REVIEW: Eastward (Switch), A Retro Resurrection
On the surface, Eastward is a collection of many parts that were popularized in other classic games. Its combat, gameplay, and exploration are similar to 2D Zelda. It borrows its quirky world, character design, and a mixture of childishness, drama from Earthbound, and the related recent phenomenon of Undertale. Its central characters are a gruff older man with his precocious young ward. This arrangement is reminiscent of many other games, including The Last of Us. Despite all these similarities, Eastward pulls off a remarkable trick and creates an entirely new experience.
John is a quiet miner who meets Sam, a young girl with magical abilities who becomes the second playable character. They live in a trailer in a desolate mining community. Each day they fear the life-threatening miasma that has ravaged the surface world. John and Sam get into trouble for their belief in the surface life. They embark on an adventure that takes them beyond their small world. They meet kooky characters, fight all manner of monsters, and discover that Sam is not the only one who believes in it.
Eastward’s gameplay involves a simple loop: you arrive at a new location, get invested in the locals, see how John and Sam fit in their new world, then move in and out from these hubs of human activity to discover the areas of the land that aren’t yet reclaimed. Although combat with enemies appear simple, their speed, resilience, and number increase in unexpected ways.
John is your primary damage machine as he can get weapons that can damage most enemies. However, Sam can use her special abilities to freeze enemies and shoot energy for a second, but she is generally less combat-ready. You can also split the pair to solve environmental puzzles, but they must always be on the same screen. These puzzles are reminiscent of the similar tandem puzzles from Mario & Luigi’s RPG on the DS and GBA.
The post-post-apocalyptic world of Eastward is absolutely gorgeous. Although the GBA-era 2D art style is often called “pixel art,” Eastward’s visual style does not feel intended to evoke the vague identity of pixel artwork, which is a term used mainly to describe minimalist visual representations in games.
Each setting in Eastward is stunning in its use of color and detail. Each area shows a part of a once-destroyed world that is only partially reclaimed. Eastward feels completely alive and well with ramshackle buildings and whole settlements built around the craters.
Eastward’s light use is particularly striking. The lighting in the settings shows how intentional the intention was to highlight the differences between the environment and the light design. The shafts of light that break through the tunnels warm them, while cool blue work lights illuminate the house in the middle of the night.
Eastward’s music is also a beautiful take on retro-style game soundtracks. It’s full of exciting and cathartic chiptune-adjacent arrangements. The game’s climactic battles are sounded with incredible arrangements. However, some of my favorite tracks can be found in the game’s more tranquil, peaceful, and melancholy moments.
We’re back on the topic of mechanical polish. Eastward deserves praise for using the Switch’s HD Rumble feature. A buzzword that very few other games have used beyond the launch title/tech demo 1-2Switch. Eastward employs rumble to create the sounds of trains, earthquakes, and simmering of a stove, among other sensory moments. It always feels unique and fascinating.
You can’t make healing items while you are out exploring the world and fighting enemies. However, you can cook with any ingredients that you find or purchase around the globe. You can find a stove and put three ingredients and some spices in a pan. Then, play a short slot machine mini-game to increase your stats. This is a simple and charming way to make dungeon crawling more accessible.
Eastward’s central theme is actually cooking and domesticity. John uses a frying pan as his first weapon. John and Sam often make new friends by sharing a meal. John and Sam are always looking for a home, which is evident in how centrally food and cooking feature throughout the plot. You also save your game by using old refrigerators. What could be more comforting for people who are so used to being hungry?
You’ll find arcade machines selling a game called Earth Born while on your travels. This is a turn-based JRPG that takes significant inspiration from Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Although Earth Born is not mandatory, the story of a knight who travels to rescue a princess provides an interesting parallel to John and Sam’s heroic adventures.
Eastward’s heart is another key component of its success. Eastward is full of people trying to live in the present and have a good life. Children line up to play the Earth Born machine. A small farming community gathers for their annual harvest celebration. A great meal makes a mob boss happy. Eastward doesn’t feel preachy nor cheated its own stakes. It never loses sight of the humanity that its characters and communities embody. Sam is my favorite character in video games. Her youthful enthusiasm and childlike wonder are unsurpassed. Even the sci-fi-tinged plot is infused with personality and flair.
Although it looks like a GBA game, Eastward is a complete-length game. The campaign’s central campaign takes nearly 40 hours. Earth Born offers even more content for those who aren’t willing to give up on turn-based battles. Eastward makes good use of its time, even though it is incredibly stuffed. It never feels like the story is trying to increase length or padding time. Eastward will ask for a lot from you, but it uses your time well.
Eastward is an amazing story and game. It takes some familiar elements and creates something new. Although it appears to be a story about a gruff old guy and his daughter, Eastward hits deeper than most other dad games. It has a fascinating world and tons of charming and endearing characters.