The line between a tribute and a copycat can often be blurred, and it seems that too often new games that borrow ideas from old games fall on the wrong side. Rather than offering creative new takes on favorite concepts, these games have more content to nudge you with a sharp elbow, as they say “‘member?“over and over again. Eastward isn’t one of those games. Shanghai-based Pixpil’s inaugural launch cleverly integrates gameplay and story ideas from beloved classics, while still managing to feel like an adventure. original and well executed.
Eastward follows the story of John, a gruff man of action, not words, and his partner, Sam, an energetic, white-haired girl he found underground. The two live happily together in a small subterranean village and enjoy an almost father / daughter relationship, but things change quickly when certain events bring them to the surface that told them that it is such a dangerous and horrible place. It turns out that things are not as bad up there as they were led to believe, although there is a mysterious force called miasma that is slowly rolling over the earth and destroying everything in its path.
During the roughly 30 hours 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 is very clear how deeply he cares for Sam in his protective actions and stoic loyalty. And when the story takes some surprisingly dark turns, Sam is there to keep the hopeful frame of mind and see how many times the word “John” can fit into a single piece of dialogue. There is a fairly diverse cast on offer on this adventure, but these two are by far the highlight of the experience.
Needless to say, however, history often sounds too much like hard work in various places. The game’s segments are frequently broken up by relatively long cut scenes that go on long enough that it starts to feel more like you’re looking the game instead of playing it while desperately smashing the ‘A’ to cut through the jungle of text. Then control is finally returned to him, only to lead John to the next scene that lasts the same amount of time.
Eastward is therefore a great example to illustrate the need for good rhythm. The story is well written and most of the characters are quite adorable, but they push themselves so hard into endless, must-see sequences of dialogue that it begins to erode your connection to the narrative. Fortunately, this does not sink to the east, but it does take some wind out of the sails.
When you finally get to a bit of gameplay, things unfold like a 2D Zelda game, as you make your way through labyrinthine environments filled with treasure, enemies, and puzzles. The main problem with these sequences is that you often have to toggle (with a quick tap of a shoulder button) between playing as Sam and John, each of which has unique abilities. Sam has his PSI abilities that allow him to fire energy blasts that can freeze enemies and destroy certain obstacles, while John has a frying pan to hit enemies along with his limited-use weapons and bombs.
Most dungeons make smart use of this skill split and often feature some very complicated solutions that require frequent changes and a bit of innovative thinking. Here a delicate balance is being struck in which the riddles feel only difficult enough to be satisfying, but not so difficult as to discourage you, and the solution often depends more on your execution than on your raw logic skills. New puzzle skills and tricks are also introduced at a reasonable pace, making Eastward feel fresh as he moves toward the conclusion.
Combat, on the other hand, feels like it took a little more work. There’s a certain kind of stiffness to swinging around John’s pan that never exactly feels right, and the enemy types rarely demand very advanced tactics. On the other hand, boss fights are often among the highest points of the entire experience, but this is largely due to their showmanship and focuses on integrating elements of dungeon puzzles into the battles themselves. We would have liked to have seen a bit more depth in the combat considering how pervasive it is, but it’s actually more of a constant irritation than a big deal.
The treasures you find when you’re out in the field will often earn you money and parts to use in shops and stock up on things like backpack upgrades and food ingredients. Look, Eastward features a fun little minigame at most save points where John can use his trusty frying pan for its intended use of cooking. There are a variety of ingredients that can be found throughout the adventure, be it in shops, chests or enemies, and these can be thrown into the pan to create new recipes with different effects. A small slot machine will also play while you are blocking your decision, and if you have the dexterity, you can potentially give the plate even greater spin.
Little things like that slot machine game are part of what gives Eastward his charming charm. Another good example is “Earth Born”, a JRPG similar to Dragon Quest that you can play in the game on certain terminals in what amounts to a side mission that basically runs parallel to the entire game. Buying new amiibo-like monster toys can give you a head start here, and it’s a fun way to break the flow of the main mission by trying something a little different.
What probably first attracted him to Eastward was the amazing pixel art direction, and we can happily report that it does not disappoint. What’s so amazing about the images is how utterly detailed they are, packed into a litany of little items that give a lot to chew on, so to speak, in each frame. A series of misshapen posters on a wall. The faded paint of an old ship’s hull that is used as a roof. Flashing neon lights of an old restaurant sign. All of 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 seem a bit played in indie games at this point, however titles like Eastward are proof that there is still a lot that can be achieved if the right effort is put in.
Eastward proves to be a memorable and enjoyable combination of many beloved classic titles, combining each of their elements to forge something that feels distinct and engaging. Creative gameplay sequences, a moving and emotional story, and a assassin all art styles combine to make this one easy to recommend. Having said that, we would also offer a caveat that this is a slow-burning type of game; If you’re not a patient gamer, Eastward’s sometimes lethargic pace can make for a lot of fun. Wherever you fall, Eastward is hands down a game worth checking out, and we encourage you to give it a try.