Eastward is an enticing mix of old and new videogame tropes. In its old parts, it is a top-down adventure where the player characters’ tools are used to fight enemies, solve puzzles, and find upgrades. In its new parts, it is the story of a violent man and the messianiac child he has taken under his care in a post-apocalyptic future.
John lives a tough life on Potcrock Isle, a subterranean settlement where a small community shelters against an unnamed calamity that befell the rest of humanity. While toiling away at his job as a digger, John uncovers Sam, sealed and apparently asleep inside a tube in a ruined laboratory. He adopts her as his daughter. The odd pair soon prove too disruptive for Potcrock Isle’s despotic mayor, who banishes them to the surface world on a train called Charon. Instead of the certain death they were promised, John and Sam find the surface is vibrant and filled with other surviving communities where they may be welcome. But a malevolent figure from Sam’s past pursues the pair, troubling their search for a home which carries them further and further eastward.
At its heart, Eastward is an old-fashioned top-down action-adventure videogame, reminiscent of 16-bit classics like The Legend of Zelda and Beyond Oasis. John is the most overt example. He fights primarily in melee combat, wielding an upgradeable frying pan against threats to himself and Sam. He uses tools like bombs to break down crumblings walls and a flamethrower to clear out plant infestations—or to apply more brute force against the post-apocalypse’s monsters. When he defeats a boss, he earns a new hit point. If he is especially diligent in his exploration of the environment he can discover orb fragments which combine in sets of four into further new hit points.
Sam is John’s counterpoint and Eastward’s second player character. Reflecting her innocent outlook, Sam’s power over light and energy are less deadly than John’s improvised implements. With a flick of her finger she can trap enemies in bubbles, activate certain power sources, and fill bioluminescent mushrooms with energy to light up dark rooms. Using power absorbed from the enemies John defeats, she can generate a protective shield or restore missing hit points.
John and Sam explore Eastward’s caves, forests, and ruins together most of the time. Their abilities synergize, and it quickly becomes second nature to freeze monsters with Sam’s energy bubble before switching to John to finish them off with his frying pan. Sometimes it is necessary to split the pair, leaving Sam to weigh down a switch that keeps a door open while John presses ahead to find some other route for Sam to rejoin him.
Little of Eastward’s combat and puzzle design is original. It can be found in any number of other action and adventure games that pair two characters with dissimilar skills. Though its conceits may not be memorable, they are executed well and I have little reason to grumble as they happen. Eastward’s real draw is its setting and plot which carry remarkable strengths but also disappointing weaknesses.
Eastward’s story is told across eight chapters. Each describes a problem that John and Sam encounter, the subsequent adventure they have solving it, and the ramifications which drive them on to the next train station. This episodic approach is ideal for exploring a richly realized world.
Strolling through Potcrock Isle in the first chapter alone is evocative. Residents live in rusty motorhomes and converted buses in a disused quarry—except for the mayor, whose opulent townhouse sits apart in a one-home suburb guarded by uniformed police officers. Between them lies a shopping district where a dead ringer for Hayao Miyazaki sells milk and vile purple fruits called sandrupes. After school lets out, children cluster outside the corner shop to play a videogame called Earth Born on a rusty kiosk.
Each city John and Sam visit is overflowing with non-player characters living their own lives. A mother and daughter shop in a grocery store, the daughter frustrated with her mother’s indecision over which fruit to purchase. A young woman named Emily chafes against the farm community she was born into, John and Sam’s arrival driving her to dream of a different life someplace else. An old man and his robot friend wander the streets of a city, marveling at how much the city has changed, how much the old man has changed, and how the robot hasn’t changed at all. All of these NPCs change positions throughout each chapter, each having new things to say as they advance their mundane lives in the background of John and Sam’s imaginative adventures.
The level of detail woven into Eastward’s various environments is impressive, creating a dense tapestry of character and incident that makes its world feel real and alive in ways few other videogames accomplish.
The problem with Eastward’s impressive level of detail is it often gets in the way of enjoyable pacing. Chapter three is the biggest offender. John and Sam arrive at a thriving city and run afoul of Lee, the proprietor of the local gambling establishment. To avoid Lee’s ominous but non-specific threats, John must create a meal that will appease him. So John and Sam spend the next five hours—one quarter of the time it takes me to finish Eastward—gathering cooking ingredients. By this time I’ve become aware of Eastward’s true villain and witnessed one of their acts of mass destruction, but this plot point is ignored for five hours to focus on a cooking sidequest that tells me nothing new about the protagonists or their situation.
The time isn’t fully wasted. Throughout this long and tedious shopping trip I become intimately familiar with every inch of the city and its dozens of NPCs, from the fish market near the docks to the park where a circus has set up semi-permanent residence. John and Sam scour every corner for advice about ingredients that might appease Lee, delving through multiple dungeons to obtain them. The chapter ends and John and Sam embark on their next adventure, leaving Lee behind. He no longer matters to the story, despite spending one quarter of it dealing with his conflict.
