This review contains spoilers
First bit of this will be spoiler-free. I'll label the spoilers when I get to them.
There is a lot to like about this game. There are also quite a few things to take issue with. I'm not sure how to feel on the overall experience.
Let's start with the good. First of all, the pixel art is PHENOMENAL. Hands down the best looking pixel art game I've ever played. Each character, even the unimportant NPCs all have their own unique animations. I can't imagine how fucking long that took. It adds so much to the characters.
Speaking of which, nearly every character you come across on your journey is great, actually introduced some new favs of mine, like Isabel and Alva. Isabel especially, she has a great arc. And then sam is just adorable, stealing the show for most of the adventure. She's great in every scene she shows up in. Her childlike wonder is infectious, and surprisingly doesn't come with the annoyances that usually accompany kids. She's all the good parts without any of the bad. Best character in the game. Not my favorite, but the best.
Sam is also the cornerstone of the whole plot. There's this entire mystery that surrounds her which keeps the story moving. It's clear she's not a normal kid... but then what is she? Very intriguing... although I'm not sure it was realized to its fullest potential. I'll cover that in the spoiler section.
The actual gameplay is pretty good too. I like swapping between John and Sam to solve puzzles or defeat enemies. Sam's ability to stun things is pretty fun to work with, albeit it does make most encounters ludicrously simple. Stun, smack with pan 6-7 times, dead. Boom, easy. Clearly, not the strong point of the game.
To help with combat, there's upgrades and cooking. Upgrades can be gotten after finding enough Gear Parts, which are scattered about the world. Adds an extra layer of exploration that I quite enjoyed. The upgrades themselves aren't terribly interesting, merely just "more damage" or "more storage" so that's something I felt could've been worked on. You may also find heart... orbs. I forget what they're called. Basically Heart Pieces, find four, get an extra heart. Easy peasy.
Food is also obtained as minor rewards, which in turn is used for cooking. Cooking's fine, it takes a little too long, and there isn't a whole lot of variety to it. Hell, I didn't even know you could add spices to it until I was an hour away from beating the game. I assume you're supposed to buy them, but I got through just fine with just energy drinks and whatever I found in chests.
Alright. It's time for the bad. Let's start with the elephant in the room. John. From a gameplay perspective, John makes a lot of sense. He's your brawn, the other half of your puzzle solving duo, the... chef. (You can only cook with John in front, which is a little strange.) However, from a story perspective, John makes no godDAMN sense.
John is a silent protagonist, meaning he never talks. But the thing is, he doesn't even talk in-game. Characters literally point out how John never actually speaks. It's funny the first time, but after a while you're just like "please just talk". They don't even do a thing where they make the ending impactful by having him speak then. No, he doesn't say a single word the entire game. He doesn't even express EMOTION. He's just a solid brick wall you play as for some reason. Why do I play as him? I would MUCH rather play as Sam the entire time, she's clearly the main character. Let me play as her???
I get John's supposed to be Sam's parental figure throughout the story, but there's no fucking emotion there. There are two other characters who could've done that much better. William and Alva. William is just a nice, friendly dude who maybe isn't perfect, but he's still a nice guy. And Alva just jives with Sam so well. Alva gave her SHOES. Did John ever do that? NO. Fuck John.
At the end of the game, you're shown flashbacks of John's time with Sam. It's supposed to be really moving, but I felt nothing simply because John felt nothing.
Now, I don't hate silent protagonists. They can be done really well, a la Lea CrossCode, she actually emotes and has feelings. But generally, silent protagonists are simply inferior to ones that actually speak. John encompasses everything wrong with a silent protagonist.
There was a point early on in the story where I really thought John was going to die. That would've been really interesting. Advertise the whole game as making you think he's the main character, give him a whole bunch of slots for upgrades, then BAM. JK, he's dead. Here's Sam, go nuts with her bubble magic. Would've been a great way to progress the story. Give Sam some motivation instead of just kicking her out of the village. That's when you could've met William or Alva on the surface, and they could serve as your second character. But alas...
There's one small issue I have with the game around the midpoint. Right after the climax of the previous chapter, Sam, John, William, and Daniel head east towards Ester City. Before you get there however, there's this... weird fuckin' part where you get on this train called "Monkollywood". Basically an accurate portrayal of modern day Hollywood, filled with, you guessed it, monkeys.
It is by far the silliest portion of the game, and it does not need to be there. They KINDA justify it at the end, but it's really just filler. It's made worse by the fact that you go from the highest high of the game thus far, to... whatever the fuck this is. I'unno, it was a weird decision. I think I get why some people have gripes with Mother 3 now.
Now... those're really the only issues I have with Eastward. Granted, John is a BIG fuckin' issue, but y'know. However, there is one other thing I'd like to touch upon. There are three fake-out deaths in this game, and one real death, (at least in terms of important characters). John, who gets injured at the very beginning of the game. Daniel, who gets blown apart just before the final chapter. And Sam who… “sacrifices” herself at the very very end of the game. Now, I hate fake-out deaths, but there’s a bigger issue at play here. The only character who dies in this game is Alva, who, if you don’t know, is an explicitly gay character, (or at least wlw, I’unno, she could be bi or pan or something). Obviously that’s kind of an issue if you know how common that trope is. But that’s not all, the way she dies is in poor taste too, she gets inured off-screen, spends like half the game in a coma, and then dies off-screen as well. What makes it worse, is that Isabel doesn't even get a proper sendoff to her arc and character. It literally just fades to black and you never see her again.
It fucking SUCKS because Alva is legitimately one of my favorite characters in the whole game. As a queer character, and even just a character in general, she is handled very well for the time she gets. Her interactions with Isabel are adorable and heart-warming, and she even acts like a mother figure for Sam (Which I guess makes it even more painful when she dies, and it works, but like… c’mon, you let JOHN live and not Alva?). You see the two conflicting forces at play here? To me, it sounds like there was some conflict during development with two very opposing viewpoints, and this is what they settled on. This whole scenario has me very mixed, if other characters had died and STAYED dead, I might not be as bothered by this. If we were actually shown how she dies, I might not be as bothered by this. And if she lived… well this wouldn’t even be an issue.
If I were to rewrite this whole shebackle, I would’ve gone about it in one of two ways.
1. Solomon, one of the (kinda) prominent villains in the game is shown injuring Alva before you fight him. (In the actual game, Solomon isn’t involved in the slightest, but you still fight him for some reason.) Then, towards the end of the game, after you’ve had your duel with Isabel, you’re shown a flashback of Alva’s final moments with her. Very touching, very heart-rending. Maybe you see Isabel kill herself after you leave, just so she can be with her. Or like, the implication of such so it doesn’t get too gruesome.
2. Starts the same as the first scenario, as I really enjoy the arc Isabel goes through, but instead at the end of the game, Alva is healed through whatever bullshit goes on with Charon. Maybe in exchange for Alva’s safety, she offers to be controlled by Mother so you still get your duel with her. Then at the end Alva could come in and bring her back to her senses… or something like that, I’unno. The Charon/Lab/Mother stuff is all super vague and I barely understand it. Point is, because it’s so vague, a scenario could’ve panned out like that and it still would’ve been believable.
Point is, I don’t think Alva should’ve died, but if she were going to, there were ways to go about it that didn’t feel so empty and heartless. Who knows? Maybe iF JOHN WASN’T AROUND, THINGS WOULD’VE PANNED OUT DIFFERENTLY.
I think that pretty much wraps up my thoughts on Eastward. An otherwise great game marred by John. Definitely worth it if you can stand John though.
Reviewed on Sep 19, 2021