One look at Eastward, and you can immediately tell what made the pixel art aficionados at Chucklefish fall in love with it. From colourful environments filled with detail to the unique characters softly bouncing with each breath, Eastward feels alive, even though it's set in a world that's anything but.
With Eastward, developer Pixpil has decided to go all out—the first project for the Shanghai-based team is looking to Japanese RPGs from the late '80s and early '90s for inspiration, a genre that originated enduring videogame characters and approaches to adventure gameplay. You take control of John and Sam, a taciturn miner and a small girl with a magnificent mane of white hair. Together they travel a post-apocalyptic world. Pixpil is staying as tight-lipped as John about any plot details, but they did let slip that the fact that Sam uses magic makes her someone really special.
The warm feel to Pixpil's version of the apocalypse is a deliberate choice, as Pixpil co-founder and lead artist Hong Moran explains, "People, including us, tend to romanticise old worlds as something in which myths can be found and unfolded. This feeling is a major reason we chose to create a post-apocalyptic world and also why it doesn't feel too downtrodden."
What I saw of the game was a mix of straight-forward puzzling with combat similar to action RPGs such as Fable. To take on the monsters freely roaming the world, I can switch between both characters at any time—John wields a shotgun and is also very handy with a frying pan. Sam's magic is useful at long range. To navigate a forest full of flesh-eating plants and wild animals, I also need to solve the occasional puzzle. John can clear away obstacles like debris using bombs, certain plants react only to being zapped with Sam's magic. Using a combination of my new bestie, the frying pan, and Sam's magic, I navigate a raft past obstacles and into a cave, where a boss waits for me.
Pixpil's narrative designer Pan Chen tells me that players will be able to find more weapons in the finished game that will allow them to progress to previously inaccessible locations. According to Tommo Zhou, Pixpil founder and Eastward's producer, the goal is ultimately to keep things simple, "Players get limited upgrades and new items throughout the game, but we want to ensure everything stays fun and intuitive. Rather than bog you down with stuff, we want to incorporate how you can switch between John and Sam into a variety of puzzles."
The Japanese flair of the city I saw in the demo is so strong I asked if Pixpil has brought more of their native Shanghai to the game. According to Zhou and Moran, this particular in-game town with its trams and wooden sliding doors is inspired by Showa and Taisho-era Japan, and you'll also be able to visit areas reminiscent of Hong Kong and Shanghai and find architecture inspired by South Korea and India. As much as I love the Japanese architecture I've seen in the demo, it's always interesting to find locations in games inspired by the fantastical.
Apart from JRPGs, Pixpil also definitely know their anime and has been inspired by an eclectic list of titles, including Akira, Macross, and works by Studio Ghibli. Pixpil has a grand vision—even with how little it's revealed, particularly in terms of narrative, it sounds like a tall order. I'm all for more developers from different countries reaching westwards and curious to see how it'll all come together.