Fridges. We use them to keep our food fresh, our beers chilled, our children's picture hung pride of place. But Eastward uses fridges as wise old sages, lecturing us about memories, and reminding us to stop and think once in a while. They're literally just manual save points, but there's such poignancy in the little quips and messages they'll give you before saving your memories. It's a particularly interesting choice in a game that eventually becomes all about memory and the connections that we make with people over time.
Release date: September 16, 2021
Platform(s): PC, Nintendo Switch
That starts with our duo of heroes. Eastward follows the story of John, a man of zero words who happens to be incredibly handy with a saucepan – both in the kitchen and against various monsters. He's accompanied by Sam, a young, hyper-enthusiastic girl with a shock of pure white hair and energy-wielding capabilities. As I mentioned in my Eastward preview, the pair have a certain energy that instantly draws parallels between it and The Last of Us, especially in the balance between the pair – John's silence and strength against Sam's childish eagerness and effervescent personality, John's position as a stalwart father-figure to this little lost kid.
The strength of their connection is evident from the beginning of the game. So close in fact are these two that their health bars are linked, with one array of hearts counting for both heroes. So while you'll spend the majority of the game controlling both characters and simply switching between them to utilize their unique skills, you will at times have to split them up to solve puzzles – so watch that health bar if you're leaving them unattended.
Although I will say that Eastward's health system can cause some frustrations. You can regain lost health bars by eating food, which John can either prepare himself by combining three ingredients at stoves that you'll find dotted around each area or bought from shops. The cooking mini-game is sweet, and well-executed, but Eastward's decision to limit where you can cook to set locales is where the issues come in. Sometimes you'll end up in a long section where there isn't a stove or shop for a lengthy period of time, meaning I had to do one unexpected boss battle with just three hearts to my name and no way of healing.
Panning for gold
Monitoring the duo's health is especially important because, despite her powers, Sam isn't a fighter. She's the one who can use her energy powers to clear the way of special plants, light up dark spaces, interact with certain items, or freeze enemies in their tracks. John's the protector, the attacker, the one who's got a flamethrower, a shotgun, and a selection of bombs alongside his trusty frying pan to use in battle. It means you'll quickly find yourself comparing John's movements and abilities to Link from The Legend of Zelda series. The way the combat and puzzle-solving works is very evocative of classic Zelda dungeons – particularly in its use of bombs and John's pan being a shoe-in for Link's sword. But really, it's the way you figure out the various ways the pair can work together in battle in brilliantly satisfying ways that make Eastward's combat stand out against its inspirations.
There's also more to this Zelda-like than meets the eye. One of the endearing things about the first roughly 15 hours of Eastward is that there's no obvious overarching goal, no one clear mission that drives the entire game forward, so your own compulsion to just live in the moment and move from beat to beat mirrors that of John and Sam's relationship. Neither you nor they will ever imagine what's going to happen next, with the story taking plenty of unexpected turns. This is a far darker and more sci-fi-influenced story than the trailers and the demos released so far have hinted, and it's a wonderful surprise.
But, that's not to say it's a complete success with the story that it does tell. Over the course of my 30-or-so hours with the game, certain seeds are dropped about a bigger secret that lies at the heart of Eastward. And yet, despite its length, it never really resolves that intrigue, leaving the clues that are littered through the game almost hanging, and asking you to draw your own rather confused conclusions. It's disappointing for a game that has such wonderful narrative moments and poignant events. It's blisteringly dark in places, to the point where I had to walk away from my PC at one point to process what had just happened. In fact, you could argue that the closing 10 hours of the game lose track of themselves, and go off on tangents that don't really add much to what Eastward delivers in the first two-thirds.
It all pans out
What carries the game all the way through though are Eastward's characters. The game has a limited crew of permanent fixtures, with the story instead letting you get attached to the oddities and other creatures you'll meet on your travels literally eastward. As you're forcibly evicted from the starting area, you'll keep traveling east, initially – as I mentioned – with no goal beyond finding somewhere to lay your head. Through meticulously crafted underground dwellings to cities and the countryside between them, you'll meet a whole entourage of loveable rogues that will touch John and Sam's lives in various ways. Even if your time with these characters is brief before moving on, there's a depth to their presentation that's unexpected and utterly absorbing.
Their designs are so memorable too, with developer Pixpil's stunning art style adding unique elements to every single person you meet, from the jester-like Jasper to the simian robot Daniel. Every place you encounter has little details that also make it unique, encouraging you to dive into every alley and cave to see what you can find. Sad tales, surprises, and secrets lurk off Eastward's beaten paths and there's always some kind of reward for being nosy – even if they don't always feel like a pleasant gift.
It's that attention to the little detail that bumps up Eastward's appeal. Another little thing I love is that Eastward doesn't have a run button. Instead, it gently adjusts the pace you move at according to the situation – a leisurely walk through the forest is an amble, while a chaotic moment where the clock is ticking is more of a manic scrambling of limbs. It helps set the pace throughout the story, and is just one example of how Eastward constantly surprises.
And it's because of that, it's easy to recommend Eastward. Even if the final hours left me scratching my head somewhat, I won't forget the people John and Sam meet or the places they find themselves in. Pixpil's tale is a slice of sci-fi that could well be taken from one of Zelda's darker timelines, but it does well to be unique and utterly memorable.
Reviewed on PC with a code provided by the publisher.