Growing up, I rarely came across games that put my Chinese culture in the limelight by an Asian development team. Most Asian games I encountered were Japanese-themed games oversaturated with samurais and katanas and made by Western developers, or games by Eastern developers influenced by the West, depicting medieval knights and castles. This all changed in 2018 when a little game called Eastward was announced, showcasing a scintillating trailer filled with blooming colours, a bombastic cast of characters, and, to my surprise, many traces of my heritage. Developed by Pixpil, a small team of three based in Shanghai, and published by Chucklefish, Eastward has finally opened its doors to a world waiting to be explored.
Pixpil’s debut title is an indie action-adventure role-playing game that pays homage to Zelda and Earthbound, the retro classics we played under the sheets as children after the lights went out. It not only cleverly utilises 90s-era Ghibli-style animation and beautifully hand-crafted pixel art to create a world full of life but also weaves in a gorgeously composed 8-bit soundtrack to bring even more colour to an already vibrant universe.
Perhaps a subtle tribute to the renowned Chinese novel, Journey to the West, where a Buddhist monk sets out on a pilgrimage to the West, Eastward stars silent protagonist, John, and his adoptive daughter, Sam, in a post-apocalyptic world as they embark on an adventure to the East.
“Sam, being the energetic troublemaker that she is, claims that she has been to the outside world before.”
The journey begins at Potcrock Isle, a subterranean society where John and Sam live, sheltered from the outside world. The origins of Sam are unknown, as she was found in an experiment tank deep underground by John. Ruled by a mayor with an iron fist, Potcrock Isle indoctrinates its citizens, especially the children, to never travel to the surface, warning that it is filled with nothing but danger, death, and haunted by an entity known as the Miasma.
Being the energetic troublemaker, Sam claims that she has been to the outside world before, where the skies are baby blue, and the lands are lush green. One day, an apparition doppelgänger of Sam allures her to go against the Mayor’s orders and break the surface, causing herself and John to be exiled. Along the way, they meet a colourful cast of characters including Jasper the one-man show, William the merchant and his robot companion Daniel, Solomon the mysterious entity, rocket scientist Princess Alva and her guardian knight Isabel, and many more.
The relationship that John and Sam have isn’t your typical father-daughter dynamic. Don’t let John’s grizzly, rough exterior and lack of words fool you. Pixpil brilliantly utilises John’s inability to speak to instead accentuate his actions as his way of expressing his emotions and affection towards Sam. On the other hand, Sam shows her love for John through the antics of a typical child, asking John to carry her because she’s too tired to walk or cook because she’s hungry. The lovely bond that the two share keeps the narrative engaging through to the end.
“Visually and aurally speaking, Eastward is at the forefront of its genre.”
The surface is nothing like Potcrock Isle described and is, instead, the most colourful and vibrant dystopia you have ever seen. However, what is true is that the mysterious blight known as the Miasma threatens the decaying world. From the luscious fields of Greenberg and the bustling streets of New Dam City to the snowy tips of Ester City, the Miasma destroys everything in its path.
The game, which starts as lighthearted and innocent, suddenly takes a dark and severe turn as Sam’s past catches up with her present and themes of morality and integrity are challenged. Where did the Miasma come from? Who is the apparition version of Sam? Why does everyone refer to Sam as “mother”? The narrative is a slow burn buildup that requires a lot of patience but is well worth it in the end.
Perhaps what draws people into Eastward is the surreal universe created by the gorgeous pixel art and retro 8-bit soundtrack. Visually and aurally speaking, Eastward is at the forefront of its genre. The pixel art not only combines different palettes of exuberant colours to exude a distinct personality in each area you visit, but it also doesn’t take away from the narrative’s more sombre moments.
“Gameplay is akin to an old school Legend of Zelda game.”
Often, I found myself getting lost in the city, admiring the intricate details of my surroundings as John and Sam went about their tasks, all the while bopping my head to the OST. Though there is no voice acting and all dialogue happens in text bubbles, the brilliantly composed 8-bit electronic soundtrack by Joel Corelitz, who also worked on Death Stranding and Halo Infinite, lovingly complements the artwork and brings Eastward to life.
Eastward takes inspiration from many old school RPGs in the most lighthearted and brilliant sense. Where most games have you wielding a sword, axe, shield, or gun as your weapon of choice, Eastward has you swinging a frying pan that only grows bigger as you upgrade it. Pixpil also introduces the refreshing element of dual gameplay, in which you can switch between John and Sam at any time.
John is responsible for the brute jobs, whacking monsters and destroying pillars, whereas Sam comes into play with her psychic abilities to trigger switches and stun enemies. Each new weapon or ability serves a meaningful role in the gameplay. Unlocked a flamethrower for John? You need it to reach previously unreachable areas. Unlocked an energy blast for Sam? You need it to solve certain puzzles.
Gameplay is akin to an old school Legend of Zelda game, where you meander through towns, talk to citizens, explore dungeons, and find hidden treasure chests. Puzzles and dungeons make inventive use of the dual gameplay mechanic, frequently requiring you to switch between John and Sam to solve a puzzle or proceed through a dungeon.
“Just as each new area you visit is unique, so are enemy types and bosses.”
Pixpil manages to strike that perfect balance between puzzles being just hard enough to get your brain juices flowing but not too difficult to cause frustration. The solution often depends on your timing and execution skills rather than raw logic. Exploring dungeons and talking to friendly NPCs in a town is highly encouraged as hidden chests contain Zelda-like heart containers to increase your permanent health. Townsfolk might also give you some fresh fruit or veggies for free if you talk to them. You can also find upgrade materials for your weapons scattered throughout the maze-like dungeons.
Additionally, there is a relaxing slice of life element added in Eastward with the cooking mechanic. This allows you to combine different ingredients to prepare some delicious meals. As an Asian, I thoroughly enjoyed making bubble milk tea, naengmyeon noodles, and naan bread to heal and buff up John and Sam.
Combat, for the most part, is simple yet satisfying and never dull. Though your melee weapon is a frying pan, you also gain access to ranged weapons and bombs. Sam’s magical abilities also become more diverse, but her kit is not nearly as impactful as John’s. While you do call upon Sam in many situations, she mostly takes a backseat when it comes to combat, allowing her fatherly figure to fulfil his loyal duties. Just as each new area you visit is unique, so are enemy types and bosses.
“Eastward even contains an entire game within the game.”
The combat is more than just swinging your frying pan and shooting your gun. Often, it requires you to move strategically around the arena, dodging incoming hits and switching to Sam to penetrate shields or activate switches. Boss encounters are not only exciting and challenging but refreshing due to the outstanding level design. Each fight knits in the presence of the environment, forcing you to use the stage to your advantage. This made each encounter feel like an exhilarating puzzle-combat hybrid.
Not only is Eastward sprinkled with little secrets, minigames, and areas to explore, it also contains an entire game within the game. Loosely woven into the narrative as a video game enjoyed among the youngins in Eastward, Earth Born is a full-fledged Dragon Quest-like RPG that you can play at computer terminals found in each city. It even contains its own gacha system that you can play to collect different figurines and serves as a welcome break when you want to take a step back from the main narrative.
“Eastward proudly wears its inspirations on its sleeves.”
Many of the areas you visit encompass the walks of life of many cultures, both fictitious and existent. Frame by frame, there are neon-lit signs of pachinko casinos, traditional Buddhist temples, subway stations labelled in Mandarin, and you even have the recipes for pho and dumplings. The effort put in by the development team conveys an appreciation of a multitude of cultures. Eastward is a fitting name for this game; there is an immense lack of Eastern Asian representation in the video game industry, and Pixpil took the momentous first step.
Eastward proudly wears its inspirations on its sleeves, combining each of its strengths to create a game that is nothing short of a masterpiece. The developers of Pixpil poured their heart and soul into this project that delivers intuitive gameplay, an emotional experience and a relic of their passion. Eastward is not just a game but an emotion that feels a lot like home, and I miss it already.
*Disclaimer: Reviewed on PC, code was provided by the Publisher.