Eastward may not be the best indie game ever, but it goes beyond the scene’s limitations, daring future efforts of the kind to look past those so that more than matching big companies in quality, the best independent studios can also compete in production values and scope
Ever since indie developers and their creations rose to prominence, the scene has proven – at least a handful of times – that it is perfectly able to craft gaming experiences on par with those produced by the industry’s biggest studios. However, most independent efforts, as marvelous as they may be, present one or two characteristics that reveal their nature as products made on a tighter budget. Such trait is by no means derogatory, not only because what ultimately counts is the overall experience, but also due to how there is something alluringly heroic about matching big businesses by using mighty ideas and talent to overcome financial gaps; yet, the fact this attribute is notable means there is still a blatant difference between what a company like Nintendo can offer and what half a dozen developers can put together working in a basement.
Examples of characteristics like those are plentiful and varied. They exist in the charmingly pixelated visuals of Celeste and Shovel Knight. They can be seen in the humble production values of Undertale and Axiom Verge. They are in the reliance on level-generating algorithms that form the backbone of titles such as Hades, Spelunky, and Dead Cells. They emerge in the short length of Limbo, Inside, and Little Nightmares. And they lie in the limited scope of delightful adventures like SteamWorld Dig, Bastion, Cuphead, and Super Meat Boy. To put it simply, these limitations that are inherent to independent development work to both foster unbelievable creativity and also define central aspects of these products.
But then, there comes a game like Eastward. The debut effort by Chinese studio Pixpil defies what most players have come to learn about indie gaming because it does one superb job hiding the usual traits that define titles of the scene. There is nothing humble about its graphics, which bring pixel art to a new threshold. The visual setup of its world is so detailed and its structure is so handcrafted that only meticulous human brains could have made it. Its length, which ought to vary between twenty and thirty hours, is right within the range of what is expected from a quest of its genre. And its scope is absolutely epic, safely making the game qualify as the most ambitious indie project since Hollow Knight and Yooka-Laylee.
Some may say the premise that Eastward is – if not the first – one of the first indie games to succeed in disguising itself as the product of a big budget studio is false, and that the title’s very nature as a top-down adventure that employs pixel art blatantly announces its independent origins. This line of thought would not be incorrect, because Eastward lies in a niche that has long been abandoned by the industry’s main actors; therefore, it could only be an indie effort. Yet, the fact remains that Eastward, like Hollow Knight, feels like the creation of a major studio because if one of them tried to put all of their weight, talent, and money into a project of this kind, it is probable they would emerge out of the endeavor with something whose production values and scope would resemble what Pixpil pulls off here.
When Eastward begins, players are introduced to the adventure’s two protagonists, John and Sam, who live deep underground in Potcrock Isle, a mining town. Although they share a father-daughter bond, the two are not blood-related. John is a digger, the best in the community, and one day, while on a working shift, he accidentally fell into a hole and found himself in a cave filled with all sorts of debris. After exploring for a bit, he entered an old abandoned wagon to come across an unbelievable sight: a young white-haired child in suspended animation surrounded by a yellow gooey substance. Awakened by his presence, the girl was rescued by John and, ever since that day, the humble man has been raising her as his kid, with the two living in a ramshackle trailer.
Around town, the world on the surface is seen as carrying a nigh apocalyptic danger, with the place’s inhabitants – influenced by the mayor – being fearful of even discussing it. John’s routine, which consists of working at the mine, getting a meager pay, and taking care of Sam is eventually drastically changed when the girl goes to school and confronts her teacher. Upon hearing dark tales of the surface, she claims they are incorrect, saying she has been there and that the world is actually a beautiful place. Scolded by her teacher and mocked by her classmates, Sam rushes off in an attempt to reach the surface and prove them wrong. Giving chase, John rescues her from monsters in a forbidden cave that leads out of Potcrock Isle. The incident then reaches the mayor, who sentences the pair to the punishment reserved to those who try to escape to the outside world: banishment to the surface via a legendary train called Charon, which according to the town’s tales means certain death.
If any of the reported versions of the world outside Potcrock Isle were true, then Eastward would obviously be a very short game, ending in either death or pure joy as soon as Charon takes John and Sam to the surface. Fortunately, that is not what happens, since reality – as it is usually the case – lies somewhere in between. And as they follow the train line heading to the east of the continent, the starring duo will encounter a bit of everything: beautiful scenarios, life-threatening dangers, honest friends, sinister villains, a lot of adventure, and – at last – the truth behind Sam’s mysterious origin.
When it comes to setting and plot development, Eastward adopts a tone that is easily comparable to that of one of its biggest inspirations: EarthBound. This is by all means a game that has a strong pulsating heart, mostly emanating from the heroes and the friends they make along the way. John is stoic and quiet, bordering on a traditional silent protagonist, while Sam is good-hearted, innocent, and energetic enough to constantly get into all sorts of silly trouble. It is a delightful contrast that creates a touching relationship which works as the game’s emotional anchor. Furthermore, there is also plenty of genuine feeling to be found in the allies they make (which are kind and naturally attracted to the pair’s honest demeanor) as well as in the occasional tragedies that Eastward is not afraid to throw onto the screen.
