Started From The Bottom Now We're Here
We’ve seen our share of post apocalypses in the last decade but rarely have they come with the sense of spirit and personality as Eastward, the debut offering from Pixpil. You play as John and Sam, an unlikely duo from a mining town underground. Their journey is a narrative adventure riding the rails to unexpected locales and meeting a cavalcade of interesting characters. This story weaves mystery with discovery and encourages you to tag along as our heroes trek Eastward.
Our tale begins with John and Sam. John is a silent gruff miner in an underground town that discovered and adopted a child in Sam. While they are content in their daily routines, they soon become entwined in a mystery regarding the above world where Sam really came from. After their apparent exile from their home to the surface, they find that it isn’t exactly as damning as initially foretold. The surface is actually a thriving post apocalypse filled with bustling cities, farming villages, and a deadly miasma that threatens to destroy all of civilization. Onward they travel by train helping new and fascinating people along the way.
While John and Sam are the focal points, the game is filled with full fleshed-out side characters that fill what feels like a realized world. Each interaction is well written and conversations feel authentic to even the most minimal bit players. Interacting with each person you meet fills the world with even more rich backstory. Not to take away from our protagonists but everyone shines here, from the lovable knucklehead explorer Izzy and her robot sidekick to the bumbling mayor of the underground. These characters are rendered in a cartoon art style that is playful but doesn’t downplay the story when things get serious. The landscapes change from dreary dark mines to bright blue skies, which makes for striking contrasts. This is all accompanied by a catchy dystopian chiptune soundtrack that punctuates every scene.
As far as playing Eastward, it’s a straightforward narrative game as you move from quest marker to quest marker exploring more of the world and seeing what interactions you can find. It’s not necessarily on railsdefinitely trying to tell its own specific narrative. There are dungeon sections as well that have you switching between John and Sam to use their own unique specialties. John uses weapons like a pan or flamethrower to fight off enemies while Sam can use her mysterious light powers to stun. Puzzle sections split up the duo, forcing you to swap back and forth to allow the other to proceed. The difficulty is relatively low in both accounts as I died only a handful of times throughout my play and was rarely stumped for too long on puzzles.
Upgrades are also available to do more damage with your weapons, increase inventory space and even a cooking system that looks and acts suspiciously like Breath of the Wild. No, seriously: this includes red and yellow hearts with specific food buffs. Also with its story, allusions can be made to Last of Us but in a lighter pixel art tone. It wears its influences on its sleeve and isn’t shy about it. Other than that, there isn’t much as far as a progression besides paying for upgrades or carrying capacity. Other weapons can be acquired, but nothing that deep. Truth be told, I’m not sure if the weapons need to be that deep. While there isn’t too much in the way of gameplay mechanics, the story was compelling enough to drive me towards its ultimately satisfying conclusion. This is both a testament to its strong writing but also a statement to shallow mechanisms. Upgrades feel superficial and the combat falls flat. The boss battles do well in introducing engaging battle puzzles of their own but otherwise Eastward feels like I’m just moving from story beat to story beat. It’s not boring by any means but it is missing that special something to keep the player engaged.
Eastward delivers so well on the writing and soundtrack front that it’s easy to forgive its otherwise simplistic gameplay. The fully realized world has its charm, but it hardly breaks the mold anywhere else. While it doesn't do anything necessarily offensive, it does demand more when the rest of the game is so well done. It’s clear Pixpil have got the writing chops down, now let’s tighten up some of the stuff around it.