Genres: RPG, Adventure
Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch
Eastward caught my eye before its release this year due to its incredibly strong pixel-art visuals. This is surely one of the best looking and most detailed pixel-art games ever, it's really cool that games that look like this still have a market. Beyond the art-style, this game also has quite a lot going for it and is a pretty meaty title compared to other similar indie games, especially given how much visual variety there is and the consistent high quality production.
What's it play like?
It's a mix of fairly simple puzzling, combat and exploring. Though worth noting that probably 60% of the game is reading text bubbles which deliver the story. There's no voice acting, but there's a lot of plot and next to the visuals it's probably the second biggest attraction. You play as John and Sam, an older gentlemen and his surrogate daughter. John has weapons and tools to defeat enemies, while Sam has some sort of esoteric psychic ability which is also useful in certain situations. You can split the two up and switch between them to solve puzzles. While most of the actual gameplay is simple: attack enemies and solve simple puzzles, the most fun comes when you're switching between the characters and making them work together to move forward.
Primarily this can be compared to the 2D Zelda games, though it never reaches the heights of gameplay in the best of those titles. It's also way more concerned with world-building and storytelling than any Zelda game is, which means often there's uneven playing sessions where you're left without much "game", simply reading character interactions and roaming the beautifully drawn pixel-art environments.
What's the premise + plot like?
It starts off with limited exposition, John is a miner and lives in an underground community with a young girl, Sam, who he cares for. Despite Sam's insistence that she's seen the world above ground, the mayor of town doesn't allow anyone to leave and denies existence of liveable areas. From here of course the two manage to leave and are set off on an eastward trajectory encountering new characters and locations, all the while a vague, sinister darkness always seems to be right behind them and it seems like Sam might have some connection to it.
I think the world of Eastward is fascinating and well built up over the course of the game. I think the plot and characters are decent, but if I'm putting my critic hat on I'd have to be honest and say they're a bit frustrating overall. There's a lot of charming moments which are often undercut with a spooky edge that keeps us guessing 'til the very end. Problem is, come the end there's so many questions, but not many answers. When you're left thinking of the overall story, it's too vague and incoherent, it's hard to sum up what happens because it's all over the place.
John is a silent protagonist and this mostly is to ensure he, as the main character, isn't asking the questions that will be in your head. It comes off as a lazy tool, especially when every other character in this game waxes on and on. I'm not sure a game like this, that's so story focused, benefits much from a silent protagonist, especially since John is a distinct character with a backstory, not a blank slate adventurer to project yourself onto. Sam does most of the talking, but for plot reasons she will not be aware of the big questions or simply doesn't care to ask about them. So it's kept vague and mysterious right to the end. Even the ending feels deliberately opaque.
But the vibes!
While the plot is arguably frustrating, I really enjoyed the world of Eastward. Its combination of great art-design, a memorable soundtrack and a heap of well built characters make this a fun world to explore. I like a lot of the soundtrack choices, there's some good downtempo tracks that evoke a mysterious vibe. However, certain songs are used over and over in certain conversational settings which wear thin as the game goes on. Visually I cannot complain, it looks great and the amount of detail in every screen and every character animation is wonderful. It's also fun for a lot of the game to guess what's going on behind the charming moments, even if by the last third of the game the balance between cutesy shenanigans and darker, mysterious undertones feels misplaced.
Sum it up
Eastward's main attraction is the worldbuilding, characters and story though despite being packaged in a wonderful looking and sounding game, there's not really enough game here to give the frustratingly incoherent storytelling a pass. What game there is, is decent, but fairly simple and owes an obvious debt to Zelda. At 25 hours long, it's a good value package with enough variety to keep things exciting despite its text heavy storytelling, though if you're wanting a fully satisfying story, rather than simply an intriguing world, this maybe isn't the best to offer that. I'd be interested in whatever this studio creates next, since the ideas here are often great, even if they don't fully come together. Maybe something a little less ambitious from a storytelling perspective would be more satisfying.
Soundtrack is mostly a joy
Gameplay is pretty fun, has a good rhythm to itself
What's not so good!
Story is incoherent, hardly satisfying overall
Gameplay to story balance is uneven