There is a dark seed of sadness deep in the heart of Eastward. A certain bitter ennui that permeates everything in the game. It’s a beautiful creative choice. And it makes Eastward not only a great game but the first must-play game of 2021.

I’ve complained in the past about the growing trend of video game homogenization. The feeling that every game I pick up is less and less distinct from the one that came before it. One needs to look no further than the ever-presence of crafting systems in every AAA title to see the evidence. The marketplace is flooded with games that are obsessed with outmaneuvering their competitors. And the result is a garbage pile of aggressively mediocre nonsense whose focus is more on doing everything than doing any one thing well.

That’s why, every so often, my heart sings when an independent game studio can break through the noise with something original. And that’s precisely what Pixpil was able to do with Eastward. They made a game that is so unlike anything currently in the marketplace that it is as refreshing as enjoyable.

Elsewhere, reviewers have likened Eastward to The Legend of Zelda or Earthbound. But while those influences are present, the comparison does Eastward a disservice. Eastward is better described as The Last of Us by way of Stardew Valley. A top-down, pixel-art RPG about grief, acceptance, and the fleeting nature of life.

Go East, Young Man

Eastward follows the adventure of John — a quiet, pan-wielding miner with a penchant for fine cooking — and his adopted daughter Sam — a mysterious young girl touched by magic. The two of them start the game in a ramshackle shanty town deep underground. But their world quickly expands when they board a train headed East and learn that their post-apocalyptic world is much, much bigger than either of them had expected.

And not only is their world big, but it’s beautiful. Each town the train stops in is a lovely creation unto itself. And the unique designs do more than provide an aesthetic. It gives the player a deep connection to the towns and the people living there. The NPCs within each location are fleshed out with goals, dreams, relationships, and priorities that all existed long before the player ever got there. This depth of creativity invites players deeper into the game. And the game rewards the player’s curiosity by providing an engaging and exciting mythos filled with fun side quests and exciting missions that are as much about the everyday dignity of ordinary people as giant monsters or end-of-the-world-level stakes.

The result of all this, of a game so artfully crafted by visionary designers, is a kind of alchemy. It’s a game that centers its world and its characters, rather than its own gameplay. This creates a genuine emotional connection between the player, and by extension, the player’s characters, and the world they occupy.

And that connection is essential. Because while it is a beautiful game with astonishing visuals, Eastward is about the apocalypse. World-ending darkness called Miasma is crawling its way across the map, destroying everything in its wake. We’ve all seen planets destroyed, galaxies annihilated, and half the world’s population snapped out of existence. But I guarantee you will be more affected by the destruction of any small town in Eastward. Towns filled with people who had the rest of their lives ahead of them. People you cared about. People you thought you would see again. That’s the magic trick this game manages to pull off.

Taking The Express Way

But even if you aren’t a player who likes to explore every nook and cranny in the in-game universe, there is still a buffet of delightful offerings on display in Eastward. The narrative is filled with mystery and unfolds in glorious form over the course of the game. The music is hauntingly beautiful, adding a tertiary level of ambiance on top of the story and art style. And that’s without even saying anything about Earth Born, the game within the game that’s better than any other I’ve played (looking at you, Gwent).

Some have complained that the game’s pacing is its ultimate undoing. That it is too slow or too overwritten to be truly enjoyable to a general audience. But I think those criticisms are missing the point of Eastward. It isn’t slow. It’s calm. A calm that is as valuable in the current landscape of overstuffed AAA titles as it is in Eastward‘s own world, which stands on the brink of apocalypse. With its chaptered structure and frequent use of “To Be Continued…” tags, Eatward is the rare game that wants the player to take a deep breath and linger. Like a film from Kurasowa or Miyazaki, Eastward gives the player time and space to absorb everything that is happening.

Ultimately, Eastward is a masterpiece. Its retro graphics and sleek storytelling provide a refreshing oasis in a world of overstuffed and undercooked titles. It’s the kind of game that ruthlessly works its way directly into your heart, where it will likely live for many years to come. Later this week, I’m reviewing the rerelease of Diablo II. And while I’m looking forward to that game, I will be sad to put Eastward down. No matter how much time I spend playing this game, I think I will always want more. Just a little more time with these charming characters in this beautiful world before it all fades to black.

Eastward is available now on PC and Nintendo Switch.