REVIEW: So, Here’s the Thing With ‘Eastward’ (Switch)

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Eastward - But Why Tho

Eastward is a placid action-adventure game from developer Pixpil and publisher Chucklefish. You play as John and Sam in a cryptic, post-apocalyptic scenario, more or less just living your lives as happenstances befall you and your strong moral compasses demand you intervene.

The game and its plot are very slow. You’re not given any big planet-saving quest, obviously from the onset. You’re not working clearly towards a particular mission. And the action happens sparsely between narrative moments and smaller quests. The slow nature of Eastward is benefited by its entire essence, though. From a beautiful 16-bit aesthetic to plucky Sam and silent John, to personality-full NPCs, to one of the best soundtracks of late, there’s zero about this game that makes you feel rushed to figure out anything beyond what’s directly in front of you.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t expertly sprinkle intrigue throughout. You will certainly be asking all the right questions from the onset, and very, very slowly, you’ll get various pieces of information through hearsay, myths, and accidents. It’s all a combination that feels like it only works in tandem; if you took any of its parts out, the game would fall apart.

Mechanically, I was thrilled the moment I realized the game was based on real-time action rather than turn-based combat like its obvious Earthbound influence. The two characters, John and Sam, each have their utilities; John does combat with his frying pan or some different ranged weapons while Sam uses her strange abilities to freeze enemies or clear obstacles. The two move together with the ability to swap at will, or you can split them apart to partake of the game’s many puzzles. The areas do get repetitive after a while and between unlocking new mechanics, but the localities are so wonderful and the gameplay so fun that it almost didn’t matter. The game also benefits from several fun side bits like its cooking mechanic with a robust menu to uncover, a set of collectibles to procure, and an entire RPG to play within the game itself.

Here’s the thing, though, about Eastward. The game begins in a dismal underground city run by a terrible and terrifying Mayor Hoffman. He’s fat, has a big nose, is perhaps fairly greedy, and nobody can accrue power or wealth without his permitting it. This is fine in isolation, maybe, but Hoffman is a very obvious and often Jewish surname. And specifically, it’s a name that could derive from the traditional medieval Jewish occupations such as financing and lending that giver rise to some of history’s most acrid antisemitism. I have no intention of accusing the game’s developers of purposely creating a character that I couldn’t unsee as an antisemitic caricature as soon as I did. Still, I’m also pretty unsettled by it, as well as the total lack of mention of this by anyone else online.

Worse yet, once I noticed this frustrating depiction, I kept spiraling into more and more causes for concern. The game’s second location, which I won’t describe since it’s still worth the experience yourself, has a female character name Uva who is suddenly and overwhelmingly in love with John. Their encounter ends on a possible moral of how Uva shouldn’t have to be somebody for John to love her, despite what all the other women in town try to tell her, but the whole encounter feels icky, especially since it happened right after my Hoffman revelation. Uva is pressured into this situation, her body sexualized from the get-go by the creepy older men and women alike, and none of it makes sense even in the context of the plot. Also, the jiggle mechanics on her sprite are very uncomfortable, especially because the sprites do that passive up and down of their shoulders. Lastly, John is a completely silent protagonist, which sometimes has funny meta moments because people just talk at him and, when he doesn’t respond, make assumptions about his intent. But here, his silence is loud when he can’t respond to Uva’s advances and express his feelings or intentions. The only sense I got was that he was as creeped out and uncomfortable as I was, honestly.

Then there’s the fact that in a later locale meant to give impressions of Japan, and there’s a set of characters you’re meant to believe are ruffians with clearly Asian-sounding names who all look inexplicably like monkeys while nobody else in town, especially the folks who are depicted as white, have the same resemblance. It can’t possibly be a coincidence. There are five of these characters who all have uncanny likenesses to monkeys between their ears and cheeks, their masks, or their mechanical suits. Not to mention this Japanese-inspired town has a princess who is depicted as white. Also, I simply cannot tell if Sam, who is clearly a child, has similar jiggle mechanics to Uva, or if it’s supposed to be her hips since she’s short that that’s what’s moving up and down, but either way, that observation was the last straw.

Independently, perhaps none of these issues would have hurt my experience so strongly. But like the rest of what makes the game so strong, in tandem, they create a pool of problems for me that I simply cannot overlook.

Eastward is a great game. It’s beautiful, it’s a story well-told, and it’s very fun to play. But for me, the entire experience was tainted by what I quickly and inescapably perceived as racist and sexually exploitative depictions, which is just such a monumental shame of a thing to tarnish an otherwise incredible experience. I mean, this game has an entire virtual RPG video game built into it that you can play. But I simply can’t rate this experience highly with how tarnished my view of it all is. I love playing it, I recommend playing it, but I also insist you judge for yourself these character depictions and whether they meet the standards we should expect from games.

Eastward is available now on Nintendo Switch, Mac, and PC.

Eastward
  • 6/10
    Rating - 6/10
6/10

TL;DR

Eastward is a great game. It’s beautiful, it’s a story well-told, and it’s very fun to play. But for me, the entire experience was tainted by what I quickly and inescapably perceived as racist and sexually exploitative depictions, which is just such a monumental shame of a thing to tarnish an otherwise incredible experience. I mean, this game has an entire virtual RPG video game built into it that you can play. But I simply can’t rate this experience highly with how tarnished my view of it all is. I love playing it, I recommend playing it, but I also insist you judge for yourself these character depictions and whether they meet the standards we should expect from games.