The first time I saw a glimpse of Eastward was in a trailer from 2018, and its grungy pixel art aesthetic sent me off into a daze like no other. I’ve never seen a game paint such scuffed yet simultaneously sweet environments, making busted up caves and rundown towns look like the best places to chill. After playing through developer Pixpil’s Eastward this past week, clocking in a long 36 hours, it’s clear that the concepts of home and finding beauty in unexpected places are what power this banger of a 2D RPG.
Published by Chucklefish, Eastward is a fulfilling road trip that shows you can find family wherever you go, and that these reciprocal relationships are what light up the world, even in its darkest hours. It makes this point repeatedly through its combat mechanics, puzzle design, and plentiful conversations. Its characters have such standout personalities illustrated through exceptional dialogue and subtle idle animations, which are the cherry on top of truly memorable, beautiful art direction. I have a few grievances with how unfairly it treats its cast at points, but at the end of the day I just wish I had more free time to get lost on the playful, sentimental train ride that is Eastward.
Your adventures begin in the dingy depths of an underground mining town called Potcrock Isle. The town is ruled by a seedy, petty tyrant of a mayor and is a rough place to live, but the townsfolk redeem it, ultimately creating a heartwarming opening setting to an extensive quest across many subway stops. You play as John, a dirt poor digger, and Sam, a mysterious girl that John found in the mines and then adopted. As a ragtag duo, you help folks across the land, and use your powers and weapons in tandem to thwart off enemies and explore Eastward‘s many enigmas. The combo of John and Sam is one of this game’s strengths — the dynamic of Sam’s over-talkative tendencies and John’s refusal to ever utter a word works extremely well. It only takes a couple of hours for their found-familial bond to make a deep emotional mark on you; their world is a cruel mess of garbage, but what they have is worth fighting for. It’s a treat to watch their relationship grow into an unstoppable force through the hardships and the happy times that Eastward offers.
Potrock’s mayor is a coward and uses fear to control the town. He conditions generations with horror stories of a mythical creature called Charon: a rusted, steel god from above that takes miscreants and sends them plunging into a colorless, soul-eating force called the Miasma. The mayor has created a conservative culture where the community is prohibited from speculating or even thinking about the world outside of their shoddy cavern, and anyone who disobeys gets exiled, never to be seen again. Sam, however, has been outside and knows the mayor’s fear mongering is far from the truth. She tries to convince the town, and performs a whole monologue insisting that she’s been above the cave, telling mesmerizing tales of lush greens and blue skies. Rather than being inspired and excited by Sam’s stories, the town dismisses her as a heretic, expelling her and John with a one way ticket to Charon. It’s a heartbreaking sequence when the seemingly nice townsfolk turn their backs on you, but luckily it turns out Charon is actually just an old, mildly unsafe subway train. Once you arrive above ground, it’s just like Sam described — filled with nature, exotic creatures, and eccentric hidden boroughs.
You pass through places like Greenberg, a charming rural village with houses built out of dilapidated boats, then New Dam City, a lively concrete jungle under the clutches of a casino, and Monkollywood, a group of filmmaking monkeys on a train. As you travel through these insular municipalities, learning their customs and meeting their residents, you realize that these communities are way more similar than they’d like to admit. Each town shares a similar DIY theme of people rebuilding from the ashes of something horrible, an unforgettable stain that they have to push through. They all have distinct color gradients: the sepia tones of Greenberg make it feel like a neverending warm dusk, and New Dam City’s cool, flickering neon pillars make you feel lonely, even in a crowd. It’s an artful bolt to the eyes. Eastward commits so hard to its visual style that it feels like pixelated perfection.
That visual flair flows into enemy design and combat as well, making you feel guilty for clobbering cute, well-crafted foes. Fights and puzzles are performed in real-time in the outskirts, and you can switch between Sam or John whenever. John gains an arsenal of ranged weapons and bombs as you progress, but his main weapon is a trusty frying pan that makes a satisfying “thwack.” Sam shoots energy bubbles which freeze enemies in time, allowing John to get some free hits in (Her curious powers get unearthed and explained as you dig deeper into Eastward‘s secrets). The battles are decent, but the more fascinating parts emerge when John picks up an oddjob and has to improvise with combat mechanics to make some quick cash. During the stint at Monkollywood, John is cast as a lead in a giant monster movie and has to run around shooting actors with a fake prop gun on camera. Sections like these highlight Eastward’s keen sense of humor and pacing with rewarding gameplay loops.
Eastward‘s campaign is a vehicle for so many slow burn stories, constantly introducing phenomenal characters and grim twists that have a lasting impact on John, Sam, and by proxy, you. It confidently sets up scenes during the first hour that only pay off 20 hours in, building toward impassioned exchanges that are well worth the wait. Although these moments are strong, they’re occasionally spoiled by uncomfortable, out-of-the-blue flashes where fat people are used as a joke and women are randomly sexualized or mentioned to be inherently weak. These serve no purpose to the game at all, and are a surprising slap in the face of the cozy, welcoming vibes that Eastward, for the most part, is championing.
As the story approaches its apex, the latter few chapters start to drag, handing you busy work as a form of filler — random tasks you’re forced to do for people you don’t know or care for, when all you’re thinking about is a core plot point that got left on a cliffhanger. Those parts are disheartening because Eastward is otherwise a seasoned gymnast of an RPG, and it doesn’t need all of that extra padding to stick the narrative landing. Its ending culminates into something so freaking sweet and satisfying, but for all that I love about it, I wish Eastward shed its off color comments and a few of its penultimate layers to make a more succinct, inclusive story.
I still can’t believe that Eastward is finally here, and that it authentically lives up to the three years of hype leading up to its release. Beating up electric snails with a frying pan never gets old, and it is impossible not to be stupefied by its massively complex and inspired pixel displays. From the moment you pick it up, Eastward feels like a modern classic. I only wish that it came out during a different month, one where I’m not getting whiplash from the many stylish (specifically indie) video game releases back-to-back. Eastward has its flaws, but I still wholeheartedly recommend you make time for this one. You won’t regret it.