Pixpil’s Eastward is a masterpiece of visual storytelling, with some of the strongest art direction ever seen in a pixel art game. However, it also has utterly bizarre pacing and fairly basic gameplay mechanics that don’t always make it a thrill to actually play as a video game. So like any fascinating piece of art, Eastward is probably going to evoke a wide spectrum of responses, positive and negative, and this review is just here to help you get a read on where you might fall on the spectrum.
Narrative-driven adventure with great writing, yet a weak plot
Unexpectedly, Eastward reminded me a lot of my favorite game, Quintet’s Illusion of Gaia on SNES. Both games are intensely narrative-driven top-down action adventures with basic gameplay mechanics, and you will regularly permanently lose access to old locations as the story ushers you to new places. If you miss a collectible, there’s no going back; you just have to move on. I found it refreshing and praise Pixpil for being so single-mindedly dedicated to telling the story it wanted to tell.
The dual protagonists are silent older guy John and chatty little girl Sam, whom John discovers in a test tube, basically. They live out a surrogate father-daughter relationship, and it’s amazing how much characterization John receives over time despite never speaking. Sam is the key plot driver though. The spoiler-free version of events is that circumstances simply cause John and Sam to leave their home and, well, go east.
All of the dialogue is earnestly charming and bestows every one of the myriad NPCs with unique personality. So many games try and fail dramatically to mimic the charm of EarthBound, both in its writing and visuals, but Eastward miraculously recaptures that magic by just finding its own voice. This world feels imaginative and lived in.
The problem is that Eastward wants you to live there a little too much. The pacing of the game is glacial for the first few hours, with so many dialogue scenes establishing basic world-building and providing characterization to the ensemble cast. Things finally pick up wonderfully in Chapter 2, but then Chapter 3 is agonizingly prolonged with scenes that exist mostly just to highlight individual NPCs, as opposed to driving forward the main plot. In fact, the main story doesn’t really become a focus until around halfway into the 24-30-hour adventure, and it ends up being both overly obtuse and frustratingly generic.
Dialogue text is relatively sluggish to appear on screen but can be sped up in the options to a more acceptable speed. (The review originally stated it could not be sped up. I apologize for the error.) I often felt like I was watching the game (and mashing the A button) as much as playing it. To be clear, I don’t inherently view that as a bad thing, as I loved the Xenosaga series and its hour-long cinematics. But since Eastward’s myriad cinematics don’t actually add up to much in the end, it’s harder to stomach.
Ultimately, the main plot of Eastward is not particularly original or engaging, yet all the individual scenes between the colorful NPCs are well crafted (if sometimes prolonged). This breezy approach to storytelling evokes the more plot-light Studio Ghibli films, like Kiki’s Delivery Service, where it’s more about capturing and appreciating special moments than it is about building up an epic adventure narrative. It’s up to you to decide how you feel about that.
What is unarguable though is that Eastward is an incredible visual accomplishment. Environments of all kinds are hyper-detailed, from densely packed cities to forests and caverns, and artful use of lighting filters helps to establish specific moods. (Although, sometimes those filters get in the way of appreciating all the details.) Even more impressively, the number of unique NPCs in the game is mind-boggling, and they have such an enormous range of animations to reflect how they feel in any given conversation. It’s truly incredible.
The soundtrack, by comparison, is serviceable, but the visuals are so powerful that it never felt like the music complemented the storytelling the way the visuals did.
Fighting and puzzle-solving as a duo
John and Sam go almost everywhere together in Eastward, which means you can swap between controlling either character at any time during combat and puzzle-solving. John has a frying pan for a melee weapon, and over time he gets a shotgun, a flamethrower, a gun that shoots ricocheting saw blades, and three types of bomb. All guns share one ammo resource, and all bombs share one bomb resource. The saw gun comes relatively late and doesn’t really matter much, and the two additional types of bombs come later on as well but at least factor into puzzles.
