Why everyone needs to head… Eastward

Eastward is a comfort blanket of a video game, comprising Studio Ghibli-esque sweeping art miniaturised into a pixel art tableau, gut-wrenching themes reminiscent of the Last of Us, combat as satisfying as retro 2D Zelda, and big homages to classic RPGs such as Earthbound. While the story does suffer from some mild pacing issues about midway, the overall journey is brilliant. My adventure with Eastward felt important, I was uncovering a dark, world-encompassing mystery from the perspective of two small-time protagonists; Sam (an optimistic, bouncy child with some Stranger Things-esque superpowers) and John (think Joel from The Last of Us except mute). The writing is witty and poignant; it made me truly invested in side characters such as eccentric engineer Alva and badass street-samurai Isabel. The music is glorious, chiming in at just the right moment – my personal favourite track is “Sam’s theme” which is such an upbeat, optimistic trill in contrast to the seriousness and bleakness of the post-apocalypse of Eastward; kind of exactly how a little girl would see the world. Visually, this is the most detailed, acutely beautiful 2D pixel art game I have ever played. A colourfully dense and lived-in world, Eastward draws you in scarily easily just on looks alone-

But wait, I’ve barrelled into this review without a warm-up. I’ve been dipping in and out of this game since its release on Nintendo Switch in September. My impetus for buying it was the art style, the fact that John and Sam reminded me of Joel and Ellie from The Last of Us, and I happened to be suffering from a bad flu. I was ill enough to be immobile, but not too ill that I couldn’t watch TV or play a video game for a short while. Eastward came along like a soothing cup of hot Lemsip, distracting me from my physical state and enveloping me in a story drenched in intrigue, a unique style and welcome depth. The game is made up of 8 chapters and I made it all the way to Chapter 3 before I was healed; a large chunk of narrative, adventure style quests in which you are introduced to important characters, with some dungeon crawling. I didn’t return to the game until November when surprise surprise, I had another flu-like illness. Stuck in bed for several days, I rooted around for my switch and picked up Sam and John’s story, reminding myself of the story – what is the killer black fog known as Miasma? Who is this Solomon antagonist? How come Sam has super powers and almost no memory? Finally, leaving my characters stuck in time-looping fog, taking part in sentient-monkey flavoured Hollywood (really), I had another break and rejoined the story in December, having been struck down again (thanks immune system!). One chilly morning I marched through the last dungeon, beat the last boss, watched the final cutscenes, closing the book on Eastward.

New Dam City

From the stupidly high-production value opening cutscene, to the tiniest animations on the 16-bit sprites, Eastward is full of detail. Lavishly and lovingly designed, the pixel art is a rich bouquet of post-apocalyptic bleakness (The Last of Us, Death Stranding) and cute, hand-drawn intensity (Earthbound, Zelda, Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Studio Ghibli)). The music too is fantastic; a lovely chiptune symphony comprising everything from melancholic piano riffs to Stranger Things synthwave. The visuals and the audio all compliment the story being told, which while isn’t something incredibly unique, or subverts expectations, it’s still a really good sci-fi story.

Joel Corelitz (Unfinished Swan, Halo Infinite, Gorogoa) has posted the entire OST onto YouTube for your listening pleasure.

You are dumped into Sam (John’s sort of adopted daughter) and John’s world, underground. Fear permeates the world, much like Hugh Howey’s novel, Wool, it is forbidden to go above ground, where the air is saturated with a toxic “Miasma”. For story reasons (no spoilers), John and Sam are banished above ground to certain death one presumes via an east-heading train known as Charon. Lo’ and behold, the world above is achingly beautiful and there are only some scary monsters! Nothing John with his frying pan can’t handle! (which operates very similarly to Link’s sword) This premise catapults both characters into an adventure investigating the cause of the Miasma (yes the toxic air is real and kills everyone it touches), and why the world is so messed up. Eastward‘s premise reminded me fondly of Aloy’s journey in 2017’s wonderful Horizon Zero Dawn; harbouring a similar post-apocalyptic mystery involving robotic dinosaurs.

