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Eastward - Review



Family is important. Just about everyone has a family or a loved one they can look up to. It’s the group of people who provide you comfort or help you during troubling occasions. They raise you, protect you, provide for you, and try to guide you towards a bright future. Families are there to nurture you into becoming a kind hearted individual, and you will have to do the same when the time comes to raising your family. Family is family, but not all families have to be related biologically or genetically. Sometimes there are families which consist of members who aren’t related or look like they come from drastically different places. You may encounter a couple with adopted children who aren’t the same race as them, stepparents who are of course stepping in for a missing role, or maybe just two really close friends who call each other siblings. They aren’t related, but they can still be family. They still have the ability to nurture and look out for each other. Families vary. They come with different personalities, traits, shapes, and sizes. Even if they are weird, you shouldn’t be ashamed of where you hail from.


That’s the feeling I got from playing Eastward recently, a classic styled adventure game with RPG elements thrown into the mix developed by independent studio Pixpil. At first I thought Eastward was an RPG Maker game seeing how the game played and how it’s two influencers being The Legend of Zelda and Earthbound mainly, but then I saw how detailed the game looked and that it runs on an original engine the studio made. Development on Eastward was really rocky. Pixpil is a Shanghai based studio and back in 2015 it only consisted of three members, Currently they sit at twelve members which is still really small for a video game studio, and hiring those workers wasn’t easy as they needed full-time employees and contributors to their project. They had a small budget to work with and were struggling to figure out what their first debut game would be. They swapped back and forth between the idea of a mobile puzzle game or a turn based roleplay game, but soon they settled with the idea of a roleplaying adventure.


They wanted to provide a truly exotic, exquisite, and colorful adventure. A tale their players could look back at hours after completing the game. They wanted to explore the themes of traversing the unknown and the friendly faces you’ll meet along the way. They also took a bit of influence from Shanghai culture and architecture, as art designers for Eastward drew monstrous buildings and creatures. You can definitely see that in game as a lot of buildings and meals in Eastward are in fact things you would see in Shanghai and other eastern countries. Eastward spent around six years in development which is a lot of time. Pixpil had to rewrite the story and redo gameplay sections several times, and they were struggling to find a publisher who was willing to fund their project and get their game out in the market. In the end they teamed up with Chucklefish, a British publisher and another small developer who made Starbound and most recently the tactical Wargroove. Eastward was beginning to shape up and midway through 2021 the final version of the game was released. Pixpil got to see if their debut indie would succeed and luckily it did. While it may not have blown up like other releases at the time it still did really well. Reception was positive and a loving community was starting to sprout from the game. It was enough to make the team at Pixpil happy and relieved now that their work paid off.


I’ve been meaning to play Eastward ever since it came out. My schedule was busy for the time and there were dozens of other titles I wanted to cover. Eastward was pushed towards the back burner, and even when I managed to snag myself a copy it got pushed even further as there were still dozens of other games on my backlog I wanted to talk about. It wasn’t until two weeks ago that I finally started it up and I can’t believe I didn’t play this game sooner. Eastward is a truly magical experience that you have to witness first hand. While it’s flawed in a couple aspects the narrative was beautiful. The world building was expansive, characters were memorable, and the story had a lot of heartfelt moments. Eastward left a strong impression on me and I really want you all to experience it. Today we’ll be talking about why I loved Eastward and why it deserves your attention. All aboard for a new destination lies at the end of these silver tracks.


Story

This section will explain the first two chapters of Eastward, so spoilers going forward!



Our story follows two characters, John and Sam. Sam is a young white haired girl with a cheery personality and wants to witness something new and extraordinary, while John is a grizzled old man who looks after Sam and serves as her caretaker. Together they live in an underground city known as Potcrock Isle and the community there is quite small. Almost all the men in town work in the mines and everyone else has to deal with the corrupt and impolite mayor. They could just leave the town as it’s always dark, they have to eat the same meals over and over again, and there’s not much else to do. However, they are warned by the mayor that what lies on the surface is chaos. The world Eastward is apocalyptic. Not in the same sense as The Last of Us where everything is in complete shambles. More like what is dangerous could hop out of nowhere and trying to set up a peaceful life on the surface can be both hard and risky.


John and Sam have most of their lives living and contributing to the community of Potcrock, but Sam wishes to experience a new type of adventure. Away from Potcrock and go to a place far far away. One day Sam is given the chance to go to school and while arguing with the school bullies she witnesses what appears to be a copy of herself. Unseen from normal eyes, and has the ability to distort time so that she and Sam can have private conversations with each other. This copy of Sam refers to herself as Mother, and she tells Sam that prosperity lies on the surface. A place lit by a bright blue sky and townships teaming with color and not so mean citizens. Sam is driven to see what lies on the surface, but her classmates warn her not to bring it up to other members of Potcrock because if anyone talks positively about the surface they will be exiled. Unfortunately that is exactly what happens, and both John and Sam are sent away on a train deemed Charon. Luckily Charon smashes into the mayor’s house, so at least he got what he deserved.


