Retro RPG Eastward has been on my most anticipated games list for actual years. When I first saw it at EGX back in 2019, I quickly fell in love with its characterful pixel art and nifty pair of protagonists - miner and frying pan extraordinaire John and his mysterious ward Sam - and couldn't wait to see what post-apocalyptic wonders lay beyond the mutated forests and run-down hub town I saw in that first demo. This week, I got to see a glimpse of its Quake City dungeon, a toxic wasteland you'll be picking through around ten hours into the game. With carnivorous plants, pesky crows and lots of poison-spewing hogs to contend with, Eastward has a surprising amount of bite hidden beneath its charming visuals, and I'm now more excited than ever to play it in full when it comes out next month.
My preview build started in the same town I found myself in during my 2019 demo, suggesting this place will act as a kind of hub area in the main game. It's still full of the same quirky characters as before, but there were plenty of new faces this time to meet as well, from gurning, palm-rubbing shopkeepers to slobbering market goers, as well as a poor bloke who gets mistaken for a child-eating kappa demon by the local kids as he sits out to fish by the pier. Despite its rundown appearance and plentiful supply of locked-up storefronts, there's a pleasant hustle and bustle to this place, aided in no small part by Eastward's expressive character animations and detailed pixel art.
It also has plenty of secrets and nooks and crannies to discover. Even during my brief preview session, I glimpsed the murky depths of the city's Lowtown, where a handful of residents have made a life for themselves in the sewers, and I even ran into a local ghost, who pops up to tell you chilling stories of unfortunate children whenever you come across a small Jizo mourning statue. Meanwhile, on the city's upper levels, investigating a rustling bin revealed… some kind of creature who ended up telling me a secret in exchange for finding them and leaving them be in their pile of garbage. There's plenty to seek out here - not least the hidden treasure chests in tucked away alleys - and I can see myself spending just as much time unearthing all of its secrets as I will venturing out into the world outside.
Whereas before I trundled down to the woods at the southern exit of the game, Quake City was a short train ride away. As I descended down into the subway station, I was delighted feel a small *chk chk* in my controller as the train pulled up, mimicking the sound of its wheels on the tracks. The menu screen really wasn't kidding when it said Eastward was best played with a gamepad.
Once John and Sam arrived at their destination, it was time to flex John's frying pan arm and try out some combat. In this build, he'd acquired a few more weapons since my last demo - a deadly flamethrower for clearing away thorny brambles, some bombs, and a gun for taking out enemies from a distance. These all have limited ammo stocks you'll need to manage, and I often found myself saving them for special occasions. Enemies occasionally drop ammo on the field, and you can buy ammo packs from the local shops to stick in your backpack (which also has limited inventory space you'll need to juggle with health-restoring snacks you can cook on stoves at save points), but it's very easy to churn through these if you're not careful. Luckily, if you really find yourself in a pinch, you also have the option of calling out a delivery bot to come and replenish your supplies completely, but you'll have to decide whether the cost is really worth it.
Sam, meanwhile, was still limited to her light, bubbly telekinetic attacks. These don't pack as much punch as her friend's trusty pan swings, so you'll likely be sticking with John to do most of the heavy lifting fighting off enemies. Instead, Sam's powers allow for a more tactical approach. Her beams of light can stun enemies and trap them in goo for John to come in and whack, for example, and she can also destroy other types of road-blocking plants that are impervious to John's bombs and melee attacks. You can swap between the two at will with a tap of the right trigger button, and you can also separate (and rejoin) them with B, opening up plenty of opportunities for some asymmetric puzzling.
Indeed, once I'd crossed the toxic pools bubbling away in Quake City's outer limits, it wasn't long before John and Sam had to split up in order to progress. With Sam's smaller stature allowing her to crawl through a hollowed out tree trunk, I was then able to use her energy attacks to free a raft that John could then leap on to make it to the other side of the river. The two remained separated for some time, too, and there was a great sense of interplay between them as they cleared opposing obstacles for each other. Sometimes it was as simple as using John's flamethrower to clear brambles on Sam's side or getting Sam to blast plants on John's side, but other times John had to charge a frying pan swing to lob a bomb over to blow up some rocks. Throw in picking off enemies at the same time - John and Sam share the same health bar, which can make things a bit dicey when Sam's on her own - and there's plenty to keep you occupied and engaged. I only hope developers Pixpil keep up this sense of variety in Eastward's other dungeons.
The thing that surprised me most about this latest preview build, though, was just how tough the monsters were. I don't remember having much trouble with the creatures in my first Eastward demo, but the Quake City lads are clearly a much tougher, rougher breed than their forest counterparts. Eastward certainly isn't pulling its punches here, as enemies not only take several hits to go down, but they also leave you precious room to manoeuvre, knocking you down and preventing you from getting in a swing if you're careless.
I found myself getting quite frustrated with some of them, especially when some enemies felt like they were taking particularly cheap hits - tiny insects that are so small they could be part of the background furniture, for example, or accidentally walking into a bramble bush in a tight corridor. Of course, it may just be a result of jumping into an area ten hours into the game without having had the benefit of levelling up John and Sam and their various weapons to my own liking. I'm sure part of it was down to my own carelessness, but I also came away feeling that, maybe, the difficulty was pegged a notch too high.
We'll have to wait and see how the rest of its combat pans out closer to launch, but overall I'm still pretty stoked to play more of Eastward when it releases on Steam on September 16th. Fighting niggles aside, the more I see of Eastward's stunning post-apocalypse, the more I want to poke around its little towns and discover its secrets. I'm glad we won't have to wait too much longer for it, either, and you can expect a full review when it comes out next month.