At times I am left feeling like little effort is made to focus Eastward’s narrative. It rambles as though being told by an imaginative child describing an especially important event but focusing far too much on what their characters ate for lunch than the epic quest they embark on after.
Eastward’s storytelling also encounters problems with the characterizations of its two protagonists. Like the classic player characters he is inspired by, John is silent throughout the adventure. He is also expressionless, his face hidden behind an unruly thatch of hair and a tangled beard. His appearance creates an air of stoic inscrutability so thick that whatever he is thinking or feeling is an exercise for the player.
I spend my time with Eastward hoping that John will suddenly speak or I will discern a deeper understanding of his paternal devotion to Sam. I wait in vain. With so much effort apparent in overflowing Eastward with incidence and detail, it’s disappointing the same cannot be said for John. He is an uninspiring and shallow player character, notable only for the violence he unleashes in protection of his ward and forgotten before the credits have finished rolling.
It falls to the naive and gregarious Sam to drive Eastward’s plot forward. As a child who trusts everyone implicitly and is convinced the world is much safer and happier than it is, Sam excels at getting the pair into trouble. Sam is the one who gets them banished from Potcrock Isle. Sam gets caught cheating in Lee’s casino. Sam insists on stopping the bad guy and saving the princess. It gets to the point where silent, loyal John feels less like Sam’s father and more like her beleaguered battle butler, responsible for preparing her meals and protecting her from harm while she blunders from danger to danger.
Though she speaks, Sam is almost as uninteresting as John. She’s trusting to the point of exasperation, so sweet she turns coffee to cocoa, and her attitude infectious enough to break down the most sour demeanors. Her origin, found asleep in a tube in a lab, leads exactly where it sounds like it’s leading. There are only occasional moments where it seems like the traumatic events Sam endures are getting to her, all of which pass with little examination.
Eastward’s biggest problem is its world feels so rich and full while little of that weight is present in its player characters. John and Sam are cookie-cutter videogame protagonists wandering a world far more interesting than they are.
This problem of too much detail and not enough context or relevance even applies to activities within Eastward. Earth Born is an RPG which John and Sam can play at various shops around the world. It’s an entire separate multi-hour experience and seems to have only remote relevance to John and Sam’s adventure. It’s even a pretty good videogame by itself, drawing equal inspiration from Dragon Quest and Earthbound and taking several hours to finish—but there doesn’t seem to be any reason to finish it. Like John’s inscrutable expression, what deeper meaning or emotion Earth Born adds to the Eastward experience, if any, is down to the player’s interpretation.
If there’s one part of Eastward about which I can gush unabashedly, it is the sprite art. Instead of trying to imitate a specific era of videogames, Eastward’s sprite art is of an intricacy and detail that can only be described as “contemporary.”
While plenty of indie videogames have incredible sprite art, Eastward is notable for the sheer quantity of it. I can witness an entire city and dungeon without seeing a repeated image, as though John and Sam are exploring a landscape made of pixels instead of brushstrokes. If I’m not paying attention during the extended shopping trip, I can miss dozens of unique signs and curiosities in the city’s background which I will never see again, adding to the shape and texture of a living city. Warm golds and pale greens saturate every inch of the world, creating a color palette that suggests the passing of summer into autumn. It’s a gorgeous setting that conveys the level of detail built into its construction.
Character designs are equally as lavish. They take full advantage of the high definition resolution to create large character models that exude subtleties. The casual way John walks with his hands shoved in his jacket pockets tells me more about his character than any other thing I learn about him. Sam is dressed only in an overlarge sweater that fits her like a dress, contrasted with a mane of eggshell hair that, from behind, can make her look like a walking bush. Some characters are truly bizarre. One early coworker of Johns wears what appears to be a giant harmonica on his chest, and it takes me some time to deduce that he is some kind of robot.
For all the misgivings I feel towards Eastward’s narrative, its pixel craft is top-notch. It’s one of the best-looking videogames in recent memory, outranking even multimillion dollar AAA productions which strive for photorealism. Eastward is a phenomenal example of art design always beating fidelity.
Eastward is a frustrating mass of contradictions. Its world is rich with details, but those same details create a meandering pace. Its cast of non-player characters are eclectic and filled with the spark of incidental life, but its player characters are bland and one-note. It retreads lots of old ideas well, but doesn’t have many new ones of its own. It’s a visual delight, but sometimes a narrative bore. I think it’s a good videogame, by the end, and the best way to experience that good videogame is to be fully aware of what you’re in for. Eastward is brilliant, except when it isn’t.