It’s often trite to describe something as ‘charming’; a hand-wavey descriptor usually acting as shorthand to mean ‘cute’ and not much more. Eastward is charming, though. It really is. It’s definitely cute, and it certainly fills your heart with that sort of adoration things do when they’re both of the 2D sprite variety and superbly animated, so your common use of charming is covered there. But it gets so many other things right that you can’t help but be… well, charmed.
Eastward tells the story of Sam and John, the former a young girl who was discovered in mysterious circumstances by the latter. The enthusiastic and forthright former sees the stoic latter as a father figure of sorts, and attempts to live a normal life in the underground mining community the two are part of – going to school, making friends, and so on.
But Sam also yearns to head overground into the world above, something expressly forbidden by the underground powers that be. Handily, both Sam and John are soon enough exiled to the above lands, and from there need to head – all together now – Eastward. It’s quirky and characterful, riddled with surreal little touches here and there, and an attention to detail that sees anything from daft little incidental touches on characters (like wiping snot from their dribbling nose) through to an entire (albeit small) Dragon Warrior-style RPG to play on an in-game console.
Where Eastward stumbles a bit is in how much it readily lifts from other games. The overall experience can be seen as Zelda: A Link to the Past’s adventuring and combat style, mixed with Breath of the Wild’s cooking, by way of Earthbound’s quirky, surreal, yet warm atmosphere. Plenty of other titles get the homage treatment along the way too, but the fact is it just works really well.
If you know what you’re looking at you’ll see where stuff comes from, where inspiration has struck, but playing Eastward you’re met with an assured, confident design that doesn’t feel like a pale imitation of the things that came before. From the smartly designed puzzle work of switching between characters and their differing powers in order to progress, through confronting the bullying brats at school with your delightfully nerdy friends (not quite) in tow, it all works really well.
Eastward is easy to recommend and the sort of thing that I can see people wanting to play through multiple times just to stare at it, just to be drawn in by that atmosphere, to admire Joel Corelitz’s wonderful score. But there are some out there, like me, who will tire of it a bit sooner than might have been expected. It’s some 20-plus hours long, depending on how quickly you push yourself through, but it feels like something that would have suited being half that length. All the same, it’s still a very good game and a great debut from Shanghai-based Pixpil.
Has to be the animation, doesn’t it? It takes a while to really notice that you’re seeing looped or canned animations for characters as they just look so fantastic. But even when you do realise they’re not 100% bespoke for every situation, it hardly matters… because they just look so fantastic.
A supremely characterful game and a lot of fun – just ten hours too long.
Format: PC (tested) / Switch / Mac
Release: Out now