If the first thing that caught your eye as you opened these pages was the sumptuous pixel art, then you’re not alone. Way back in 2015, programmer Tommo Zhou was so inspired by artist Moran Hong’s glorious work that he decided they had to turn it into a video game.
Back then, Shanghai-based developer Pixpil was still tiny, comprising Zhou, Hong, and designer Ye Feng. “Moran had a lot of different styles of pixel art,” Feng tells us, “and that really inspired Tommo to start making an indie game. That was the very beginning.”
Four years on, Pixpil is now a ten-strong team, and Eastward has grown into a sumptuous top-down action-adventure that, despite its clear debt to earlier entries in the Legend of Zelda series, possesses a style and atmosphere all its own. Feng cites Mother (or EarthBound, as it’s known in the west) and the movies of Japanese animation masters Studio Ghibli as reference points, which immediately shows here: Eastward offers up a lush, post-apocalyptic world full of round, squashy-looking enemies and leafy forests, where cars and lorries quietly rust into the ground.
If you’ve seen Studio Ghibli’s classic film Laputa: Castle in the Sky or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, you’ll feel immediately at home in Hong’s pixel art impression of a technological world slowly reclaimed by nature.
Where Eastward departs from its Zelda underpinnings is in its twin character mechanic. You can switch between the two leads – a middle-aged-looking guy named John and a young girl called Sam – with the tap of a trigger. Sam has magic attacks which only work on certain enemies, and by holding X, she can fire a ranged attack that zaps across the screen like a lightning bolt.
John’s the more battle-hardened of the two, though his weapons are hardly conventional; he wields a gun, but his primary weapon is, curiously, a frying pan, which he can swing for quick attacks, and also charge for a slower but stronger blow.
The duo’s weapons are used to solve some gently taxing environmental puzzles, where John’s frying pan is used to propel rafts across rivers and streams, while Sam’s lightning bolts are used to remove harmful barriers that drift into their path. “We started with the two character designs at the very beginning,” Feng explains.
“It’s always been a debate over how much freedom you want to give to the player when they control the two characters – whether they always move around together, or whether they can [control them] whenever they wish. It’s kind of tricky to make it work and smooth for a player who’s just picked [the game] up.”
There are elements of the game that are still a work in progress in the build we tried at EGX in October; there are hints of a cooking mechanic, where you’ll collect ingredients to make potions, that aren’t finished yet. The city overworld we wandered around, and the leafy dungeon we battled our way through, will also be integrated a little differently in the finished game, according to Feng.
But the areas we sampled offer a firm yet enjoyable challenge, whether it’s using John and Sam’s abilities to navigate around a tricky network of hazards, or switching between their frying pan and lightning attacks to take out some of the game’s wilier enemies; there are some great level design ideas in here, borne from a lengthy process of iteration and refinement.
“The level design has taken the longest time,” Feng says. “With level design, you have to go back and forth – to be honest, we’re still learning and making progress. It’s not easy to make a classic, 2D Zelda level that’s so smooth, people can [just] pick it up and play it.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the process of creating all that pixel artwork runs the level design a close second in terms of time and effort: according to Feng, around 70,000 hand-drawn frames of animation have been created for Eastward so far.
To help speed up the development process, Zhou set up an asset pipeline that can import layered artwork directly from Aseprite – Hong’s pixel art editor of choice – to Zhou’s custom-built game engine.
Nevertheless, it’s easy to see how a comparatively small team have taken almost four years to get Eastward to this point: its developers have poured hours of thought into everything from the movement of grass in the aftermath of an exploding bomb, to the particular way water ripples beneath a raft as John hops aboard.
There’s much we don’t yet know about Eastward; Feng won’t be drawn on story specifics, except to say that, while there isn’t “a concrete story at the beginning,” we’ll gradually discover “what’s happening in this world” as we explore it. Feng can, however, clear up one small mystery for us.
Why, of all the blunt implements he could have picked up, did John choose a frying pan? Is it a nod to the ever-popular battle royale genre, perhaps? “I think [it’s] because a lot of us love cooking!” Feng laughs. “It’s true. This was before the battle royale had become popular – it was already a decision that we wanted a frying pan in the game. It’s like a Jackie Chan movie – everything can be a weapon, so why not?”
Well, why not indeed.
Format: PC / Switch