Eastward’s story has a lot of heart too. The writing and dialogue is on point and the cinematic storytelling, using flashbacks, perspective switching, and dream sequences among others all serve to better frame the story. Immediately the world and characters felt so real to me, and I think it was due to the high attention to detail injected into the lore. Some of my favourite moments were the short in-game cinematic sequences, with develop the characters, such as when Alva and Isabel go for a drink together; the moment highlights their relationship and shows us vulnerability. Sam and to a lesser extent, John, both have character arcs throughout the game: Sam starts to discover who she really is, and ultimately accepts her importance to the world-ending stakes, while John’s story is far simpler – he acts as Sam’s loyal protector. Interestingly, Isabel and John could be seen as a dissection of Joel from The Last of Us. John is the stoic, strong physical half, who will determinedly try to save and help Sam, while Isabel resembles the mental conflict that Joel experiences, i.e. how far would you go to save the person you love? Isabel’s journey goes from loyalty to obsession. Solomon’s story, the personified puppet bad guy, is complicated as it involves time loops and it’s hard to see how he became involved with the Miasma, and the human factories. Regardless, I found the ending satisfying, but keep in mind there is no exposition dump really at any point in this game, and the ending is ambiguous, much like the ending of Lost (which I controversially like), and I think it works very well. What hampers Eastward slightly is its pacing. Some sequences felt overly long (New Dam City fetch quests for example, or some of the lighthearted missions) before progressing to the next story beat, but since the whole package feeds into the story (there isn’t really any tangential side content, apart from Earthborn), this sluggishness isn’t a dealbreaker.

John, expert in flambé

The game is dense, so much so that it even holds an entire video game within itself, called Earthborn, a retro RPG akin to classic Earthbound, which can played by Sam at certain points in the story, completely optionally. (There is a nod to some of the later characters and the Earthborn party involving time-looping that requires a deep dive on Reddit). I also mean it’s dense in terms of world-building. This is a meticulously crafted world, with so much love for its influences, particularly Earthbound and Zelda, and yet it is more than just a homage. Eastward remixes themes and lore so well that it’s surprising to me that I haven’t found a game that has mashed up a cutesy art style, often bizarre quests (being part of a film, delivering post, helping out a theatre group, etc.) with dark, dystopian themes- Oh wait, I have, just a small series called Final Fantasy.

Speaking of gameplay, it never becomes boring; Eastward does so much to make its relatively linear story dynamic and distinct throughout its course. Dungeons are filled with environmental puzzles, requiring both John’s melee and gun combat skills to overcome, as well as Sam’s floaty energy ball abilities. Additionally, both characters can be swapped on the fly, providing no end of two-person room traversal puzzles. Boss fights are unique, action-packed set pieces, be it a running circles around a huge mutated crab, or dodging a train full of monkeys throwing exploding bananas at you; Eastward doesn’t shy away from the JRPG “silliness” reminiscent of retro Final Fantasy games – Cloud’s dress-up storyline comes to mind in FFVII. Moment-to-moment gameplay feels chunky and tactile, even the Breath of the Wild nod to a cooking mini-game is satisfying to watch. Whether swinging John’s pan, or shooting energy pulses as Sam, Eastward controls very smoothly.

Cooking in Eastward is heavily influenced by Breath of the Wild

I wrote above that Eastward has style, and I mean that dynamically. From using film techniques to affect the story, such as raising tension or unease, to detailed body language quirks, such as John raising his pan protectively in cutscenes, or Sam’s brisk trot keeping up with John’s heavy stomps, there is clear curation from an auteur. A major beat of the story revolves around trains, which are such ripe fruit for plot progress: your set is not static, your characters are hurtling towards a destination at speed, for a variety of reasons. There is often time for character development during dialogue on a train, as the story is waiting to be picked up again. If something goes wrong, like an explosion or a murder, it’s infinitely more tense on a train – stakes are always higher. Just look at Darjeeling Limited, Train to Busan, Snowpiercer, Source Code – some excellent films capitalising on the use of trains in storytelling. Video games such as Uncharted or Red Dead Redemption have utilised this technique to resounding success. Lastly, the way the screen shifts its FOV during a fight scene, or a chase scene, is very cool. I love the compression from widescreen gameplay to suddenly having to runaway from a sentient trash-heap boss on a vertical strip of screen. At one point there’s even an Ashtray Maze-esque sequence (from 2019’s Control), with platforms moving around wildly as John races to escape the Miasma. These flourishes are so well done and difficult to ignore. Reason being, the game was made with so much love by the devs – everything about Eastward is a love letter to their influences, while at the same time carves a new story, adding their own distinctive signatures.

If you haven’t already guessed, I absolutely adored Eastward. I am extremely sad that the story came to an end and can’t help but wish that Pixpil games make a sequel, even if Sam and John’s story has been tied up nicely. To sum up, this game is bathed in charm, excellent writing and a cerulean sky, hyper-detailed pixel-y art style. It’s one of the best games I played all year and I recommend you check it out. And as always, thanks for reading.

Images taken from https://eastwardgame.com/media/