Eastward, Upward, and Onward!
For how beloved Earthbound/Mother is, there’s a surprising dearth of games that truly, wholeheartedly embrace and embody that spirit and style. Perhaps it’s not for lack of trying — after all, those are some pretty big shoes to fill, and there are indeed a ton of titles released every year that state the stellar series is their inspiration. But to really capture its essence… has it truly been done? And can it be done at all?
That’s what developer Pixpil and Publisher Chucklefish want you to chew on while playing Eastward, players journeying through a society on the brink of collapse. Available on PC and Switch, Eastward has players taking on the role of silent protagonist John and the young, sweet Sam as they “discover delightful towns, strange creatures and even stranger people! Wield a trusty frying pan and mystic powers on an adventure into the unknown…” With a gorgeous soundtrack composed by Joel Corelitz (Halo Infinite, Death Stranding, Unfinished Swan) and whimsical pixel art animation that will hearken back to SNES memories of yesteryear, Eastward is inviting and exciting, familiar and fresh, and a fantastic callback to its inspirations while being its own entity.
Eastward opens up on John and Sam in the city of Potcrock Isle, an underground village with a well-established culture and hierarchy. John, being the best digger in the entire subterranean society, commands a limited amount of respect amongst his neighbors. Of course, he’s considered the best digger because he discovered Sam in the cavernous caves, a mysterious young girl with snow white hair and a heart of gold. Most of the cave-dwellers all accepted Sam for the sweetheart that she is, but some snooty higher-ups have barred her access to education and have even accused her of lying about the beauty of the surface world. After all, no one has seen it before, and fantasists are definitely going to go to Charon for their lies.
But Sam persists, heading to the Forbidden Land that connects to the surface. Of course, it’s dangerous to go alone, so John follows in pursuit, only to be impeded by puzzles and enemies galore. Aimed with a trusty, rusty frying pan, he bats away slugs, man-eating plants, and enormous flies to find Sam at an open door, freedom within her grasp. Suddenly, a gigantic robot blocks John’s path forward, and after beating it, Sam realizes she has powers that can aid her in her quest to reach the surface. Bound and determined to see for herself what lies beyond, Sam helps John realize there’s more to life than digging, and take a step towards the sun.
Eastward is broken up into several chapters, with each chapter comprised of puzzles, enemies, boss battles, and plenty of story via interacting with NPCs and each other alike. John and Sam act as a team throughout their adventures, with John leading and Sam following closely behind more often than not. On occasion, the pair will be separated, their respective skills allowing them to move forward depending on the puzzles presented. For example, John will have just a frying pan and bombs at his disposal early on, which will allow him to fling bombs across crevasses to kill enemies and unlock doors. Those skills slowly, slowly build upon each other as the game progresses, the zone of proximal development shifting and shrinking accordingly as time goes on.
John and Sam’s adventures take them all over a decaying world, where the population is slowly declining due to a deadly toxin that is slowly spreading over the face of the Earth. In this current-apocalyptic setting, it’d be easy to think it’s all doom and gloom, but surface-level citizens seem to be keeping their spirits up enough. Each city has its own uniquely involved culture, and spending time talking to each inhabitant opens up a well-lived in community that feels deeper than a first glance gave it credit for.
Eastward doesn’t commit a lot of crimes — for a game that instantly reminded me of a wonderfully fluid mix of Earthbound, Miyazaki movies, and Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, it’s hard for me to find fault in the unabashed whimsy borrowed from beloved inspirations. I will say, however, that the puzzles, although well-constructed on a conceptual level to solidify new skills, routinely overstayed their welcome. I love a good challenge, and backtracking to collect potential loot was minimal, but there were too many times where the answer was obvious but the route was too long. I would have appreciated either a harder difficulty in the form of better hidden treasure or harder puzzles.
With that being said, everything else about Eastward intensely charmed me. From the parallel in-game game aptly named Earth Born to the colorful cast of characters, from the incredibly soothing music to the delightful pixel art, and everything in between, Eastward feels like what SNES-era games look like in a nostalgic minds’ eye. There’s a lot of hype surrounding Eastward; rest assured it is all deserved, and that goes doubly so if you’re a fan of classic JRPGs.
Eastward pays homage to all things loved about SNES-era gaming, looking and feeling like the games of our childhood locked deep within our hearts. At times, I wondered if the experience would be enhanced playing Eastward sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of a giant CRT television, tethered way to close to the screen by a wired controller. For gamers of a certain age, Eastward feels an awful lot like home, and one I didn’t realize I missed so dearly.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Switch, PC (reviewed); Publisher: Chucklefish; Developer: Pixpil; Players: 1; Released: September 16, 2021; MSRP: $24.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a retail copy of Eastward provided by the publisher.