Eastward is a game I’ve been looking forward to since playing the demo almost two years ago, but the game has been in the works far longer than that. Finally, it’s time to head eastbound across the train tracks. Prior to the start of your journey in this action-adventure-RPG, the reclusive John finds Sam, who turns out to be a lively young girl, enclosed in a chamber while digging and looks after her from then on.
From the get-go you can tell Eastward’s world is distant from our own and barely held together. While the residents of Potcrock Isle live underground in ignorance for their own safety, the surface you escape to is plagued with a retched miasma that engulfs all life, yet people still strive to live.
Eastward has far more in common with a 2D Zelda game than its other inspirations. John is equipped with a pan, which functions much like a sword, and a limited number of bombs. As you continue on you’ll gain ranged weapons (with a single ammo pool), while Sam gains abilities that run on different energy meters. She actually cannot attack directly but stuns enemies, which can be very handy. Sam also temporarily removes certain plants and miasma, neither of which John can attack.
The locations you’ll travel through are often dungeon-esque and are filled with puzzles blocking progress. Thankfully none of them were particularly brain-busting, being mostly in the vein of typical key finding and strategic bomb use. The pair are usually close together, but every so often, you’ll need to separate the characters to navigate through and solve these puzzles. Their health is shared and they can’t be in separate rooms, so I’d have to quickly switch between and maneuver them around dangers. At one point I struggled with figuring out what I was meant to do in a particular boss fight, more than anything else in the game. Speaking of, these boss encounters are a highlight, especially those that require you to switch between the duo and their individual weapons and abilities. When watching me play my fiance said it made him feel like playing Doom Eternal of all things, because of how I’d switch my weapons and tactics for each type of enemy.
As you explore you’ll come across various treasures, whether it’s salt (the currency), upgrade parts to improve your weapons/carrying capacity, heart orbs, or ingredients. Partway in my journey I realised there are some hidden places, and not just where you find cracked walls. Following one secluded path I came across a new ability for Sam, which I wouldn’t have found if I wasn’t curious. Taking a line more from Breath of Wild, you can utilise various ingredients to cook meals that will replenish hearts, potentially giving temporary hearts and other buffs. Cooking involves a slots mini-game where the quality will increase with matches, but utilising spices also increases bonuses. I do wish that I could skip the cooking cutscene even for new recipes. Personally, I found eating to be quite a lifesaver, and once I discovered the recipe for a fish sandwich I always had one on me. Spotting a stove and more importantly, the memory storing refrigerators always gives a sense of reprieve.
Oftentimes there are large gaps between exploration and combat moments. While I enjoyed the character interaction in these more quiet moments, I did worry that my combat senses might get dulled. Still, things are shaken up a couple of times such as a stealth section or punting potcrabs into a hole. Within towns you’ll be able to play the popular game Earth Born. Despite the name, it seems more like Dragon Quest but with gacha Skylanders (no microtransactions here though!). Tokens can be found to be used at gashapon machines that net you collectible pixballs (monster figures), which unlock different things within this sub-game. In preparing for this review, I didn’t really get to play it much myself, since I’d inadvertently put it off until the point of no return, after which there were no game consoles in sight. It looks fun and keeps track of your runs. I’m hoping for an update that can use my clear data (with my pixball collection) to let me play from the menu, rather than starting the game all over again. Having an optional game within a game is always a treat.
Like many, I was initially interested in Eastward because of the stunning visuals. The world of Eastward is lovingly rendered in detailed pixel art in a colourful but soft palette. Floating in through windows or showing the glow of a CRT, the lighting in this game makes it all the more beautiful. One of the primary locations, New Dam City, really showcases urban life in all weather conditions. When I saw the wheat waft in the breeze or the adorable cheer from the duo every time I won a tough fight, I felt the care put into the animations. The sprites themselves are magnificent with a range of toon-y caricature characters populating the eastern world. This is perhaps the primary reason many have compared Eastward to Earthbound. With monsters ranging from bomb-shooting rubber duck plants to teleporting cape wearing cows, I don’t blame them. Nonetheless the style of this game is distinctly its own and it’s a damn beaut.
I simply must have a copy of Eastward’s soundtrack, though I adore the minor tune that plays whenever you beat a boss fight too. The music always sets the mood perfectly whether it sounds like you’re in an 80s action movie, or listening to relaxing winds in the forest. It’s largely electronic but there is a good range of styles, some tense tunes even have a little funk to them.
Eastward’s writing is great in its use of the English language, often very poetic and the characters come alive with their personalities. As this game is littered with cutscenes, I’m glad it’s filled with great dialogue. It’s a game well worth talking to most of the NPCs for the humor alone. Either way you’ll go from helping a circus pitch tents to talking about how great a game we’ve never played is. John is a literal silent protagonist, but his feelings come across well, while the childish spunk and wonder of Sam frequently made me smile. The overall plot, while mysterious and intriguing at first, pans out to be a pretty typical story,which is only a let down largely because of the amazing cast, visuals and sound. As silly as the world can be with a ghost telling you ghost stories or a bulletin board made of a man covered in post-it-notes, everything is well grounded.
I beat the game just shy of twenty hours, but I did miss some secret areas and hadn’t really touched Earth Born, so your time is likely to be greater. I was able to get through it with minimal trouble so those looking for a challenge in either combat or puzzles might be disappointed. The time between action can drag on a bit but I rarely found the conversations dull. In my playthrough I experienced no technical issues (beyond the most minor of a visual glitch) and was able to play without having to change any settings on PC.
Though the primary plot would have benefitted from the energy placed in it’s characters, the adventures of Sam and John is still worth playing through. Many are likely to be drawn in by the music and visuals alone but the gameplay ensures its more than style. If you’re interested in a Zelda-like with a heavy story and character focus, then you can’t go wrong heading East. Given how great Eastward is for a debut game, I’m willing to patiently await many years for another.