A man and his adopted daughter find their way through a whimsical, post-apocalyptic landscape. Frying pan and psychic powers at the ready, they might stumble into saving the world as they explore it. With all the stylings of a retro JRPG, you might expect Eastward to play like one, but this chill action-adventure is more Zelda than Dragon Quest. John and Sam's triumphs and mistakes take place in a charming pixel-art landscape that's rich with lovely characters and intimately designed places. Even where the story dragged for a time, or the simplicity of the challenges felt patronizing, the parts of Eastward that spoke to me more than made up for them.
Our headliners are John – a silent protagonist wreathed in messy hair and a bushy beard – and Sam, an outrageously precocious girl with budding psychic powers and a penchant for getting the two into trouble. They're lovable characters with a bushel of personality and a kind of timeless appeal. They set off from their home under dubious circumstances, and, eventually, find their way... eastward. I loved switching between the two as they travel through a cute but dangerous apocalyptic world of small towns and dam-cities. Along the way you play through discrete story chapters and explore the stories of the people you meet. There are a lot – a lot – of silly little minigames along the way. Baseball, river rafting, slot machines, and ever-present cooking.
The trek to the east is pretty linear, but the areas you explore are laid out like little dungeons, with curling paths to find your way through as you battle goofy monsters and solve simple puzzles. John does most of the fighting via simple but satisfying hack-and-slash action, but Sam's powers – like freezing enemies inside big psychic bubbles – are useful for fights and vital for puzzles.
It took me a few more than 30 hours to beat the main quest, but I know there are secrets to explore and little NPC storylines I skipped over that are worth going back for. In fact, Eastward's overall story is good enough that I've judiciously avoided spoilers in this review, to the point of being overly vague in some spots, but trust me, that’s for your benefit. There's also a pretty detailed roguelite JRPG game-within-the-game, called Earth Born, to play – and it was fun enough that I spent about six additional hours on it.
Eastward's real draw is its world. The vibrant pixel art landscapes are so creative and so packed with detail that I often found myself stopping to just look at a city street or a new railway station. Much of it is alive with little animations like running water, glinting metal, or spinning fans. I loved details like laundry on lines between buildings, boats overturned and made into houses, and countryside in the distance from train windows.
It's a loving rendition of a world that's somewhere between a Studio Ghibli film and a classic JRPG – Castle in the Sky meets EarthBound. It's all overlaid with a pretty low-key soundtrack that's nothing standout, but it’s good enough, with a variety of both instrumental and chiptune arrangements.
It's not just the backgrounds that pop, though. The characters of Eastward have great sprites and animation that packs in a ton of personality. They're a cast of well-designed weirdos who all have something unique going for them, which is an animated style that's become all too rare. The style and personality of the people you meet differs wildly, varying from gruff ranch hands to a trio of lively aunties, a sleepy small-town mayor, or a cigar-puffing casino owner. That's not to mention the circus performers, train conductors, conmen, and funky robots. (My favorite robot runs a construction company and has a bad hip.)
Little fetch quests make you run back and forth across the world, but that's not so bad when that world is pretty. A lot of the best Eastward has to offer is just smiling at the guy meditating on a roof as you pass by his part of town. I’ve passed him a dozen times now; what is he doing up there? I don't know. He's happy. Dude's just vibing and it's nice.
It's a relief that the world is so attractive and the characters are so appealing, because Eastward's greatest weakness is its writing. Character dialogue is hit or miss, with more than a few cliche lines and real stinkers. I'm talking about unironic use of lines like "I've been running my whole life." Frankly, it's because the writing doesn't know when to step back and let action or movement convey words. It uses two sentences when one would do – or, more often, one sentence when none would do. Dialogue that should pop up in the background – laughter, exclamations – is more often than not in a bubble that requires a button to progress. The only time I felt impatient or bored with Eastward was during the drawn-out dialogues.
Exploration and combat are a welcome break from all that staring and reading. Fights are simple, and most enemies can be easily defeated with judicious application of John's frying pan. Everything else is susceptible to the neon-colored shotgun or flamethrower. There are lots of weird enemies though, like a giant frog person, tentacle plants, or ultra-tough zombies, and they've all got their own attack pattern – but I usually took them down the same way, no matter what they were. But let me be clear: Simple isn't always bad. It was fun to weave around attacks, smack mutants with a pan, and blow them away with the shotgun.
It's weird that while you swap to Sam pretty often to do puzzles, I rarely felt the need to use her in combat; her ability to put monsters in frozen bubbles comes in handy for a few things, but you don't absolutely need it to win. If you had a psychic sidekick, wouldn’t you want her to do a bit more?
Likewise, it’s a bit of a downer that the puzzles Sam’s instrumental in solving are never too complex, only ever getting difficult when it's a challenge of timing or skill – or to get at a few tricky hidden chests. Most often, you'll have to notice something like a wall to blow down with a bomb, a puzzle of which cables to connect, or which obstacles to remove so a raft floats where you want it to. The harder puzzles will have a timing element – moving quickly after triggering a switch, or golf-swinging a bomb into a narrow opening from a moving platform. It’s not complex stuff.
The simplicity did bug me sometimes. While parts of the fighting are good in their straightforwardness, others are just basic. Partially it’s because the single-stick controls feel inadequate for aiming weapons. It's fun to bash with a frying pan, not so fun to make sure the characters are both dodging incoming projectiles.
The relatively infrequent boss and miniboss fights are an exception there, requiring a bit of finesse and switching between both John's weapons and Sam’s powers. I liked them a lot more than the platforming and puzzle bits, and a lot of them really tested my ability to use every tool in my arsenal for a clean victory. One in particular stands out, an enemy knocks away bombs that you try to place at a vulnerable point. To win, I needed a deft hand at dropping bombs as John, then to switch to Sam to use her powers to distract the enemy, then back to John to dish out damage after the bomb went off. That’s the kind of synergy Eastward’s combat needs more of.