Date: September 19, 2021
Warning: This review contains minor spoilers for the plot of Eastward.
One of the wonderful things about the rise of the indie game developer is the increase in the number of titles that draw inspiration from gaming’s past. It’s probably still pretty tough to sell the EA board on a game that’s “Like cult-classic SNES JRPG Earthbound, but with action like A Link to the Past”. Luckily, there are publishers out there like Chucklefish willing to give a small studio like PixPil a chance to make exactly the game they want to (rather than whatever has the best microtransaction potential).
In other words, those of you waiting for your Earthbound/Zelda mash-up need wait no longer! It’s here, it’s got a cute little girl (Sam) and her tall/strong/silent protector (John), it’s got weird NPCs and dungeons aplenty, and it’s even got a 100% playable 8-bit game within. When it works, it really works, but a lot of the time, Eastward puts the crawl in dungeon crawl.
Taking a classic retro game and bringing it into the modern era with a new coat of paint (and maybe some new mechanics) has been a solid strategy for a while now. There are numerous successes with this formula, such as Shovel Knight or Undertale: games that, while relying heavily on the titles of decades past, manage to improve or iterate on their source material to the point that they’re worthy successors. In some ways — its art, world design, and clever blend of SNES game mechanics — Eastward is one of these triumphs, while in other ways — its dialogue, pacing, and balance — PixPil’s freshman effort falls flat.
The game gets off to a slow start, with the first few hours serving as an overly long tutorial for the game’s puzzle mechanics. You’ll go through a twenty minute dungeon basically every time the game wants to teach you something new, whether it be how to clear certain obstacles with a bomb, or how to switch between Sam and John to get through one of the game’s many puzzles. I use the word puzzle here very lightly, as it’s unlikely you’ll spend more than ten seconds solving any of them. It isn’t until the final few chapters that any of the block-exploding and switch-smashing provide a real challenge, and by that point I was pretty ready for the game to be over.
Herein lies one of my biggest issues with Eastward: most of the dungeon crawling was boring. At least a dozen times in each dungeon, you’ll be forced to use John’s frying pan or bombs to clear the way forward. The standard bomb takes about 6 seconds to go off, during which time you have nothing to do but twiddle your thumbs or admire the same environmental tiles you’ve stared at for the past five rooms. This is fine the first few times, but quickly begins to feel like a chore.
This tedium is only exacerbated by the enemies that respawn every time you leave a room (and some that respawn while you’re still in it), as the combat in most of the dungeons is fairly dull. Most enemies are easily dispatched without ever switching weapons or using Sam’s powers; the only time they provide a real challenge is when they end up directly on top of your character model, where John’s most frantic pan swings won’t do anything. As with the dungeons themselves, the enemy encounters do get more interesting near the end of the game — but by then it’s too little, too late.
This wouldn’t be a dealbreaker by itself. After all, the main draw of the game for many will be simply exploring Eastward’s beautiful world, chatting up NPCs, and finding all the little secrets hidden behind walls and bushes while progressing the story. Indeed, from what I’ve seen of other reviews and online discussions, many people are enjoying the writing and story of Eastward quite a bit, so take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt: I thought the writing in Eastward was terrible.
For starters, every conversation lasts about twice as long as it needs to. This would be OK if the writing was enjoyable, but it’s passable at best, laughable at worst. One of many questionable NPC lines delivered with no apparent irony is the cliché “The only way to see the light is to cut through the darkness”, and the inter-chapter text often strays into fan-fic territory: “How do you define cold? Is it a low temperature? Or the absence of temperature altogether?” I’m unsure if these lines were originally written in Chinese (PixPil is based in Shanghai), so perhaps the blame lies with the translators rather than the writers, but either way, it was frequently hard to stomach.
So I found myself trudging through overly long and simplistic dungeons, wanting it to be over while simultaneously dreading the moment when I’d get out and have to click through line after line of uninspired dialogue. In addition to all the blabbing the NPCs do, they often have chores for you, too. Sometimes these are half-way decent minigames, but more often than not they are simple fetch quests, or even just another NPC to talk to.
The game also requires a decent amount of backtracking, and doesn’t really allow you to explore the world — if you try to go off the set path of the main quest, you’ll frequently have an NPC or Sam tell you you’re going the wrong way, and you’ll be unable to progress. At one point, I found a building that I was pretty certain was our next objective, but nothing was there. I then followed my quest marker across town, where I had an NPC tell me that everyone was waiting for me at the building I had just been at.
The story also starts out interesting, but eventually goes completely off the rails. The first few hours do a good job of making you want to know exactly what Sam’s deal is, but the plot quickly spirals into a mess of time-travel, disaster movie tropes, and a monkey Hollywood on a train (seriously). While I think I understood what happened in the ending, I’m still not sure — and what I did understand did not impress me.
It’s a shame, because there’s a really good game at Eastward’s core. The way the two characters work together to clear dungeons is inspired, and while they may not be well written, the cast of characters is diverse and interesting. The world feels fleshed out and full of life, and I genuinely did want to talk to everyone I saw — at least until I’d read their first few lines of dialogue. Most of the boss fights were well designed and provided an interesting challenge (though they generally lacked a way for Sam to be useful).
If instead of being upwards of 20 hours long, Eastward had been distilled into a 10-hour adventure, I think I would have found myself enjoying the dungeon crawling, and the dialogue wouldn’t have bothered me nearly as much. With better writing and a compressed gameplay loop, I think Eastward might even have been one of my favorite games of the year. It’s only 24.99 on Steam at the time of writing, so there’s at least no question you’ll get your money’s worth, but I can only recommend this game to someone who is so in love with the look of Eastward that they’re willing to forgive the flaws in its pacing and writing.