Thought-provoking, wacky new steampunk Switch game Eastward is basically The Last of Us meets Zelda
To save your game in Eastward you use a fridge that spouts philosophical lines about memory. It’s indicative of the game at large: wacky, amusing, thought-provoking and deeply melancholic.
Memory, you see, is a key thread in Eastward. In a world touched by time loops, it’s easy to forget others around us and who we are. It’s also a fitting theme for a game so soaked in nostalgia.
From Shanghai indie developer Pixpil, Eastward is indebted to 90s adventure games and RPGs with its top down action, animated sprites and fantasy setting. Think Chrono Trigger, Earthbound and The Legend of Zelda.
It’s the latter that Eastward most resembles: specifically it’s The Last of Us if made by Studio Ghibli, by way of Zelda. The gruff protagonist is (amusingly) silent; dungeon-like areas are crammed with puzzles; collecting items and solving puzzles issues a satisfying chime; and bombing cracks in walls is integral to exploration. Collect four hearts to increase your health.
Eastward is beautiful, too. The colour palette of soft, hazy pastels adds a warm nostalgic glow, like a game that’s emerged directly from your memory, while the sprites are wonderfully animated with tonnes of personality: the way gruff hero John runs with his hands in his pockets, for example, or heroine Sam leaps with joy.
That extends to the memorable side characters that provide plenty of comedy. There’s innuendo in the script too, adding some light-hearted moments to what is an overtly melancholic game.
We witness the world through the eyes of a child: Sam. It’s a post-apocalyptic steampunk world of mechanical gods and monsters. We begin in an underground realm of mining equipment, disused railways, retro neon tech, and poverty. Going above ground to a land ravaged by the miasma means certain death. Except it doesn’t, leading to Eastward’s very own Breath of the Wild moment as you emerge into the sunlight.
This is not, however, a story for children – despite its cartoon visuals. This is a dark, haunting sci-fi world of childhood naivety, corrupt adults, and other unsavoury characters. The lovably gruff John must escort Sam on a perilous journey, a young and compassionate girl with special powers. Uncovering the secrets of the world of Eastward is a surreal and philosophical undertaking – an anxious world of death and sadness.
Though it takes some overly bizarre turns along the way, the narrative is episodic and intimate. This isn’t a quest of grandeur to save the world by collecting magic jewels and that’s a refreshing change of pace. Equally, however, that lack of grandeur means the story lacks some drive and sometimes plods. Each individual quest feels like a series of errands with needless padding, the ultimate goal not always in sight.
Yet there’s joy to be found in the small moments of everyday survival and adventure, in helping support each community you meet. Eventually you’ll control both John and Sam, their complementary skills allowing for some intricate puzzle design that smartly ramps up in difficulty over the course of the game. The two characters do share health which can feel unfair during combat, as John switches between his trusty frying pan and a variety of bombs and weapons, Sam following along behind. It’s certainly punishing in later areas too, though boss designs bring welcome challenge. There’s a cooking mechanic too, complete with jangly food, to recover health.
By the close of Eastward, the narrative feels a little convoluted. But though flawed, the game is just so charming. The visuals are full of retro quirks. The wistful music – all sci-fi atmosphere and nostalgic tunes – is glorious. And there’s an entire RPG-within-a-game that parallels the main story. Eastward manages to tickle your nostalgia as much as your funny bone, but don’t be ashamed if you shed a tear too.
4 / 5
Eastward is available from 16 September on PC and Nintendo Switch.