John is a little ashamed of what happened, but Sam stays optimistic because their lives are about to change, possibly for the better. They reach the surface and luckily Sam’s positive outlook comes true. Blue skies light up the evergreens above, and one of the first townships the train stops at welcomes them with open arms. Life on the surface is prosperous and new opportunities await the duo. John and Sam accept jobs given by the town and while exploring they uncover a weird underground facility. By interacting with the terminals dotted around a computer terminal machine refers to Sam as “Mother” and asks if she would like to activate reproduction chambers which is what the facility was designed for. Sam and John walk away as they don’t fully understand what is going on, and the computer states a substance known as MIASMA will be released soon. During the night Sam and John are awoken by chaos occurring outside, and are forced to flee as black corrupted cloud consumes the township they were welcomed into. The two manage to escape, and by the morning they are riding off to find new shelter. Sam has no memory of the township they stayed at and what occurred, but it’s probably for the best as John wants to protect what innocence they have. At the next town they encounter a new friendly community, and from there new adventures await. John and Sam will face the unknown. Fight peculiar monsters and uncover a truth that ties to Sam’s origins and purpose. It’s coming….


Gameplay


A majority of the time Eastward is a narrative focused game with heavy amounts of dialogue, but there are occasionally gameplay sections to divide the amount of rambling and exposition going on. It’s a mixture of top down action and exploration similar to something like classic Legend of Zelda or Hyper Light Drifter with RPG progression and upgrade mechanics. You fight monsters, pick up items, and do whatever you can do to fend off against the next big baddie. It can be challenging at times, but that’s why you have to come prepared for whatever may lie next.


You swap between two characters, John and Sam, and they both have unique abilities to solve puzzles and fight enemies. At times the two will be separated and they’ll have to work together to push forward. John is the more combat focused among the two. He has four weapons to wield and three types of explosives. The four weapons include a pan which is melee focused and good for bashing foes up close. A gun which functions more as a shogun and deals heavy damage when you are close to an enemy. A flamethrower to burn certain surfaces or apply fire damage to enemies. Then a saw blade launcher shoots saw blades which bounce around and when they hit an enemy they deal multiple hits for a second or two. Bombs include basic bombs, flying bombs which home in on targets, and remote detonate bombs. You can even use the pan’s charge attack to launch bombs across a short distance or over gaps you can’t hop across. John can upgrade his weapons at vendors, but this will cost Salt which is the game’s main currency and Gears which can be found in treasure chests scattered across the world. It’s a one man and little girl army.


On the other hand you have Sam and she’s more of a support character and puzzle solver. Sam isn’t good at fighting off enemies, but she does wield magic projectiles. When she hits an enemy with her magic she can hold them in place for a short amount of time. Smaller enemies can be held in place for a longer period of time. Sam can even charge up her magic projectiles to launch bigger projectiles which travel farther, but all her magic relies on a meter. You have to wait for the meter to recharge to perform more actions with Sam, and when the meter is completely used up then it goes through a longer cooldown. Sam will struggle to use her magic and you’ll have to wait for a certain period of time. Learning to swap between the two characters is crucial for surviving each combat scenario. Too many enemies at once can be troublesome, so maybe use Sam to stop certain enemies. Prioritize your targets and take out the most troubling ones first.


During your adventures you’ll pick up food supplies, and they can be used at cooking stations. By combining certain ingredients you can cook meals which can be pulled out during fights and exploration to restore health. There are other ways to restore health like resting at a bed or letting hearts be dropped by fallen enemies or smashing objects, but these are rare occasions and waiting for hearts to drop is very rare at times. Eating meals is the main way to restore health and depending on what ingredients you use you can regain more health or apply buffs to the two. Another thing to look out for while exploring are permanent health upgrades. Beating certain bosses and progressing through the story will trigger events that increase maximum health, but you also want to search for heart containers scattered across the world. Collecting four heart pieces will increase maximum health by one point, and you’ll need all the health you can get when it comes time to facing later bosses. A healthy family gets further after all.


There’s not much else to bring up besides the minigames and side activities you can encounter along your journey. They are there to help provide downtime or add a change of pace. Stuff like ranching flying pigs, batting projectiles, or racing a car down a waterfall. These events only occur once though, but one that you can access anytime during your adventure as long as there is a machine for it is playing an arcade game called Earthborn. Yeah, they really are making their influences clear. Fight monsters in turn based battles and try to save a fantasy land. There’s even a vending machine across each township where you can collect Earthborn figurines for Sam. That’s it really. Simplistic gameplay, but enough to engage the player. Hopefully you can guide Sam and John, and prepare them for the tragedies that lie ahead.


Thoughts


Eastward is fantastic. We’ll cover the flaws shortly, but I’ll just say right now it’s a great game and a lot of people are going to enjoy what is on offer. What it does well is done tremendously and even when the game starts to get annoying these moments don’t last too long and the game powers through to deliver the next wonderful moment. The pixelart is just gorgeous. Pixpil used a completely original engine developed by their own team members, and have perfectly shown what their programmers and developers are capable of. Advanced lightning, a wide variety of colors and shades, and bouncy animation of each of the characters. There’s a lot occurring on screen and it’s a sight to behold. The amount of things on the screen does come at a cost though. I had framerate drops during certain sections and occasionally Eastward crashed which forced me to spend a couple minutes to restart the game, but the performance issues rarely occur and the crashes happen only during lengthy play sessions. Plus you don’t even lose a ton of progress when the game decides to crash. Eastward autosaves really often and you’ll lose a few seconds from where you were last. It’s a forgiving game that wants you to always keep moving forward.


On the story side of things this is where Eastward strives. It sets up an interesting premise, mystery, and gets us to care about the two main characters immediately. Sam is just this joyous ball of sunshine, and even though John is a mute protagonist with no personality we do get to care for him. As the story goes on we learn more of a science project of the past gone wrong, and how the world is slowly falling apart and being replaced by the next generation of life. Mankind is on the brink of extinction and Sam’s origins may be involved with this. John is aware of all the bad things happening and is able to keep up with the madness, but Sam isn’t up to date. She doesn’t understand what is going on, and all John is able to do is protect her. Ward off the evils coming in and protect what is the only friend he has. Protect this girl, this daughter which he took in years ago. He can’t risk losing his family. Watching pure innocence be corrupted.


That’s not to say John and Sam are the only good characters in the entire game. There’s a ton of colorful folks to be encountered and they all add to the world of Eastward. You have the cheerful scientist Alva and her badass friend Isabel, and later on you get to see a love story occur between the two. You have Lee who appears to be a crime lord at first but does the best he can to lead his city, you have William who is on a quest to make his robotic son Daniel feel more like a human being, you have Jasper whose this one man performer until he joins a circus of clowns, and a bunch more. All the characters are enjoyable and the communities you stumble upon are unique. They help make the world feel lively and add depth to what could have been another generic apocalyptic game. However, it’s Sam and John which make Eastward a selling point to me. You’ll attempt to fight through nightmare after nightmare. Keep the happy moments alive, but realize happy moments can’t stay forever. You’ll see friends go and the family you have will disappear. I won’t spoil more, but the game ends on a good note and this is definitely a story that should be left where it is and let the player imagine what could have occurred afterwards.


Gameplay-wise this is the weakest aspect of Eastward. It’s not that it’s terrible or badly designed, but that it’s not doing enough. Puzzles are enough to test you, but don’t seem to evolve. Your arsenal grows stronger, but some tools will never be used again beyond dungeon puzzles that require them. The saw blade launcher is the best projectile weapon in the game and outclasses literally everything else. The game doesn’t do a good job showing you blacksmiths exist and it wasn’t until the end that I used one to upgrade my toolkit. Combat is easy to grab a hold of, but it doesn’t particularly feel good, which is fine for me but not for a lot of other people. The healing system is fine. I like how you have to consider what ingredients you mix together to make an effective meal, but if you know exactly what you are doing you can basically become unkillable. Sam’s magica projectiles have small hitboxes, so a lot of times you will miss. Maybe that’s just me having bad aiming. Biggest complaint of Eastward ties into both gameplay and story is that certain sections will last longer than they should. I never got annoyed with the writing or dialogue, but there are times you wish they’d move on already. This is a fifteen-hour long game which isn’t bad, but by the end I was sort of burnt out and ready for Eastward to be done with.


Eastward is a difficult recommendation to make. I had a really positive time with the game, but not everyone is going to enjoy the mass amounts of dialogue being poured onto them and how okay the gameplay is. However, I enjoy narrative driven games and Eastward had a story that kept me invested. Solid writing, characters, story beats, and moments. If they could improve the gameplay or narrow it down to a consistent ten-to-twelve-hour long adventure, then expect me to give this a 9.5 or maybe even a 10. You could say it’s trying to parody The Last of Us with the post-apocalyptic setting, and father and adoptive daughter relationship. It’s not that and the game manages to forge its own personality. I recommend Eastward and I hope you readers can give it a whirl. In the end I’m going to give Eastward a 9/10 for excellence at best.


9/10. Excellence

This critique was written by the single man at Review on. Stay tuned for more content and feel free to check more reviews out over at my site

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