Yet, much like EarthBound, this heart is sprinkled with a slice of oddity. It begins with Eastward’s almost constant use of modern urban settings, which are a rare sight in the genre; it goes through eventual appearances of alien threats; it overflows into the ridiculous, sometimes surrealistic and often dark situations John and Sam are thrown into; and it ends with a dry humor that although far from being as sharp as the one from EarthBound, is still solid enough to leave an impression. When all of that is weaved into a dialogue-heavy twenty-hour tale with dozens of characters and a relatively complex plot, Eastward’s epic scale comes to the forefront.
That ambitious scope and that world are, of course, wrapped in a presentation that is nothing but stellar, earning a list of compliments that is quite lengthy. The pixel art of Eastward is detailed to an absurd height, with characters displaying a fluidity of movement and a capacity of facial expression rarely – if ever – seen in the style. The quest’s scenarios pop out as if they were hand-drawn by an absurdly meticulous artist, since all assets, from buildings and other structures to walls and electronic equipment, have highly artistic touches embedded onto them. The game’s use of colors as well as its alternation between pastel tones in urban environments and brighter shades in natural locations are a sight to behold. Its punctual but very tasteful deployment of lightning and 3-D effects lends it first-rate production values. And, to top it all off, Eastward has a retro soundtrack that heavily drinks from the 16-bit era while giving many of the classics from that period a serious run for their money.
In gameplay, Eastward is comparatively humbler, but that simplicity does not stop its core from being rather engaging. The quest could be dubbed an RPG due to its dedication to dialogues and storytelling, but away from those elements, tropes from that genre are not so prevalent given John and Sam do not level up in any way, with only their weapons being upgraded a couple of times. Consequently, since in its uninhabited locations the game unites some exploration, plenty of real time combats, and light puzzle solving, the best description for Eastward would be that it is a nice encounter between RPG plot development and action-adventure gameplay that unfolds in a top-down perspective.
Eastward’s mixture of exploration, combats, and puzzles has The Legend of Zelda – more specifically, the 2-D games of the saga – as its most blatant inspiration, and that comparison is appropriate because, on all three fronts, the game is simple but effective. Truth be told, specifically when it comes to puzzles, Eastward never goes for the complexity and cleverness seen in 2-D titles of the series like A Link to the Past, as that is a type of greatness which is simply hard to achieve. Nevertheless, Eastward musters quality inside the realm it operates, as its caves and outdoor areas are filled with different gadgets that John and Sam must operate; locked doors that require finding keys and backtracking; and even the occasional impassable obstacles that can only be cleared once one of the two has picked up a new ability or weapon, be it inside the same area or some place else.
What is ultimately nice about these maze-like areas of Eastward is that the visuals are not the sole asset that separates them from one another: they all find their own quirks via specific challenges or special gadgets. One of the game’s first areas, for instance, has the heroes connecting cables so that electricity can power locked doors; later on, there is a sequence that involves finding a flamethrower and burning a whole lot of weeds that block the way. In addition, in a couple of specific segments, Eastward is smart enough to use some of its EarthBound wackiness to step out of that mold for a little while, even bumping into a challenge that plays like an old-school sidescrolling beat ‘em up (with a new screen being accessed once all foes are defeated in the current one) and another that involves some excellent stealth action.
As far as what John and Sam can do, though, the highlight comes in how it is possible to break the duo apart at any moment, with the touch of a button allowing players to either switch between the two or reunite the pair in case they are close to one another. Eastward uses that skill quite well, forcing gamers to make the protagonists cooperate in multiple ways, be it by just standing on a button that opens a door the other needs to go through or by aiming for something more intricate, like when John needs to throw his bombs to destroy obstacles on the part of the level where Sam is while the girl uses her special powers to do the same for her father figure, clearing his path so the two can advance in pleasant synergy.
In combat, meanwhile, the comparison to the 2-D The Legend of Zelda games becomes quite closer due the straightforwardness of enemy encounters, which may cause some to end up regarding them as excessively basic. Eastward has no combo system and no gauges that, once filled, enable special attacks. Here, defeating enemies is a bit of a button-mashing affair, albeit one that is not totally mindless, since a good slice of the foes will deal damage if players are not attentive enough to stop delivering blows when the bad guys are about to attack. As such, there is nothing truly special about combat in Eastward; with the exception to that rule being the excellent boss battles, which are creative, varied, and thrilling. However, for a few reasons, there is still a degree of silly pleasure to be found in regular battles.
For starters, John’s main forms of attack are satisfying: his melee tool (a frying pan) packs a solid punch and his mid-range options (a trio of different guns that consume ammo) are a unique alternative for a top-down adventure game. Moreover, as gamers will find out by experimenting, the specific behavior of certain foes make them easier to take down via one of the two types of weapons. Finally, the fact Sam can unleash energy blobs that paralyze enemies for a little while means players can switch between her and John to deliver a cooperative pounding on enemies.
