Eastward is equal parts Zelda, EarthBound, and itself

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to the east isn’t subtle about his influences: Chinese developer Pixpil lovingly took inspiration from all kinds of media and combined it into a pixel art role-playing game that’s still, in a way, unmistakably him -same. You will read a lot on the internet about THE Legend of Zelda‘sand Tied to the earththe influence of, and it’s certainly there – after all, there’s a character called Mother, a playable in-game RPG called Born earth, and a Zelda-esque pixel heart rate monitor. to the east, spread across a variety of cities and biomes, also pays homage to the post-apocalyptic world of Studio Ghibli, the spirit of children’s adventure films like Sand and The Goonies, and the ritualistic mystery of occult grimoires.

But more than anything else to the east is to the east – a game where you play as a duo of connected characters. The game begins with John, the best miner in a post-apocalyptic underground city, digging up a white-haired child named Sam. Calm John, who never says a word, welcomes Sam, a naive and weird little girl, as they become quickly inseparable. John takes care of Sam, who is too young to do it on her own despite her special powers, and they quickly become friends.

published by Valley of stars editor Chucklefish, to the east pushes John and Sam to the surface of his world, driven from the basement into a largely devastated landscape. While the entire basement was colored in shades of brown, these new environments are vibrant and often run down. Yes, the world is much more dangerous up there, but it is also warm and alive, colored in shades of green, blue, pink and yellow. Likewise, places like Whitewhale Bay and New Dam City are both populated by quirky and welcoming residents – what remains of them, at least – who struggle to survive in their doomed towns. It’s from there that John and Sam realize they have to head east by train to the end of the world, jumping from town to town in search of an answer to their problem: a mysterious miasma that has engulfed entire cities.

It’s a perilous journey, but John and Sam are equipped to survive. John, for his part, has a trusty frying pan that he uses to strike at enemies – and also to cook elaborate meals made from ingredients found (and purchased) throughout. to the eastthe world. Sam has a supernatural ability that allows him to shoot energy bubbles that can stun enemies, useful both for fighting and solving environmental puzzles in the game.

to the east is a single player game, so you will be playing each character simultaneously. For much of the game, John and Sam travel behind each other in sync; you switch them from the first position to the second by pressing the trigger on your controller. John and Sam can also be played independently of each other, and this is where to the east innovates. Using each character’s abilities – like John’s Bombs or Frying Pan and Sam’s Stun – is key to solving the puzzles in to the east dungeons and outdoor environments. puzzles in to the east are not mind blowing, but they are satisfactory. Often times they require you to move with precision and clarity to successfully resolve them, sometimes against the clock.

John and Sam’s abilities are also essential in some to the eastThe toughest boss fights, in times when slapping enemies with the Frying Pan (later John will also acquire a gun, flamethrower, and rack weapon, alongside various bombs) don’t is just not enough. These boss fights are often simple in theory: dodge hits, stun enemies, and take a hit, for example. But, like puzzles, they require precision that can be difficult to master; pure simplicity is intelligent and deceptive.

I found some of these fights to be very difficult due to the disappointing scarcity of resources hidden around to the east‘s spaces. Rusty ovens and old refrigerators – also reclaimed by nature – are placed in towns and dungeons to encourage cooking, filling up your heart meter. Those were was useful to me when I was in town, full of salt, to the eastcurrency, to buy ingredients like meat, dairy products or vegetables. But those are almost the only times I’ve stumbled upon enough ingredients to do something, and I’ve never had enough money to do enough for longer trips.

a dilapidated ship on a blue background

Image: Pixpil / Chucklefish

It was a shame, because to the eastthe kitchen mechanic has become one of my greatest joys. Different ingredients can be combined in dozens of ways to create different meals: burgers, fondue, cold noodles, grilled fish, fruit salad and fried rice among them. There’s also a slot machine mechanic who can add extra buffs to meals. Cooking is also central to John’s story – the guy loves to cook and he’s very good at it. (This is also, presumably, why he is brandishing a frying pan.)

to the east progressing for over 30 hours – my total playtime for this review is 37. But as each new area opens up, the puzzles and subsequent mechanics are continually iterated. For example, by the time you have familiarized yourself with navigating the puzzles by controlling John and Sam independently, to the east will introduce a timer. Or, maybe you dodge a train during a boss encounter as it sweeps the rails back and forth. In the next stage of the fight, you’ll dodge the train as the monkeys on board throw explosive bananas. In the third stage, the tracks are on fire. to the east continually introduces new mechanics that are difficult and chaotic to face.

Eastbound - The player controls a pixelated sprite in a lush forest and approaches a train station in the middle of a lush, verdant forest.

Image: Pixpil / Chucklefish

Running in the background of to the eastThe main storytelling and gameplay of is a playable in-game RPG called Born earth, available on arcade machines found in cities. It is heavily referenced throughout to the east, the story acting as a mysterious parallel to that of John and Sam, which you decide to actually play Born earth or not. The double story seems both natural and essential: to the east itself is a tribute to retro gaming nostalgia, and the characters love it Born earth the same way we might see Tied to the earth. There are also plenty of opportunities to play it on the aforementioned arcade machines. Pixpil describes Born earth as a “Monster Collector JRPG”. It has a surprising amount of depth for a game within a game.

Like the rest of to the east, this is delicious. Details like Born earth are what makes to the east special for me. Not only is the gameplay both engaging and intelligent (and at times, punitive), but the worlds are built with depth. In its two dungeons and places of reprieve, to the east continually worth exploring.

to the east releases September 16 for Nintendo Switch, Mac, and Windows PC. The game has been tested on Windows PC using a preview download code provided by Chucklefish. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find further information on Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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