It's EGX 2019 weekend! Over the next few days we'll be bringing you quickfire impressions of some of the highlights from the show floor here at London's ExCel centre. You'll find them all here - and if there's anything out there you want to bring to our attention let us know!
Eastward's one of those little gems that gets announced to much chatter and excitement, only to duck off the radar for a year or two, resurfacing down the line much to everyone's relief and delight. It was at EGX a year ago, I think, but we seemed to have missed it. Not this year! I played its tidy little fifteen-minute demo this time and it is, of course, great.
The premise is nothing too new. Something about the world's population falling and monsters popping up in the forests. A scruffy middle-aged man looks after - or is looked after by - a magical younger girl. You solve puzzles and drop bombs on creepy creatures, and so on. But what it has on top of that is just a dripping, oozing layer of execution.
There are plenty of pixel art games (god there are plenty of pixel art games) but man is Eastward good looking. The little animations, scruffy cow-licked hair bouncing in the wind or the odd grin or yawn, are a delight. The lighting is warm and cosy and oh-so-chillout-playlist kitch. Characters move and emote, cats purr, shoulders shrug with what feels like the flick of a painters brush. A flourish. There is a serious eye for detail on the miniscule team at Pixpil, smashing together everything from Ghibli to Pokémon in Eastward's direction (in fact, there's a very large part of me that sort of wishes this is what modern Pokémon looked like, but that's another story).
As I understand it the demo is still very early - at EGX it's more or less the same as last year's, if you were smart enough to spot it then - but you start in a little town, have some conversations and poke around, admiring little cracks in the paint and flickering signs, and then it's out for an adventure in the woods.
From there, it's a pretty traditional-feeling Zelda-like (maybe a little Hyper Light Drifter-like, if you're part of the newer generation), but there's also a lovely little twist. You play as two characters - gruff John and peppy Sam - with slightly different sets of skills, and can flick between the two on the fly. John can whack stuff with a frying pan, which is good for clearing enemies and crates blocking the way. Sam can freeze enemies with a sprinkle of magic and shrink away certain vegetation. Where it gets really clever is how you can either move them around together, at once, or separate them and leave one in place while you navigate with the other.
That translates to some fantastic little early puzzles - moving both through a course of minor obstacles, switching between the two to clear them, then leaving one on a pressure pad and circling back with the other, and joining up again. It's classic buddy-game stuff but the way you can switch between moving both consciously, rather than that sort of forced AAA way of temporarily plonking you in control of sidekick as you scramble up an air vent or something, gives it a certain extra snap. Like playing a co-op game by yourself, but on purpose.
In other words then, Eastward looks very good. It literally looks fantastic, and it plays well, and smart - oh and it sounds great too, with music from Joel Corelitz, who scored games like Hohokum and Gorogoa - and I'm very much looking forward to more.