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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Eastward captures some serious GBA charm

IDBS ART GALLERY

Eastward, the upcoming 2D RPG from Shanghai’s 10-person Pixil team, is a lot of things. It’s the disarming collision of The Last of Us and Earthbound, and it plays out something like Capcom’s muscular takes on The Legend of Zelda on the Game Boy Advance. It’s the storey of a gruff middle-aged man guiding a gifted young girl through an exquisite pixel-art post-apocalypse. What drew me in after 30 minutes with a section taken from just under a dozen hours into this adventure is how brilliantly it captures the look of that most lavish era of 2D games.

But, before that, there’s a lot more Zelda going on in the way Eastward unfolds. The action is stripped down, and the combat has a nice crunch to it, while the puzzles involve a lot of pushing crates and bombing rickety old walls. The dual character mechanic adds a twist – miner John has a trusty frying pan at his disposal and brings explosives into the mix, while young Sam has access to an energy blast that can light the way forward while also stunning enemies, with both switching in and out of the lead role at the touch of a button. You can also divide the team to solve specific puzzles and then re-join them.

Pixil can extrapolate a lot from that foundation. In the short section I played, there’s a cooking mechanic that borrows heavily from Breath of the Wild, a jeep racing mini-game, and some finely tuned dungeon crawling in between. I don’t want to go into too many details because the full and final thing isn’t far away – Eastward has been confirmed for release in just over a month on Switch and PC – but just take a moment to appreciate the artwork, which is perhaps the game’s strongest suit.

There are modern techniques at work that give Eastward a certain dynamism – 3D lighting aids in selling an atmosphere that’s post-apocalyptic by way of Studio Ghibli, a charming blend of the magical and melancholy – but underneath it’s pure Game Boy Advance. Nintendo’s 32-bit handheld always sat oddly with me (partly because I had to sit oddly in order to get a decent view of that appalling screen on the first-gen hardware), mostly because there were too few proper bespoke games for it – but looking back, that seems a bit silly, because the ones that were served up were absolute bangers, all with an aesthetic that’s entirely the Game & Watch aesthetic.

Every screen in Eastward is a joy to watch.

Perhaps it has something to do with the machine being Nintendo’s last predominantly 2D console – and arguably the last mainstream hardware more concerned with pixels than polygons – but Advance Wars and Minish Cap have a fulsomeness unlike anything else. That latter game clearly serves as inspiration here, and Eastward’s worlds are similarly busy and tangible, but it’s another GBA classic that casts a long shadow here.

While the wait for Mother 3 in the West appears to be interminable, it’s a pleasure to have a game so clearly in thrall to Shigesato Itoi’s particular brand of magic. Eastward isn’t the first game to pay homage to his beloved RPG series, but it does bring some of its own sensibilities – there’s grit, charm, and warmth in Pixpil’s subterranean world that earns it a place alongside Undertale. Will Eastward be able to reach some of the same heights as Westward? I’m looking forward to learning more about it before its official release in September, but the early signs are very promising.

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