resembles a full-on rogue-lite RPG that I can easily imagine once existed on the original Game Boy in some alternate universe. Earth Born performs like a traditional JRPG with random battles and recruitable party members, but diverges from the typical formula by using a 7-day in-game clock that triggers the game’s final boss battle when the timer runs out. This requires you to progress your characters as much as possible in the allotted time, in preparation for the ultimate test of strength. The gameplay is about as minimalistic as you can conceive for an RPG purporting to be from the mid-to-late 1980s. Nonetheless, it persists as an enjoyable distraction from Eastward’s main campaign, probably owing to the fact that every run through Earth Born is slightly different, heightening a sense of novelty and challenge.
This is where its rogue-lite aspect comes into play. Although you always begin Earth Born anew with each fresh attempt, you retain the party members that were recruited in prior playthroughs. Shop equipment and character skills are randomized but certain items will always be available at the start if you collect their corresponding figurines from Earth Born-themed gacha machines placed across Eastward’s municipalities. In essence, think of these toys as Earth Born’s very own Amiibos.
Of the nearly 30 hours that I invested in Eastward by the time I reached the end credits, roughly five of these were spent playing Earth Born. I would have happily kept playing too, as I still had obstacles to overcome and found it to be almost more engaging than the actual base game itself. Alas, once I had reached Eastward’s final chapter, there was no going back to Earth Born unless I started a brand new save file. This, in my humble view, epitomizes a ridiculously stupid game design decision that plagued much of my enjoyment throughout Eastward. It is one more peeve that I must touch upon.
One (Or Two) More Peeve(s)
Eastward is divided into eight chapters, each with their own subplots that build upon the whole, sometimes taking John and Sam to new regions and introducing a fresh set of faces. What irked me perhaps the most in my experience of Eastward is that when you depart from an area at the end of a chapter you are almost never able to go back and revisit earlier sections. One incident that occurred to me near the commencement of my adventure, only a few hours in, would signify an ongoing theme: I was exploring a cavern within Potcrock Isle. Just as I was exiting a room I noticed a bright yellow treasure chest. These are the chests that conceal Heart Orbs, Eastward’s version of Zelda’s Heart Pieces. Collect four orbs and you gain an additional Heart on your health meter. The problem was that shortly after I exited from the room containing the chest, which at that point I hadn’t yet opened, I was ushered into a sequence of events that concluded with the end of that chapter. The next time I took control of John and Sam, I was forbidden from returning to the previous area.
Learning that I would always be one orb short of another complete Heart, as my auto-saves didn’t extend back far enough to replay that particular segment of Chapter Three, I contemplated restarting the entire game. The OCD part of me ached at the thought of what I had missed, but I also didn’t feel like plowing through the game’s slow introductory scenes all over again either. I swallowed my sense of loss and pressed eastward.
As it turned out, there are an abundance of semi-important items like this that you can permanently miss out on if you aren’t careful enough. Lacking a single Heart isn’t that big of deal, but even certain abilities that Sam can learn, which prove immensely helpful, are totally missable. None of these items or abilities are necessary for finishing the game, granted, and arguably serve principally to extend the game’s play time for those completionists with a need or desire to unlock all of Eastward’s ‘Achievements.’ I’m not that OCD, at least not with every game, but it still bothered me. It bothered me especially when I jumped through hoops to fetch an NPC some berries, necessary for progressing the game, only to have Sam give them away to someone else on a goddamn whim. That was my reward for fetching the berries, but an actual upgrade to my character’s abilities? Nah, let’s keep that hidden away behind some breakable wall which, should players fail to see it, is just forever out of their reach.
Not only did this aspect of Eastward’s design irritate me to no end, adding pressure to exploration and to not miss anything since the game never warns you (save near the end) when you’re about to enter a point of no return, the inability to come back to Earth Born once I started Chapter Eight was the final straw. ‘Screw this game,’ I thought to myself. That’s a bit harsh and upon further reflection I don’t actually harbor those thoughts about Eastward… but I did think something along these lines more than once.
I’ve went this entire review without mentioning the game’s bugs. Aye, I encountered a few, including a couple of instances in which I got soft locked. I’m sure they’ll be fixed eventually, if not already, and they weren’t that big of a deal anyway. My issues with Eastward, I think, were more substantial.
I can’t help but wonder if part of my sourness towards the overall experience that I had with Eastward stems from the lofty expectations I had going into it. If I had merely stumbled upon this as some random indie game discovered beneath the piling heap of garbage that currently fills the Nintendo eShop, perhaps I would have been mightily impressed by it. No doubt, many people will walk away from Eastward filled with such sentiments. In the end, sadly, I wasn’t. Were my expectations too high? Maybe, but I don’t think so. The game’s outer shell, the visuals and audio that still tantalize me at first (and second, and third) glance, is really incredible. Beneath the exterior, however, there is only a game that barely manages to surpass my notions of mediocrity. I guess you really can’t judge a book by its cover.
I want to make it clear: Eastward isn’t a bad game. But it’s not a great one either. I struggle to recommend it at its current $24.99 price tag (not to ‘make it sound like my wallet’s tighter than a bull’s ass in fly season,’ to quote one of the game’s more memorable lines). Anyway, unlike the entirety of my adventures eastward, hopefully by now you get the point.
- Beautiful, unparalleled pixel art aesthetics
- Memorable soundtrack
- Fun cooking mechanics
- Earth Born!
- Greenberg (if you’ve played it, you’ll know)
- A slow-moving narrative about travel that ultimately feels like it ends up going nowhere
- Unpolished and unsatisfying combat
- Puzzles rarely require more than a moment’s worth of thought
- Can’t return to previous areas, and hence, can miss out on too many semi-important items