Review – Eastward
Very few games are capable of catching my eye and leaving me spellbound. It needs to have that certain flair that grabs me with its hooks and never let’s go. For a decade now, I’ve reviewed several titles, and amongst them, there have only been two cases of a perfect ten. The reason for that is simple: I’m notoriously analytical. It’s why I’m single, but on the bright side, it allows me to dig into the core of an experience. Eastward immediately caught my eye upon its reveal. The gorgeous representation slathered all over left me smitten. Despite Pixpil being a new studio to me, the association with Chucklefish made my ears perk. There was no question about it, I had to review this title. Will it be my third 10, or does it fall short?
I’ve often regurgitated the perception that voice acting can breathe life into an otherwise uninspired script. It does so by injecting cadence into the dialogue, thus pronouncing the tone. It helps the player to feel immersed and, in some cases, empathize. Eastward, however, is far better for being text-only, and, quite frankly, it even flourishes as a result. Maybe it has to do with the graphical style, but being able to voice everyone myself felt right.
I was also always able to determine proper emotions behind anything that was being said, thanks to the literary techniques used. For instance, stutters depict nervousness, while methodical wording showcases excitement, disarray, or other such traits. That was aided further by the excellent animations – they’re so damn smooth. A special shoutout goes to Sam and how she’d bounce to portray her giddiness – it’s so friggin adorable.
The overarching narrative is enjoyable and strongly reminiscent of Earthbound. There’s even a mini-game that can be played called Earthborn. If that’s not an indication that Eastward wears its inspiration on its sleeve, then I don’t know what is. One aspect I was enamoured with was character interactions, as well as their whimsy quirks. The banter too, though, wholesomeness and telling an enthralling tale took precedent above all else.
The cast is varied, adding a lived-in and robust feel to the world. There’s straight-up robots, monkey humanoids, and muscle-bound dunces that all radiate charisma. Sam is, specifically, well done, and sports a clear child-like innocence. It helps nail down the father and daughter dynamic between her and the other protagonist: John. What I took exception to is this title’s ability to engross me in its characters. Not all of them, mind you, but I gave a damn about a few.
NPC conversations, in general, are where the similarities to Earthbound and Undertale truly prosper. Not only is everyone random with their thoughts, but they insert the unmistakable identity of an outrageous universe – a staple of the SNES classic. It’s incredible, but it’s also quite text-heavy, meaning that if you dislike cutscenes, be wary. The differential between actual gameplay and dialogue is 50/50 and, at times, can extend to be more in favour of words. Furthermore, I stumbled on tiny side-quests by simply chatting up the locals, meaning that talking is encouraged. It’s, assuredly, divisive, but I never felt it harmed Eastward in any way, if at all. The characters are fantastic and kept me going – I’d even smirk at their antics. Above all else, I wanted to see the story through – one that took me around 30 hours to finish.
Despite the positivity surrounding the writing, I do still have gripes – one being John himself. See, he’s the silent type, which hurts his potential. While the others around him help to move the story forward without any awkwardness, I couldn’t help but notice something consistently missing. Simply put, many scenarios would have significantly benefited from his added input. His relationship with Sam, for instance, would have another dimension to it. Throughout my entire session, she’d joke or ask questions to no reply. Now, there are times when his body language is sufficient enough. Hell, I’d be lying if I said that the familial-like connection isn’t evident because it is. Still, a bit of personality would have gone a long way to fleshing him out. Yes, this is a nitpick, and as a whole package, he is serviceable and weirdly delightful.
While both aesthetic and script reminded me of Earthbound, the battle mechanics are lifted straight out of A Link to the Past. John, however, doesn’t harness a sword and, instead, wields a frying pan. It’s a fitting piece of equipment since he’s beating monsters into an ugly submission. Okay, awful jokes aside, there are sub-weapons to gather, too, including a shotgun. These are upgraded via blueprints that are found in shops, although that doesn’t mean crafting’s viable. Upon purchase, they just raise the strength and overall level. If I’m honest, I didn’t even handle most of them outside their very specific purpose. Other than the shotgun, I could bypass bolstering the others and invest all that in-game currency elsewhere. That rendered half of the armaments redundant, only valid for their small role before being ignored.
Another mechanic that Eastward borrows from The Legend of Zelda is cooking. For fans of Breath of the Wild, the animation is, basically, a 2D variation – the music is even evocative of it. The ingredients needed are usually bought, but sometimes, enemies drop them. Buying items to create food is where the bulk of the money will go. In total, there are several recipes to unlock, and I loved it.
