Pixpil’s debut Eastward is a game I desperately want to like. In fact, I struggle to say I actively dislike it—there’s a lot to love in its richly detailed pixel world, and several moments that made me believe in the vision expressed across its overlong 20 or so hour runtime. Unfortunately, the game consistently roadblocks its more immediate themes and storytelling with overlong story segments and a terminally wooden protagonist, whose lack of emotion even in his body language leaves the game with a confused tone.
Though inspired by the Mother series as well as the 2D Legend of Zelda games, Eastward is very much its own experience. The game, at times, feels like an elevated version of a Game Boy Advance title, with its opulent pixel art, propulsive chiptune soundtrack, and sweet story. It’s one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played, and is a constant visual delight. Every locale in the game feels staggeringly alive, with gestures towards a greater culture, way of life, and population communicated through idiosyncratic dialogue and minute design touches. The game is, above all else, concerned with life and how it manifests, which is one of its strongest aspects. It’s unafraid to move at an unhurried pace and tell very small stories.
The issues arise after these stories have come to pass. John, the primary playable character, is a silent protagonist of the strictest sort. Unlike characters such as, say, Link, we’re given little to infer about his personality. He carries a frying pan around and is an avid cook, but doesn’t seem to have any sort of discernable passion for the subject other than his dedication to cooking for Sam when she’s hungry. Despite the game’s lavish animations, he’s limited to mostly keeping his hands in his jacket pockets and scratching the back of his neck. He seems to possess a strange magnetism, as Sam is staunchly attached to him and multiple women in the game show a keen affection for him. While comical (what do people see in this corpse-like man?), it undermines the true story being told in Eastward, that of Sam’s.
There are times in Eastward where terrible things happen, and when beautiful things follow them, but there is no room or time to contend with any of it. The game goes out of its way to sideline Sam, even to make her forget that something awful has just happened, so as to return to the jolly tone just before these encounters. John shows little signs of trauma, care, or even memory—essentially, we’re left with a sense of whiplash where nothing is discussed, as one side of the conversation does not speak and the other is rendered as too young to understand or somehow unable to access the situation at hand.
In gameplay, a similar problem occurs. The level design of Eastward is actually quite fun—it’s simple and to the point, but the game peppers in enough new mechanics and forms of puzzles in a way that gradually complicates how you proceed through dungeons. These elements persist, too; you’ll have to use your entire kit as well as previous knowledge from older dungeons to make your way through the world. Despite this, there’s a speed and ease to which you are able to move through these levels. The game isn’t concerned with difficulty, nor are the enemies guilty of being damage sponges. Instead, it carts you along at an even speed so as to absorb the action as well as to divide the roles John and Sam play in exploration.
While John plays more like Link, with a close-range weapon and a litany of tools such as bombs and a flamethrower to conquer puzzles, Sam has more of a unique function. With her psionic abilities, Sam can encase enemies in energy bubbles to freeze them for a time, as well as deal with certain obstacles that John is unable to contend with. She also learns other abilities that operate as support—shields to buffer damage, a regenerative healing ability, and the like. Most dungeons eventually reach a point in which you must split the two characters up and send them down different paths so they can help the other reach the end of a path. This is fun, and adds a cooperative element to John and Sam’s relationship.
Sam’s role, though, is rather slight, and Eastward makes no mistake in demonstrating that John is the primary playable character. For much of the game, Sam’s abilities are quite limited while John has his entire playset early on. Sam is relatively useless in battle, and she is often sidelined entirely when bosses arrive. Her abilities are very strong, so they are limited to a stamina pool—this in and of itself is fine, but gives her little to do when her energy pool is depleted.
I’m left feeling like Eastward is full of great ideas but lacking in execution. Though it occasionally moves at a glacial pace—there’s a disproportionate amount of scenes in comparison to gameplay segments for an action game—it also seems to gloss over a lot of detail and friction as it flies through more difficult storytelling. There’s always a great set-up, but little follow through, which greatly lessens the impact of what could be truly evocative scenes. I’m left unconvinced by Sam and John’s relationship, and wondering why John’s character was necessary at all; between the two characters, they have less abilities and gameplay commands than most other similar games and could easily have been condensed into one consciousness. Sam’s emotions are palpable. She is the strongest component of the game, and often what kept me pressing on through uncomfortable or tedious moments. She has an immediate chemistry with Eastward’s cavalcade of supporting characters, which are numerous and varied in their importance. I wish the game paid more mind to letting her character breathe, and allowing her to engage with the plot on her own terms. Instead, I’m left feeling like Eastward is a bunch of beautiful puzzle pieces that fail to come together.
Eastward was developed by Pixpil and published by Chucklefish. Our review is based on the Switch version. It is also available for PC.
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire