Our world is crude. One look at social media or entertainment or “discourse” and its increasingly clear that we live in an era of bad takes, senseless violence and cynical narcissism. Charm is in short supply, especially in video games. You’re more likely to get something edgy or grim, and too often “charm” is conflated with saccharine cozycore content. Isn’t there anything that offers both charm and challenge?
Eastward from Pixpil is such a game, and it just came to Xbox Game Pass. This exceptional yet overlooked 2021 RPG is set in a dystopian industrial survivor’s colony. Your journey as John, a strong, silent miner and Sam, a mysterious orphan he found in a strange pod underground, is emotional without ever feeling too heavy.
While Eastward succeeds as an RPG on its fundamental levels, it’s the heart and soul of the game that needs to be discussed first. The game’s brilliant, wordless intro cinematic is tantalizing. There’s lots of gorgeous artistry and a thrilling vibe.
But log a few hours and watch again and you start to recognize more characters, where they are and what they want. Eastward pulls off the difficult task of telling a story so clearly and thoroughly you can come back to it after days or weeks or months and not feel dreadfully lost.
How? A combination of careful character development and worldbuilding that are second to none. Potrock Isle feels like an authentic, lived-in world. There’s a Rust Belt charm that, despite the kanji scrawled on background signs and businesses, could be almost any post-industrial small town anywhere.
Like any small town there’s plenty of rumors and drama, but the presence of The Miasma, an inexplicable darkness devouring the world, quickly puts things in a broader perspective. Especially after you learn Sam has strange powers that might be able to help. The gameplay involves John and Sam staying one step ahead of the Miasma as they try to figure out if it can be stopped.
Sam is truly a delight in this regard. She is very much a kid, a bright-eyed optimist on a big adventure. Her kindness and enthusiasm are infectious, and you find yourself wanting to help the people she wants to help while identifying with John’s assumed responsibility to protect her from a brutal world. It’s like TLOU on SSRIs.
You’re not alone in this, as plenty of colorful companions (and a few rivals) come along for the ride. Literally, as you travel this world in an adorable ramshackle subway car. Eastward deftly mixes the silly and serious, also seen in John’s weapon of choice: a cast iron pan.
Cooking is a huge part of the game, akin to Breath of the Wild, so it makes sense that John carries his trusty pan with him instead of a sword or spear. But the execution is clever. There are stronger, better pans to discover as well as new methods of attack. John can bash enemies, but he can also use his pan like a baseball bat and lob projectiles with it.
Sam’s powers allow her to zap electricity at different enemies and obstacles that John can’t conquer by pan alone. And rather than act as a permanent companion, you’ll switch between Sam and John to navigate levels (sometimes on the same screen) which keeps the exploration from feeling dull or repetitive. Pair this with the general anxiety of sending Sam off on her own to face something dangerous and suddenly the tension in the storytelling is now part of the gameplay.
As mentioned up top, the heart and soul of Eastward make it special, but don’t overlook its fundamental strengths either. There are good RPG bones here. The combat can be challenging, including some creative boss fights, while environmental puzzles prevent it from devolving into a slog to the left or a slog to the right. The nostalgic SNES vibes set off the warm and fuzzies, aided by a soundtrack that is distinctly modern. There are side quests and minigames and comedic supporting characters. It’s one of the best RPGs of last year or any other.
Eastward is now available on Xbox Game Pass. It’s also for sale on Nintendo Switch, Xbox, Mac and PC.