Given the mixed reactions it can cause because of its simplicity, Eastward’s battles rank as its first weaker spot, even if it is an aspect of the adventure that might be enjoyed by a lot of players. However, the game also holds other flaws, and these – differently from the combat system – have a more definitive nature; that is, they are less ambiguous and more unlikely to be overlooked. Some of them happen to be connected to the game’s story.
It is important to highlight there is a lot to be praised in Eastward’s script. Its emotional moments are plentiful and hit hard. Its supporting characters are marvelous. The nature of its main threat is somewhat original. And its structure as a journey in which the heroes travel to the east along the train tracks without ever looking back is both bold and inventive. Sure, some players, especially those interested in collecting all of the game’s items (including health expansions that, like The Legend of Zelda’s heart containers, come in four piece) and completing all of its achievements may be disappointed to learn that once the plot advances to a new chapter previous areas can no longer be accessed. But this progression works in such beautiful synergy with the script’s central premises that the sacrifice ends up being worth it. However, Eastward’s story has a couple of obvious shortcomings.
The first is pacing. At more than one point of the quest, players are likely to feel Eastward will go from exciting to dull very quickly. Invariably, that happens when the game throws itself into world-building without worrying about pairing that up with notable plot development or gameplay. One sequence, for instance, has John and Sam spending three days in a city doing the same basic task of delivering letters over and over again, with only minor changes happening between each loop. Due to the fact this repetition is pivotal in explaining a meaningful part of the script, the activity makes sense. However, Pixpil could have made this and other slower moments a lot more interesting had they implemented some adjustments: they could have made them more significant from a plot-development standpoint; they could have thrown some new interesting Zelda-like exploration sequences into those segments; or they could have simply trimmed down the dialogues.
The second issue is clarity. Eastward features the kind of writing that likes to leave a lot of details hidden between the lines. Although that is certainly a better approach than sitting gamers down to lecture them with explanations about its villains, threats, and other major events, it is also a far more difficult style to pull off; and most players will probably conclude Eastward does not quite succeed in that regard. The problem is that the adventure builds plenty of enticing questions only to, in the end, leave the audience with very vague answers to most of them. In a game like Hollow Knight, for example, where narrative has its worth but is far from being a central component of the quest, this sort of storytelling not only works but also adds to the mystery of the world; contrarily, when it comes to a title that relies as heavily on plot as Eastward, the result is not exactly satisfying, making it seem like the ambition of its script and format was larger than what the very good writers at Pixpil could handle.
Outside of the story and pacing departments, Eastward also has a few other problems that are, thankfully, easier to ignore. Its difficulty could have used some extra balancing: there is a notable spike towards the end of the game and, through most of the way, the risk of dying is minimal even if healing drops are rare and energy-restoring items are almost exclusively acquired through a nice cooking system that heavily recalls that of Breath of the Wild. The accuracy of its mid-range guns feels slightly off, since there are a few occasions when it seems their shots should hit enemies but end up missing the target instead. Finally, the version of the game available upon release presents occasional crashes which will probably affect gamers half a dozen times during the quest; thankfully, though, Eastward contains an auto-save system triggered on nearly every new screen that greatly minimizes loss of progress.
Problems aside, and even when they are considered, the world and quest that Eastward brings to the Nintendo Switch are incredibly enthralling, boasting a degree of ambition rarely seen in the independent scene. In fact, that characteristic is so prominent and the title’s world is so full-fledged that it even contains a game within the game. Called Earth Born, the fictional but very real and playable adventure is an 8-bit RPG that is a hit with the kids of Eastward and can be tackled in stores scattered around the game’s urban areas. Featuring a world of its own, party members to recruit, a clever seven-day gameplay cycle, and even an integration with Amiibo-like collectibles picked up by John and Sam, Earth Born offers a surprisingly addictive journey that can last for a few hours and that works as yet another proof that the folks at Pixpil have an insane level of care for even the smallest details.
In the end, it is this meticulous nature that drives Eastward over the top. The game is not perfect. Truthfully, it could actually be a lot better if it were clearer in its plot and if it found better pacing in a few specific segments, be it by cutting down on the talking, by focusing more on answering some of its biggest mysteries, or by achieving a better overall balance between gameplay and script.
However, the careful way in which most aspects of its world were put together makes falling victim to its charm nearly inevitable, because it is simply hard to find an adventure – whether it is indie or not – with as much care oozing out of its visuals, music, and characters, and with as much ambition to develop all of that into such a large scope. Because of that, even if Eastward does not quite qualify as the best independent game ever, it certainly goes beyond many of the usual limitations of the scene, daring future indie efforts to look past those boundaries so that more than matching big companies in terms of the quality of their output, like they already do, the best independent studios can start competing in production values and scope as well.