Eastward is out now and our review of this charming RPG might very well find you picking up a classic.
Legend of Zelda was never a game I knew I needed to play. It sort of just fell into my lap thanks to my Gameboy. This greyscale tale of a young adventurer, however, managed to define an entire genre and plenty of my gaming experiences, and it seems the same might be true for Eastward developer Pixpil with their brand new retro adventure.
Opening up like a copy of Littlewood crossed with Gurren Lagann, Eastward sets itself apart from the competition with a surprisingly detailed depiction of a town where the frontier attitude of the Sector 7 Slums comes up against an oddball brand of personalities. While the world above awaits, the underground establishments and quirky characters that open this adventure are a treat to the eye and ear. The artistic direction immediately plays on the title’s charming pixel art aesthetic. Central characters John and Sam are intricately detailed, animated in a way that lifts them off the page. From the subtle swish of Sams’s hair to John’s nonchalant swagger, these two are a typical representation of the care taken when bringing Eastward to life.
It’s not just the central characters that capture your heart in Eastward either. From the ramshackle underworld through destroyed malls and across the gorgeous color scheme, this entire title quickly unveils a level of fidelity that screams passion project. It’s a joy just poke your nose into underground railroads filled with dilapidated pop up shops pieced together by corrugated tin and neon backlights, while the overground cities teem with quirky NPCS, one of which seems to even be modelled after Miyazaki. It is immediately obvious that there’s an astonishing level of detail and an equally fanatical love of games invested in Eastward. The aforementioned NPC is not the only tip of the hat, and if you’re not careful the game within a game ‘Earth Born’ will quickly sidetrack classic JRPG fans with an entirely different experience. Even the soundtrack, by Joel Corelitz, seems to go out of its way to play with old old-school tropes while layering in ideas that never overshadows this new adventure, and it is an adventure.
Taking control of John and Sam, players picking up Eastward find themselves stepping out into a rather low key adventure at first. An easy opening gets players accustomed to a simple control system, which is best co ordinated using a console controller. Playing as John, there are no epic journeys, no foes to take down, and no heroic deeds. Instead, you’re a simple miner, survivor, and underling in this subterranean situation. \saddled with helping Sam, the runt of the litter and an adorable character with a golden mane of hair and a perky attitude, John’s life would revolve around mining salt, except Sam decides that It’s time to find out if the grass is really greener up there.
What quickly unfolds, is a narrative RPG that focuses on an unintended adventure featuring two unexpected heroes. While I will avoid dabbling in spoilers, it’s fair to say that Eastward goes places and it borrows the best of old school JRPG adventures along the way. Both John and Sam are entirely different characters to play, each with their own abilities and approaches to the problems that they will face. There are, of course, a few upgrades that each can purchase, opening up more options as they explore new areas of this world. However, these are both perfectly balanced and somewhat limited.
Whether it’s mutated venus flytraps or hulking robots, the obstacles that inhabit each stage of Eastward have their own unique look and feel. The team at Pixpil keeps this quest to the overworld engaging by drawing up a ton of variety. While the core gameplay loop doesn’t particularly break any new ground, the continual mix of different enemies, utterly endearing characters, and different puzzles ensures that this never hits the pitfalls of far too many retro roguelikes.
Despite this, anybody looking for something as challenging as a roguelike dungeon crawler might want to look elsewhere. Eastward isn’t about the combat, it’s about the people that you meet along the way John, the scruffy one, kicks off Eastward with a killer frying pan that you’ll need to mend before taking into combat, and a few upgrades allow for a mildly more explosive set of weapons. Sam, on the other hand seems to channel a power all her own, lighting up the dark and freezing enemies with her own life force. Again a very limited set of enhancements are available, but whichever of these two you’re wielding you won’t have any issues. Despite some lovingly crafted bosses along the way, Eastward practically showers players in extra hearts, power-ups, and plenty of saves to keep moving forward. Combat, much like the rest of Eastward, serves the narrative more than the bragging rights of its players.
The extra heart of Eastward is the evident devotion of Pixpil. From the pacing that rarely hangs around in one place to the balance of offbeat video game tropes and serious drama, Eastward is a beautifully realized experience. The graphics, the games, and even the cooking system are dam near perfect, not because they are deep and complex but because they are, like Eastward, as small and perfect as Sam.
If you’re looking for a cute caper full of odd but utterly endearing characters that is an homage to early 90s games, you absolutely need to check out Eastward on PC, via Steam, or over on the Nintendo eShop for Switch.