2021. It has been what some call “a year”. To celebrate this collection of sun rotations, we’re looking at the best games of 2021. Next up: Eastward.
Eastward has a lot of familiar elements that are recognizable from other successful games: it has The Legend of Zelda’s combat and environmental puzzles, Dragon Quest’s turn-based battles, Earthbound’s offbeat charm, and The Last of Us’ grizzled dad/plucky young chosen one dynamic. That’s fine in and of itself, as plenty of media borrows and repurposes elements from other stories. Eastward, however, makes all of these familiar flavors feel fresh and new. Eastward, despite all of its shared DNA, is unmistakably itself.
As players control silent everyman John and precocious magic child Sam, they experience a world that’s rebuilt itself from incalculable destruction and managed to scrape together something resembling life. Miners gather at the bar after hours of backbreaking labor, a small mountain community celebrate the harvest, and a group of monkeys shoot movies that ostensibly no one but them will ever see. Life is everywhere in Eastward, and everywhere you go, you end up discovering a fully-realized community.
Eastward’s story is a beautiful thing, full of charm, bouncing between goofy characters and quiet moments of reserved melancholy. Sam is one of the best child characters in any video game. While some players might rankle at the sequences between dungeons where Eastward turns more into a life sim, I loved these sequences. A little bit of downtime before cutting through monsters makes the world feel worth fighting for.
Eastward also managed the miraculous feat of actually using the Switch’s HD rumble feature in any kind of meaningful way. That alone may not seal the deal on Game of the Year, but hey, it’s not like any other games on Switch are doing anything with that technology.
Speaking of Eastward’s technical achievements, holy heck, this game looks absolutely gorgeous. It’s technically pixel art, sure, but it’s pixel art in the way impressionist paintings are technically spilled ink on canvas. Every character design instantly communicates their personality, and no one feels like a placeholder. Every environment is a visceral visual feast, cramming personality and detail into every corner. The soundtrack is also a highlight of the year, full of soaring, triumphant arrangements and moody, adrenaline-squeezing creepers. Playing Eastward feels like how people tell you playing Earthbound feels. Eastward isn’t just good (though it is indeed very good); Eastward is significant. It’s a game that makes every move and introduces every new mechanic with absolute confidence.
In yet another in a long line of years where the future feels like a great terrible chasm, from which not even light can escape, and daily life is marred by a malaise of short-term powerlessness and long-term existential dread, Eastward dares us to stay present and remember what we’re fighting for. Saving the world sounds good enough on its own in the abstract, but it becomes even more important when we remember who lives there. Our communities, our friends and families, and all the people we might meet tomorrow, are all hoping for tomorrow too. Eastward gets that, and wants you to get it too. It’s also fun as hell, laugh-out-loud-alone-in-your-flat funny, and stunning. Eastward is one of the best games of 2021, and it does it with style.
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