Eastward: Of Our Atmospheric Journey Ever East

Our tale begins in the semi mysterious, underground island of Potcrock. Here we meet the stoic, usually silent Digger John. He works in the mines, and is known for being one of the toughest customers on the island. The entire place feels oppressive, from the dingy environment to the confining, engaging music. John looks scruffy: his beard takes up most of his face and he dresses like a homeless man who thinks fashion ended in the eighties.

From the animated opener (there’s nothing but spritework from here on out folks)

Not soon after meeting John, we meet Sam. This ball of energy and light has brilliant white hair, which already sticks out, and is wearing a black sweatshirt like a dress, hinting toward the fact that her parental figure (John) may not entirely know what he’s doing or be able to provide for her. Her lack of shoes doesn’t stop her from being a ball of optimism as she pings around the world, eagerly taking in everything and everything, while insisting that she has dreamed of a blue sky and fields of green, things the residents of Potcrock Isle have never heard of.

For the land has been destroyed by the Miasma, a creeping black nothing that eats away at everything alive, and possibly at reality itself.

But Sam knows better, and she refuses to let the world diminish her internal light. As that light becomes a good deal more literal, John swears to protect her, and together circumstances thrust these two onto Charon the train, a vessel of lore that is determined to take them ever Eastward.

Many in the indie community sang this game’s praises when it came out late last year. I was initially reluctant. For one thing, its gameplay loop is very much more classic Legend of Zelda, top-down adventure than my usual RPG or Metroidvania preference. But for another, it looks like several other indie games: aping the old Super Nintendo look and feel, very particularly looking something like Earthbound here.

Sam looks particularly adorable at nearly all times

And to be sure, it does try to capture that whole indie sprite feel. The sprites are expressive and incredibly well done, which each character communicating their personality through appearance alone. Again, John looks scruffy, but dependable. Sam looks every inch the ball of light she is.

Mix this with brilliant music and lighting, and you begin to realize something. Eastward’s main strength is its atmosphere, its ability to draw you ever inward to its world. The music engages you even as the visuals start to paint a picture of an ever expanding world. As John and Sam venture Eastward, they uncover more about the world and about Sam, and as a result, you the player enter more and more of the world yourself (seeing that whole immersion thing I’ve discussed in Spiritfarer and other places).

The tale here is remarkably mature. It details what we need to do in order to survive, what we owe others, and delves into the idea of what makes us who we are. There’s very weighty sacrifices here: the Miasma is an ever present threat. The whole thing has this grand weight to it that really resonates with at least me as a reviewer.

Let’s just say there’s definitely a reason that everyone recommends this game.

Again, a lot of this comes down to atmosphere. Eastward wants its players to feel wherever they are. And they are in some very odd locations: Potcrock, a bustling Asian-flavored city, a train, and a train car full of movie-making monkeys. The gameplay stays more or less the same, but they’re always willing to try something new. Maybe it’s a river-boat racing scene atop a jeep. Maybe it’s a shell mini-game you’re supposed to lose.

That’s not even considering that there’s an entire second game nestled in this one. That second game is called “Earthborn,” and it’s revealed early on, as Sam’s friends eagerly play it outside the grocery store. This harkens to old arcade situations, but the game itself is an obvious homage to classic JRPGs, most obviously Dragon Quest/Warrior itself. You’re a stranded knight who must rescue a princess from darkness.

But it’s a rogue-like. You have a set period of time, and chances are very high you won’t win the first time. Instead, you go to various locations on the map, recruiting other main heroes. Along the way, you fight random encounters, but also set ones. Some of those set ones are in caves that grant items. And you unlock teleportation points. Each run lets you grow closer and closer.

And you revisit this JRPG rogue-like in almost every location throughout the main game. I found myself spending almost as much time playing that game as Eastward, particularly when I wanted a break from the top-down adventure bits.

Those are pretty good on the whole. There you alternate between John and Sam, each of whom have different powers and abilities. Sam controls light, which lets her paralyze some enemies and destroy Miasma. She’s also a kid, so she can get places John can’t. John, on the other hand, is a “Combat Master,” using his frying pan as a primary melee weapon and working with bombs and other materials to fight.

The world is littered with puzzles, most of which dance the fine line between hard and engaging. There were only a few “f**k you game” moments for me, and those usually weren’t as lasting as they are with some games. With one exception, the game felt right.

That exception is a stealth section a little past the midpoint. This game is not built for stealth. They did not think this section through: abilities that should work, don’t, and it feels trivialized in the game itself. It was incredibly frustrating, nearly to the point of making me give up.

To quote my earlier self: f**k you game (this section came dangerously close to making me quit)

Which would have been a shame. Eastward is a truly amazing game from start to finish. It tells this engaging story by drawing the audience in to its unique world, thus proving that atmosphere is as important as anything else (a point I’ve hammered home). It draws inspiration from the old, from Zelda and Earthbound and other classics, but it never feels tied down to them. It knows when to break away, to try things that are kooky and new, from including a JRPG rogue-like into the main game (I would seriously pay almost $10 for Earthborn alone), to having new play styles that mostly work, to just having changing environments.

Now, on top of those frustrating moments, there are a few issues. My copy glitched out literally every play session, kicking me out to the main menu. That’s really odd for a Switch game (I haven’t had issues to quite this extent with any other game). There’s also a few rough spots like that stealth section.

And the game’s pacing is… glacial at times. It wants to build atmosphere and weight, and at times sacrifices pacing and gameplay to do so. It does feel like you’re on Potcrock a long time. On top of that, you definitely spend too much time in a city: it starts about a third of the way through the game and takes you to well past the halfway mark (some reviewers and players have said upwards of 8-9 hours in a 14 hour game). I’d argue that gives the location some weight, but even I have to admit it feels a bit draggy and like they don’t quite do enough with it, particularly given how well paced the rest is.

All of which still leaves us with a great game. Not a perfect one, but one that does a lot of what it sets out to do. Eastward wants us to think back while moving forward, heading steadily toward the East and that new dawn as we do. It draws us in and helps us to see that, and does just an amazing job.

8 only because of my glitches; it’s easily a 9 without them; stupid stealth section and pacing issues stop it from hitting perfection either way

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