The line between an homage and a copycat can often be a blurry one, and it feels like all too often that new games borrowing ideas from old games fall on the wrong side of it. Instead of offering creative new takes on favored concepts, these games are more content to prod you with a sharp elbow as they say “’member?” over and over. Eastward is not one of those games. The inaugural release from Shanghai-based Pixpil smartly integrates gameplay and story ideas from beloved classics while still managing to feel like an original and well-executed adventure.
Eastward follows the story of John, a gruff man of action not words, and his companion, Sam, an energetic and white-haired little girl who he found underground. The two live happily together in a small subterranean village and enjoy a quasi father/daughter relationship, but things quickly take a turn when certain events lead to them arriving at the surface that they were told is such a dangerous and awful place. It turns out that things aren’t quite as bad up there as they were led to believe, although there’s a mysterious force called miasma that’s slowly rolling over the land and destroying everything in its path.
Over the 30-or-so hours that it takes to clear Eastward, one thing that keeps the story consistently engaging is the heartwarming relationship between Sam and John. Although John never says a word, it’s abundantly clear how deeply he cares for Sam in his protective actions and stoic loyalty. And when the story takes some shockingly dark turns, Sam is there to keep the mood hopeful and see how many times she can fit the word “John” in a single piece of dialogue. There’s quite a diverse cast on offer over this adventure, but these two are far and away the highlight of the experience.
It needs to be said, however, that the story often feels a bit too much like a slog in several places. Gameplay segments are frequently broken up by relatively lengthy cutscenes that go on for long enough that it starts to feel more like you’re watching the game rather than playing it as you frantically mash ‘A’ to cut through the jungle of text. Then you’re finally given control back, only to walk John to the next cutscene that goes on for just as long.
Eastward is thus a great example for illustrating the need for good pacing. The story is well-written and most of the characters are quite lovable, but they’re foisted upon you so much in endless unskippable dialogue sequences that it starts to erode your connection with the narrative. Luckily, this doesn’t sink Eastward, but it does take some wind out of the sails.
When you finally get to some gameplay, things unfold quite a bit like a 2D Zelda game, as you wander your way through labyrinthine environments rife with treasure, enemies, and puzzles. The main rub of these sequences is that you’re often required to alternate (with a quick tap of a shoulder button) between playing as Sam and John, each of which have unique abilities. Sam has her PSI abilities that allow her to shoot out energy blasts that can freeze enemies and destroy certain obstacles, while John has a frying pan for beating the stuffing out of enemies along with his limited-use guns and bombs.
Most dungeons make smart use of this division of ability, and often feature some nicely complicated solutions that require frequent switching and a little outside-the-box thinking. There’s a fine balance being struck here wherein the puzzles feel just difficult enough to be satisfying, but not so hard that they’re discouraging, and the solution is often more dependent on your execution than your raw logic skills. New abilities and puzzle gimmicks are introduced at a reasonable rate, too, which keeps Eastward feeling fresh as you continue your march to the conclusion.
Combat, on the other hand, feels like it could’ve used a little more work. There’s a certain kind of stiffness to swinging around John’s frying pan that never feels exactly right, and enemy types are rarely demanding of very advanced tactics. On the other hand, boss fights are often among the highest points of the whole experience, but this is largely down to their spectacle and focus on integrating puzzle elements from the dungeon in the battles themselves. We would have liked to have seen some more depth to the combat considering how pervasive it is, but it’s really more of a constant irritation than a big problem.
Treasures that you find when out in the field often will grant you currency and parts to be used back in shops and stock up on things like backpack upgrades and food ingredients. See, Eastward features a fun little minigame at most save points where John can use his trusty pan for its intended use of cooking. There’s a variety of ingredients to be found throughout the adventure, whether form shops, chests, or enemies, and these can be tossed in the pan to create new recipes with distinct effects. A little slot machine will play as you’re locking in your decision, too, and if you’ve got the dexterity, you can potentially give the dish even greater effects.
Little things like that slot machine game are part of what gives Eastward its delightful charm. Another good example is “Earth Born”, a Dragon Quest-like JRPG you can play in-game at certain terminals in what amounts to a sidequest that basically runs in parallel to the whole game. Purchasing new amiibo-like toys of monsters can give you an edge here, and it’s a fun way to break up the flow of the main quest by trying something a little different.
What likely drew you first to Eastward was the incredible pixel art direction, and we can happily report that it does not disappoint. What’s so striking about the visuals is how absolutely detailed they are, packing in a litany of small elements that give lot to chew on, so to speak, in every frame. A series of misshapen posters on a wall. The faded paint of an old boat hull being used as a roof. Flickering neon lights of an old diner’s sign. All these things come together to convey a tremendous sense of place, and we applaud the developers for executing such an impressive visual style. Pixel art may feel somewhat played out in indie gaming at this point, yet titles like Eastward stand as proof that there is still a lot that can be achieved if the proper effort is put in.
Eastward proves itself to be a memorable and enjoyable mashup of many beloved classic titles, combining each of their elements together to forge something that feels distinct and engaging. Creative gameplay sequences, a heartwarming and emotional story, and a killer art style all combine to make this one easy to recommend. That being said, we’d also offer a word of caution that this is a slow burn kind of game; if you’re not a patient player, Eastward’s sometimes lethargic pace may take a lot of enjoyment out of the experience. Wherever you may fall, Eastward is indisputably a game worth checking out, and we’d encourage you to give it a shot.