It's been a little while since I've covered a Switch game, but I've been really excited to finally play Eastward. It was featured on several "Best Game of 2021" lists at the end of last year, and I was in love with the art style since I first saw the trailer. Eastward is an action-adventure RPG in a declining world, where miner John and mysterious young girl Sam team up to save humanity. Eastward is an incredible work of art in a vibrant world but it made me feel disconnected from it due to to its odd story choices and lack of character development.
You start the story of Eastward solely as John, a quiet, serious man who works as a miner in Potcrock Isle. Potcrock Isle is a town entirely underground - everyone who lives here seems to firmly believe that there is no life above ground and they are only safe down here. While at work deep underground, John discovers a young girl in a strange tank. The girl, named Sam, is bubbly and talkative and now lives with John. We don't actually get to see this scene play out in game, only in the game's title cutscene, so we don't know much about the circumstances behind how she was found and how she came to stay with him. Sam just wants to be a regular kid and go to school, but Potcrock Isle has a lot of weird power dynamics that keep her from easily doing so. John helps Sam get permission from the mayor and she's finally able to go to school, instead of having to go to work with John everyday. Sam quickly finds herself getting in trouble by arguing her teachers when they say there is no life above the surface. Sam and John attempt to climb their way out to the outside world, but are stopped and arrested by the town's mayor. When they get exiled from Potcrock Isle and thrown into the train Charon is when the true journey begins.
Eastward is all the way up there among the most beautiful pixel art games I've ever played - tied pretty closely with Owlboy. Not only are the environments incredibly detailed, but every character animations is so life-like and masterfully done. It reminds me of the way cutscenes are animated in Mother 3, with so much personality and emotion being conveyed despite the limitations of the medium. I really enjoyed the fun, different art style we get to see from the game's cartoon-like title screen, but I feel that it was just enough. I'm glad they focused more on the pixel art style that really carried the game. The music was constantly stuck in my head since it was so catchy, from the joyful and silly themes to the high-intensity fight music. It has a comforting, fitting chiptune sound while also staying ever-dynamic and fresh.
In Eastward you control both the protagonist characters, John and Sam. John is physically strong and despite equipping only a frying pan, he can cause some serious damage. Sam discovers her powers later on in the game, but she can use her kinetic powers to summon balls of light that stun enemies. Eastward's puzzles are at their best when they make you use both Sam and John in clever ways to move through a dungeon. You'll switch to Sam for her small stature and ability to use a long-range move, and then you'll switch back to John to use bombs and melee to advance the puzzle. The only times this wasn't so fun was when you were Sam alone and you were expected to deal with enemies. Sam can't really attack, at least early on - she can only stun. John acquires more weapons later on, such as a gun and flamethrower, making him stronger but still being shorter range than Sam. Boss fights were genuinely tough in this game, and the game let you fight the enemies in different ways instead of expecting you to always use the most recent item. They could be frustrating when they expected you to use Sam, a character you're not used to doing combat with. For the most part, though, I found the gameplay to be a pretty satisfying mix of exploration, talking to characters, and fighting dungeons. It's not anything amazing in terms of its Zelda-like action combat, but switching off between two very different characters kept it interesting. There was also an entire game-within-game called "Earth Born" - which despite the name, looked more like a classic "knight and princess" JRPG than like Earthbound. Eastward makes it seem like Earth Born will be very important later on in the story but I felt that it really didn't make an impact enough to justify this game coming up so often. I ended up playing very little of it, but to be fair I'm not a huge fan of that type of of RPG.
Eastward's story is where I have very mixed emotions. It felt like a rollercoaster. The first few hours were a little bit slow, spending too much time on dialogue from characters who didn't feel important and didn't affect the story much later. Once you make it out of Potcrock Isle, everything began to shine and I was excited about the story. Then the story took dramatic turns that only raised more questions than answers. I think one big issue with the way the story is handled is that it will quickly go from grim death and darkness to silly, carefree moments without letting you process what just happened. John is not only a silent protagonist - I would call him almost a blank slate and emotionless. Even a silent protagonist like Link is able to show his emotions to the player through his facial expressions and through the responses that other characters have to him. Yet even in the most crucial moments, we rarely know how John is responding. Then there's Sam, who's a young child. For good reason, the adults try to shelter her from learning about some of the more upsetting and dark details of what's happening. So therefore Sam is acting normal and happy, and doesn't really process the events either. It feels you, as the player, feeling at odds with what's going on and whether the severity of situation is not equally understood. I think some of its humor and writing resembled that of a "JRPG" type of game, and maybe I'm just not as used to it. Of course a game can have both lighthearted, silly moments and serious moments, but there needs to be a careful balance of how those two are presented. Oh, also - it took maybe halfway into the game to realize this but Eastward has pretty adult sexual humor, so take that as you will. Even though it caught me off-guard it was mostly fine. I only felt it was weird and uncomfortable when it was being portrayed and performed (like a dominatrix show??) while Sam, a child was around.
I really like Sam as a character, but what I got from the ending, in my opinion, didn't justify enough the use of a very reused (anime) trope - "innocent young girl who's secretly a super powerful entity". I had a hard time connecting to a lot of the characters. There were times when characters were obviously untrustworthy or had bad intentions, but because your protagonist's voice is Sam there was no way to sort of "go against them" or act on your intuition. It's weird that you know John would probably figure this out, but did nothing about it regardless. Anyway, this all really changed for me when the story took us to Isabel and Alma. They were loveable, real, and engaging. I definitely consider them one of the best parts of the game, and it was a pleasant surprise that this game had a well-established queer couple that lived together and worked together on a project they were jointly passionate about. Their dynamic felt real and charming: Isabel's seemingly calculated but lovingly protective attitude and Alma's sweet, slightly chaotic, and carefree manner. They may be one of my favorite couples of any video game.
Eastward really is a beautiful, well-polished game, but I often felt whiplash from one story arch to another. I would definitely recommend it to any action RPG fans. It's not a short game, so if you're looking for a longer indie adventure that takes you through interesting different worlds and challenges, it's a really good one. I wanted to like the story more than I did, but perhaps there's some parts that I just didn't understand. There were really great moments that I wish would've lasted longer, and painfully weird and off-topic moments that I would've skipped.
Eastward is available on PC and Switch
Played on: Switch
Playtime: 27 hrs