I waited a long time to play Eastward. I remember finding the creators website way back in 2016. It finally released this fall and after playing it, I have some thoughts. Let's get some things out of the way…
- This game has some of the most impressive artwork I've ever seen in a game. It looks crazy good.
- Likewise the music is top notch. You should go and listen to it.
- The story seems straightforward at first, but by the end makes no sense at all. I've read that some cutscenes had to be cut, and that maybe we were never supposed to get all the answers… I guess I'm ok with that.
With that out of the way I, what I've really been thinking about concerning this game is its combat. It felt "off", but it took me a while to figure out exactly what was wrong with it. Comparing it to Hyper Light Drifter (another pixel art action adventure) I realized Eastward is missing any sort of dodge mechanic! Other then an (optional and easy to miss) timed shield ability there's actually no defensive tactics other than to run away, which often does not work.
Running doesn't work because baddies are not designed to be dodged by running. They move fast, and their attacks often cover a large area. Adding to that, they have in my opinion way too much health and way too little hit stun when they are hit. There were many times when I would end up overlapping an enemy, just taking damage unable to get away quickly. The games "happy path" is to use the little girls magic abilities to stun your enemies, then run up and whale on it until the stun wears off, then repeat… It’s.. not fun. One more gripe about enemies, they respawn really fast.
There’s an interesting blog post by one of the games creators talking about the challenges they had in designing the combat. Unfortunately, I don’t think they were able to fix their "rhythm of combat felt kind of drab" problem, because they misdiagnosed the problem. Good combat in my mind is 2 equal parts, how you deal damage, and how you avoid it. You need to give players options to manage enemy attacks, be it through dodge rolls, shields, or whatever. They thought it they needed "extra combat options", but they missed that second half. Without it the player cant recover from mistakes, and will never feel fully in control of the games mechanics.