I had fun trying for each one, and despite being discovered via experimentation, there’s no RNG to cause any frustration. That’s because all possible outcomes are dictated beforehand, so I knew if the resulting dish was new or not. That not only eliminates trial and error but also limits the need to grind for money. The healing properties and stat buffs that each provides, unfortunately, are less than ideal. That can be improved, although it’s done through a slot mini-game.
It’s at this point that the once absent RNG rears its head. See, to boost a food’s rank, it requires a matching pair or three-set. It’s typical gambling fare: obtaining a usable healing item hinges on Lady Luck not flipping you off. If she does, your reward is subpar cuisine. Luck is the difference between recovering three hearts or six – something that’s especially crucial as enemies grow more lethal. Now, there is a way to ensure a slightly higher success rate. By tapping the action button in quick succession, I churned out a few extra than usual. Even with that, though, it’s largely hit or miss, and for every triumph, I failed three times. What’s worse is that those ingredients are wasted, meaning I had to grind just to buy more.
Finally, with Sam accompanying John through this journey, expect to bounce between the twosome semi-frequently. There’s a handful of puzzles that utilize this one mechanic, especially since both have unique skills. For example, John is capable of placing bombs to uncover hidden passages. I’m a massive fan of the continued Zelda homages, and having to interchange characters forced me to step out of my comfort zone. Up to that point, I was murdering with his frying pan. I chose violence for my session, and my choice seemed appropriate since Sam isn’t proficient in combat. She can stun, though, and using that in conjunction with John’s hard knocks was handy. As for the puzzles themselves, none were tricky but still provided a challenge. Several of the ones found in the late game, particularly, demanded perfect timing, as well as some trial and error.
What more can I say about the graphics that I haven’t already? The character animations are sublime, never struggling to be executed. They are smooth, and that, in itself, adds personality to these bunches of data. I couldn’t help but audibly gush when I saw Sam sleeping with her mouth agape – it was so cute. It’s evident that the detail in the pixel-art was painstakingly implemented, and it paid off in spades. Everything about the visuals screams pristine and shows an immense amount of passion put into it. There’s not much to critique here, and even if I tried, I could only point to the Miasma that ravages the world. Even then, the way it’s presented seems adequate and, to be frank, the exact way I’d handle doing it. Also, I’d like to mention that when Sam rides on John’s shoulders, my heart melts.
Smiles erected due to the cheerful musings of the OST. It matches the whimsical nature of Eastward perfectly. That said, I didn’t feel like it did its duty whenever a sad event occurred. I always held the firm stance that an effective score amplifies the current happenings and exaggerates the intended emotion. That wasn’t evident here, sadly, and whenever I was meant to detect grief, the music didn’t help with that. The only reason I felt anything was thanks to the excellent writing. Pixpil has an innate ability to get me to give a damn about their characters. As I touched on in the beginning of this paragraph, one emotion it did manage to pull out was utter joyfulness. The ominous-natured tunes were also well done. This entire package is composed of catchy, truly pleasant chiptune tracks that grace your ears.
Eastward is a spectacular adventure well worth the wait. Hell, my complaints are all subjective, so they, to most, won’t even apply. That’s a testament to how mechanically sound it is. I enjoyed every second of it, and while I would’ve liked for the slot mini-game to be tweaked, the battle system made grinding more than bearable. There’s also a way to get ample amounts of currency that aims to cushion that grind further. Still, it would’ve been nice if, with progression, it got easier to hit high-rank dishes. It’s, especially, confusing because there’s a ton of references to exploiting the slot machines. Speaking of, I loved the many references to SNES classics like Dragon Quest or Chrono Trigger. It made this 32-year-old smile, so I obviously recommend Eastward. Now to get a physical copy for my collection.
The pixel art style is absolutely beautiful. It gives this world a vibrant look and infused it with a charismatic feel. The animations are fluent and never jarring.
I absolutely loved the tag team mechanic and switching between Sam and John. A dodge button is missed as some enemies are fast to strike. I also didn’t enjoy how half the weapons were rarely used.
Its music made me smile, and the entire OST was nothing short of delightful. It, however, fails to invoke sadness, relying on the connection it built through excellent writing.
If a game is able to leave me missing it, even after I finished, it was immense fun. Not only fun, but also extremely memorable.
Final Verdict: 9.5
Eastward is available now on Nintendo Switch and PC.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch
A copy of Eastward was provided by the publisher.