Road to Nowhere
In Eastward, less certainly would have been more. Developer Pixpil presumably knew this since one of the two protagonists — a bearded miner named John — communicates through little more than a few shrugs. He is stoic and silent, a callback to many 90s console RPGs where protagonists somehow saved the world without muttering a single word. Instead, it feels like John’s share of the dialogue has been passed to the rest of the cast of this quirky adventure, a decision which is not always for the best.
John’s young adopted daughter Sam is a delightfully upbeat counterpoint to his gruffness. An intro describes how he discovers her in the mines under Potcrock Isle, an underground town ruled by an odious mayor. Sam and John’s relationship is very sweet, despite only being vocalised on one side. Imagine a more cutesie version of Joel and Ellie from The Last of Us but without the muttered asides.
After being kicked out of town to the surface though, the plot properly gets going. Actually, “gets going” is a bit misleading. The pacing is all over the place. The pair hop from town to town, fixing problems and uncovering mysteries in true SNES-era fashion, but are hampered by side characters and throwaway quests with inordinate amounts of dialogue in lengthy scenes. Some of them are fun but at odds with the darker thread of the main story. Many are inconsequential. The feeling of bloat pervades Eastward like an uncomfortable meal, except the metaphorical antacid of the Skip button is nowhere to be found.
This doesn’t mean the game is a total bust, however. Its Zelda-like action stylings and well-crafted puzzles are a delight. John is a slugger armed with a pan to smash the Teflon out of any critter who crawls near. Sam is the mage equivalent, blasting enemies with a freeze bubble which John can take advantage of — a simple button press lets you switch characters to mix up the action. Some enemies need to be frozen to be hit, others are far simpler. Caves, mines and dungeons offer up cables to be connected, furniture to be dragged, doors to be powered and crates to be blown up. Splitting up the duo is necessary in some puzzles, which provides variety via teamwork as they open up paths for each other. In addition to John’s pan, he picks up more weapons as you progress, including a short-range pistol, a flamethrower, a buzzsaw gun, and bombs that can be placed or whacked across a room. Secret areas abound containing chests of salt (the game’s currency) or heart pieces which increase your max health when you collect enough. You can collect or buy ingredients and make recipes to store in your backpack, each of which offers different benefits. It’s at once nostalgic and familiar.
Yet the Zelda trappings aren’t enough to elevate the game beyond its overwritten story, and some of the narrative beats not only feel very dated, but disturbing. A lady who takes a shine to John early on is prepped by a couple of old ladies on dressing to impress and wooing him in a scene straight from the 1900s. Gay characters aren’t overtly identified as such, but instead feel “othered” in a rather uncomfortable way, just as fat or ugly characters are. There are menacing sexual threats and jiggle mechanics on some female characters that are stomach-churning. The bottom line is, if you look or act differently, you’re either a crazy person, a bad person, a weirdly possessive person or — if you’re female — someone to be ogled. And if you’re a subtextually queer female, good luck hoping for a happy ending.
There are other problems too. A later area — Monkollywood, where most of the inhabitants are ape actors and end every other sentence with “EEK!” — felt like a massive misstep that reeked of padding. And a Groundhog Day-style sequence at the end which made me repeat the same three fetch quests three times was almost enough to make me throw in the towel. It’s all the more bizarre when this is seated alongside a sinister sci-fi plot that drops in seemingly from nowhere. Eastward tries to go big, shuffling multiple timelines, time loops and plots together but the epic facade is just that. The antagonist who tracks them across their journey appears to have little motivation other than to appear in various boss-form guises. None of the protagonists question the purpose for his vendetta (even after beating him each time), while the repeated appearance of a “dark” Sam is never truly explained in a satisfactory manner. The ending was so humdrum that I was actually dumbfounded when the credits started to roll. John’s inability to talk ended up being a curse since it gave permission for others to make decisions that stretch credulity to breaking point. He is nothing more than a blunt instrument, pummelling and smashing his way through the story without comment.
It’s all the more disappointing since the presentation is almost faultless. The animations of the 2D characters are delightful (aside from the aforementioned jiggling) and for every dud of an NPC, there’s another who is perfectly charming. Each area is distinct, whether it's colourful and homely, or atmospheric and oppressive. The soundtrack is filled with chiptune earworms that are likely to burrow into your brain for days after, if not for the simple reason that the game is around fifteen hours longer than it needed to be. More brutal editing would certainly have elevated Eastward, but you can’t deny the effort that has been poured into it. There’s even a game within a game — an arcade machine hosts an RPG called Earth Born (a clear reference to SNES classic EarthBound/Mother) — which Sam can play at junctures throughout the main quest. It feels like an early Final Fantasy game and is far more fun than it has any right to be.
If there had been fewer banal conversations, fewer unnecessarily long cutscenes, and more fun combat and puzzle sequences, Eastward could have been a true diamond. Instead it’s merely OK: a well-designed and occasionally engaging action RPG that has a number of problematic elements and far more to say about itself than was truly required.
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