Eastward Review: The Last Of Us Meets Undertale, With Blistering Effect
Emotionally driven father-daughter adventures through post-apocalyptic environments are nothing new - The Last of Us is one of the most critically acclaimed video games of all time, after all - and apocalypses alone are pretty overused in the gaming world. For some time, the genre has needed a new set of eyes to bring some insight and fresh storytelling to the setting.
The latest game to give it a spin is Eastward, a post-apocalyptic RPG developed by newcomer PixPil. It shouldn’t be of any surprise that Chucklefish’s faith isn’t unwarranted, as Eastward is another big win for the production company - and ‘big’ is certainly the keyword here.
It might not sound like anything groundbreaking on the surface -but the first of Eastward's many surprises is its ability to tell a familiar story in a remarkably fresh way.
The Book Of Sam & John
Eastward follows Sam, a girl discovered under mysterious circumstances by Potrock Isle’s star miner John. The pair embark on an adventure across a land that was once thought to be decimated by the mysterious miasma spreading across its surface. As all the pair hold dear is left to the clutches of deadly smog, they travel across the world, knowing only to travel east for any chance of a normal life.
The characters you’ll meet along your journey stretch from irritating to endearing, though thankfully those with any genuine grasp on the game’s unfurling narrative fall into the latter camp. The lovable newbies that populate New Dam City are game highlights, propelling the game with gusto and enticing you to waste your valuable time chatting to the populous of the street just to figure out what their deal is. However, this is Sam’s story.
Her vigour and massive heart - call it naivety if you like - are what pulls you through the narrative so effortlessly, and John’s stoic yet unfaltering support for even her silliest ideas makes him feel like a silent bodyguard to the core of Eastward’s narrative.
The game’s tale is one of faith in the face of total devastation, that is peppered with oddities that explore Sam’s mysterious past and intriguing kinetic abilities. It’s a sillier echo of The Last of Us that never feels inferior for it.
Navigating The Apocalypse
Eastward’s gameplay speaks for itself in many ways - its controls are what you’ve come to expect of similar titles like classic The Legend of Zelda or Undertale, with some extra seamless character switching to go with it. Gameplay is sleek and stylish for the most part, and while your limited movement can sometimes grate on combat, nothing is more satisfying than finishing off a boss with your trusty frying pan.
The game is also peppered with minor details that keep the game from being an entirely linear experience, namely its entire playable RPG buried inside the RPG itself, Earth Born. It’s a delightful experience that often slows the game from its consistent urgency if you’re able to peel yourself away from the lead narrative. The same goes for cooking, a mechanic that adds a delightful dimension to the standard and typical healing items of the genre.
Though you’d expect a game like Eastward to transition easily to the Switch, there are a few rubbing points on the system. A couple of minor bugs are easy to brush off, but two surprise game crashes at crucial moments in the plot severed immersion, as did the aiming difficulties with charged attacks, which could have been resolved with an aiming function assigned to the second thumbpad. Instead, that is taken up by a clunky weapon selection system which easily could have been added to the unused D-pad.
Plus, some additions to the gameplay come too late to feel natural - one of Eastward’s final bosses introduces an exciting new combat mechanic that would be enthralling if it weren’t for the severe lack of guidance that makes the battle a trial-and-error, live-die-repeat affair, dissecting the intended feeling of incredible combat proficiency.
Merely glancing at trailers and screenshots, it’s clear to see that a lot of love has gone into the presentation of Eastward, and its remarkable visuals stretch right the way through the game’s whopping runtime. Which, for reference, clocks in at approximately 25-30 hours.
Each location has its own distinct style, architecture, graffiti and residents that complement its atmosphere perfectly. No two locations feel similar, making traversing the wide world of the game a genuine delight.
On a similar note, every pixel is meticulously chosen and laboriously designed to gorgeous effect - which is probably what spurred PixPil to make use of so much backtracking in Eastward’s gameplay. It's no wonder though, because it's easy to stop and appreciate every shopfront on the myriad street corners when they're designed with this much detail - but the sheer amount of wandering to and from points of interest becomes cumbersome on the gameplay, and slightly erodes the magic of exploration by making it mandatory.
The game’s final chapter is one that explores fresh ideas and narrative threads, and its visuals adapt to this to make for a strange and wonderful finale that pushes the boundaries of player expectation. Eastward is a game that boasts some fun gameplay, but is carried by its heartfelt story and equally luscious visual design that makes it one of the year’s very best looking games.
Eastward Is A Sign Of Gold To Come
Eastward, despite its gameplay and porting flaws, is a remarkable start for indie studio PixPil. It’s clear that John and Sam’s story is only the beginning, and that big things are on the way from the team, thanks to it having the rock-solid narrative and gorgeous visuals of a studio ten times PixPil’s size. Its ambition is matched by its eager attention to detail, and as a game that scrapes under the £20 mark, it’s incredibly consumer-friendly too.
PixPil deserve to have a stellar career ahead of them following the release of this game, and as long as they can keep releasing games that have even half of Eastward’s visual individuality, compelling narrative and satisfying pan-smacking action, then the studio will be without a doubt one to keep an eye on.
The apocalypse might be old news now, but Eastward shows other games exactly how it's done when it comes to presenting dystopia in a charming, fascinating light-hearted way.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch. Game code provided free of charge by the publisher.