John can find collectible gears in treasure boxes that can be spent at shops to upgrade his weapons or expand his ammo counts. You can also find orbs in treasure chests, which function identically to heart pieces in Zelda and will expand your maximum health for every four you collect. (John and Sam share one health bar.) You can buy a treasure detector at the start of the game that makes finding a lot of treasure much easier because it beeps when you get near one.
Meanwhile, Sam can use chargeable energy bubbles to stun (but typically not kill) enemies or remove obstacles that John can’t. She can optionally gain a few more abilities over time that can be used by gradually filling up a bar, and the most valuable ability by far is one that restores health. Some hidden mini-dungeons can help you power up her abilities further, and sometimes the plot dictates upgrades as well.
Outside of orbs and Sam’s special power, if you need to heal, you either need to return to a rest spot or eat food. Cooking is a theme of Eastward, and cooking lets you mix various different ingredients for various healing effects and temporary stat buffs. The game really wants you to experiment, but I mostly ignored cooking since I extremely rarely ate any food. Eastward auto-saves constantly, so there’s little risk in dying (though I rarely died outside of boss fights) and just trying again with what you’ve learned. This is good, since the game crashed on me four times during my playthrough.
John and Sam can attack at any angle like in a twin-stick shooter, which often factors into puzzles if you need to aim Sam’s bubbles or get John to whack his own bomb across a pit, for example. The standard combat never felt particularly engaging to me though, as it amounts to John just cornering enemies to pound them repetitively with the pan until they die or expending a bit of ammo to kill them faster. Switching to Sam to stun especially aggressive enemies adds a bit of strategy, which is nice, and Eastward does have an appreciable amount of different enemy types. But my strategy to killing things ultimately varied little over the course of the game.
Fortunately, boss fights fare better. Some of them are stretched a bit longer than necessary, and a couple of them could do a better job of choreographing what you are supposed to do in order to win. (One boss fight had me stumped until the game glitched and didn’t load the boss’s attack patterns, granting me time to just hit it with everything I had until I figured out what I needed to do. The same glitch occurred in a different boss fight later.) There is also one boss fight where the game suffers from intense, distracting slowdown, and Eastward has some minor frame rate hiccups in general on Switch. However, on the whole, the boss fights provide a nice, varied challenge, and it’s satisfying to learn and counter their patterns.
By virtue of how simple and restrained the combat options are in Eastward, the puzzles are similarly muzzled. You will whack a lot of bombs over pits to activate switches, burn a lot of dangerous shrubs to clear a path, and shoot a lot of energy balls to remove obstacles. The wrinkle is that sometimes you have to control John and Sam along separate, adjacent paths, and you need to have each one help clear obstacles for the other.
These particular segments are usually pretty fun, and in general, there are some entertaining and clever moments in the midgame and especially toward the end. But I wish some of that late-game creativity could have appeared sooner, to help it crawl out from Zelda’s mammoth shadow. As it is, the dungeons sometimes suffer from the same bizarre pacing as the rest of Eastward, and I felt in particular that the final dungeon had some segments that just didn’t need to be there.
Finally, Eastward has an RPG game-within-a-game called Earth Born (sound familiar?), which has NES Zelda-like graphics and exploration, a Dragon Quest III-style hero, turn-based combat with selectable party members, and capsule toys to collect to unlock more aspects of Earth Born. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get far in it due to a bug that made it impossible to back out of a combat option once you’ve selected it. However, PR informs me this has been subsequently fixed.
Eastward is special, despite everything
Eastward contains phenomenal art and colorful writing, yet the plot meanders breezily from moment to moment with little care for pacing and an unoriginal core storyline. Factor in average combat and puzzle-solving and a couple bugs that should be addressed, and Eastward is not quite as fun to play as it could be. That being said, a lot of people are going to fall completely in love with it anyway for the things it does right, and you might be one of them.
A Nintendo Switch review code for Eastward was provided by the publisher.