In Eastward, John is the strong, silent type. So silent in fact that he never utters a word – and yet the people he encounters still seem to understand him. His companion is Sam, a young, hyper-enthusiastic kid with a glass-half-full attitude to anything that's thrown in the duo's direction. It's easy to draw parallels between the pair and Joel and Ellie from the first Last of Us – heck, John even looks and dresses so much like Joel, he might as well be a cosplayer. They're an instantly loveable duo, each one's personality balancing out the other, Sam's eagerness countering John's more relaxed attitude – especially when it comes to starting each day in this upcoming RPG adventure from developer Pixpil and publisher Chucklefish.
That balance is a key part of the way Eastward plays too. John is fairly traditional with his weaponry – a shotgun-like Bang-Bang Gun, flamethrower, and some bombs make up his core arsenal, with his primary weapon actually being a frying pan, which he can use to beat enemies or smash objects, as well as cook meals for him and Sam. (I hope he washes the monster goo off of it first.) I've lost count of the times I've watched Joel from The Last of Us wield a brick or a bottle against an enemy, and although there aren't many infected wandering the beautiful pixel art landscape of Eastward, there's similar energy here to the way John swings his frying pan. It's clear that both characters' primary focus is the protection of their young ward.
Sam on the other hand moves away from the Last of Us parallels entirely, as she's discovered that she has kinetic energy abilities. I'm told these powers will develop throughout Eastward, but at this point in the story, she's only able to unleash an Energy Blast that stops enemies in their tracks, and interact with certain flora and fauna in the world. Realizing that more nimble enemies could be frozen with Sam's Energy Blast and then smacked to death with John's frying pan was a neat trick, and it's clear that I was only just scratching the surface of how the two characters can be used to interact with the world.
You can switch between Sam and John with a simple press of a button, and in order to work through the game's puzzles, you'll realise that having a favorite isn't possible. You'll need both of their abilities to progress, although exploration and combat takes a lot of inspiration from the Legend of Zelda series. One part of my hands-on preview includes a raft puzzle, where Sam has to clear a path by using her Energy Blast on plump flowers and John needs to smash through some rocks by shifting a bomb across a small gap with a powered up pan swing.
Eastward's use of bombs is straight out of a classic Zelda dungeon, even to the point where if you run out of bombs you've got to pray that some fall out of a smashed pot or crate. Thankfully, Eastward does have some ammo drops you can call in from your inventory too, should you really need them. Later on, I need to split the duo up to navigate a river, working across the water from opposing banks. Along with the bomb tricks and energy-powered flowers returning, John also has to clear spiked bushes with his flamethrower for Sam to cross, while both need to avoid carnivorous plants lurking in leafy patches. Learning how to quickly switch between the characters, and how each of their abilities work, is brilliantly rewarding. It takes a while to get to grips with everything, but it certainly scratches a very specific puzzle-solving itch.
Outside of these more dungeon-like elements, combat is simple enough, with a fantastic range of enemies to encounter even in this short 30-minute section. A Fantastia-esque mushroom waddles along spawning tiny funghi children to defeat before you can get it within pan-swinging range; a living rubber duck spits out bombs shaped like its own head that you need to volley back; a poison-spitting frog must be caught between its leaps back into the water… there's plenty to get to grips with.
Although there are plenty of similarities to draw between Eastward and The Last of Us or Zelda, the art style is truly its own. It's pixel art but with a touch of Studio Ghibli, with the demo starting me out in a bustling city, full of quirky characters, appealing storefronts and arcades, and no doubt some secrets to discover. This paves the way to a forest filled with some of the aforementioned monsters, before the river begins to stretch out ahead of our pair of heroes. I love all the little details in the city and the fact it's such a contrast to the wilderness beyond its urbanized safety. But it's also how our heroes fit into this mysterious world that draws me in as misfits - although the dynamic between them alone is more than enough to make me want to see what else there is to discover.
This preview, combined with the demo released on Steam, definitely solidified Eastward as one of my must-play games for 2021. And thankfully, we don't have long to wait, as the Eastward release date has now been confirmed for September 16, 2021 for PC and Switch.