If you’re old enough to remember the heyday of SNES gaming–or at least have given Nintendo’s various virtual consoles a fair shake–you’ll see the ways in which Eastward wears its inspirations on its sleeve. You’ll see it in the cutesy heart meter that represents its characters’ remaining health. You’ll hear it in a telltale music cue that plays when you use a bomb to blow open a secret passage. You’ll play it in an almost fully-featured RPG playable within the game called Earth Born, which recalls the style and structure of an early Dragon Quest game mixed with a gacha-style monster collector. And you’ll see it in a minor NPC that’s the spitting, pixelated image of legendary anime creator Hayao Miyazaki. Whether you do or don’t recognize these callbacks, though, Eastward feels like a game charting its own course. Rather than the bucolic paradises of Studio Ghibli movies or the sword-swinging fantasy fare of Dragon Quest, the dominant aesthetic of the game is a sort of cutesy calamity. The apocalypse it depicts through gorgeous pixel-art graphics is vibrant, warm, and almost hospitable.
Eastward begins on Potcrock Isle, an underground settlement that functions as the last bastion for humanity against a surface world rendered uninhabitable. They control two characters: John and Sam. John’s a digger, an underground worker who excavates treasure for Potcrock’s exploitative mayor. He doesn’t talk much at all, but Sam talks enough for the both of them. She came to Potcrock after being literally dug up from the ground by her bushy-bearded guardian. They live out of the husk of a wrecked bus, scavenging in the tunnels for junk to sell and fending off intrusions by pestilent slugs with John’s trusty frying pan.
Before long, the pair are forced to leave Potcrock, exiled to the surface. But as it turns out, the surface isn’t all that bad. In fact, it’d be downright comfy, if not for the mysterious miasma slowly swallowing the world. And so begins the titular journey eastward, as Sam and John move from place to place aboard a dilapidated locomotive, searching for both a place to call home and the source of the miasma that stands to threaten it. Across the thirty-odd hours it’ll take to clear Eastward, players will take Sam and John through a series of lovingly rendered locations. Considering that pixel graphics are usually associated with the limited capabilities of an earlier generation of game consoles, it’s fascinating how much detail developer Pixpil has wrought from the form. The environments burst with life and animation, and every character down to the most minor NPC feels unique.
Eastward doesn’t have the most original or complex narrative, but the individual character moments and the whimsical vibe of its world carry the day. Even when large portions of the story are propelled by the prospect of having John and Sam do a variety of odd jobs in their latest stop along the journey, the world is enough of a joy to move through that one doesn’t mind all this meandering. And there are also the minigames. Pixpil appears to have taken a bit of a cue from Vanillaware by putting much attention into bespoke cooking and food animations, as well as other little additions that I won’t spoil since they’re delightful to experience for the first time. And don’t forget that Earth Born feels like an entire game in itself, with procedurally generated elements and a roguelike, run-based structure underlying its Dragon Quest aura.
The wandering isn’t all peaceful, though. The post-apocalyptic world of Eastward may be beautiful, but it’s not safe by any measure. Outside of town, Sam and John will encounter any number of monsters and labyrinthine dungeons to plumb in search of the day’s take, which often won’t come without a fight. John can whack them around with his pan, but he’ll also acquire a shotgun and a flamethrower. Sam doesn’t do much fighting directly, though her powers allow her to stun enemies and hinder them, setting them up for a cast-iron coup de grâce from her bearded buddy. Sam’s powers are also essential to solve a number of the puzzles scattered throughout the world.
The combat is also where the game Eastward hits a few bumps. For the most part, it feels a bit too easy most of the time. Most enemies rarely challenge players to use their full tool set, and the puzzles are straightforward enough to be considered “no-brainers.” This would be fine for casual sorts like myself, but this easygoing attitude changes considerably in the game’s various boss and mini-boss encounters. Those demand finesse with characters and a level of mastery that Eastward doesn’t necessarily teach you the rest of the time. Having that level of challenge spread out a bit more evenly across the whole game rather than concentrated in these admittedly engaging moments would benefit the work as a whole.
Slightly lumpy pacing aside, though, Eastward feels like a bright, beautifully rendered action-RPG, with a uniquely positive atmosphere. Those looking for a lighthearted experience would do well to take the trip.