Open world RPGs have become a major trend in the gaming industry over the past decade; they are constantly evolving and merging with new experiences and genres, mostly trying to bring something new and/or refined to the table. I think its pretty safe to say that Skyrim is a highly influential title and taking a look at Eastshade, you can pretty clearly trace the idea for it: “What if Skyrim, but without the combat?”. But, for me, a better analogy for Eastshade is the cult classic “Banished”; like Eastshade, Banished removed combat from a genre that was focused on it, and replaced it with something more relaxing and finite, to create a better sense of pacing and attachment. Similarly, Eastshade removes combat from open world RPGs to replace it with a more meditative-oriented mechanical composition, that feels like it is paced and directed much better than most 100+ hour epics, but doesn’t hit quite as well as Banished did, however still provides a wonderful and worthwhile experience.
The experience in question is actually quite simple: You are a travelling painter who is bound to arrive in Eastshade, so you can fulfil your mother’s last wishes of painting different places in the island; unfortunately, your boat sinks before you arrive and, even though you still make it to the island, you need to complete your task through a combination of completing various quests, gathering resources and crafting items, buying stuff to help you, as well as solving various problems for the natives. Where Eastshade really succeeds is in its worldbuilding; the island is beautiful and picturesque, the inhabitants are colorful and weird, the locations are varied and different, yet they are part of the same whole. That last sentence is Eastshade at its best; you explore and discover new scenic locations, which leads you to talking to the quirky inhabitants, which leads you to helping them and gathering resources, which allows you to craft/buy the thing you need to progress, and then you move on to the next thing to start the loop again. That could have been that for a lovely couple of hours, but the developers are far better, and more ambitious, than that. You are a painter, so to paint you need two things: A canvas (which you can craft or buy) and inspiration. Inspiration comes from the things you need to do in order to have a worthwhile experience in the game; discovering new locations, drinking new brews, crafting new things, completing quests, etc. However, this is not a leveling system; instead, you gain inspiration and drain it to paint or work for a few extra coins, which means you are constantly trying to get to new places and buy new things to keep your inspiration reserves high. Essentially, this facilitates for a world that is – mostly – free to explore, a metroidvania-esque structure (where getting a new item allows you to travel back and explore further), and a constantly growing and dwindling quest list that keeps the player feeling like they are progressing.
The most impressive feature of it all, though, has to be the creative direction of the game; there’s not a single place, sight, line, or mechanic that is out of sync with the whole picture. The game wants to create a bittersweet experience of a traveler who arrives at a strange yet lively place to fulfil a dying wish, becomes attached and bewildered by the place and locals, and eventually has to end their time at this place. Everything you see, hear, and/or do in this game is solely driven by creating this experience and atmosphere for the player; for example, the way painting works is, you take out your canvas and you draw what you see (essentially photo mode without any filters or positioning cameras, etc.). This does not work if what you see is unremarkable, but, despite the beauty of the world, a lot of the paintings I did were after revisiting those locations and growing attached to them, because of a quest I did or because the music swelled at the right moment and gave me the chills. The biggest compliment I can give to the game is that, by the end, I had a sweet, melancholic feeling about ending my time with the game, the island, and the folks there, and that goes beyond the visuals and the gameplay; the standout for me was the beautiful soundtrack and how on-point it was with what was happening, as well as being the primary tool for creating memorable moments.
Unfortunately, my experience was mildly soured by a couple of problems and, although they were not significant enough to make me stop, they seriously harmed my experience. First, the technical issues and state of the game: It’s not terrible, but not far from it; I had several crashes and times where I was forced to restart the game, awful texture pop-in throughout the game, a specific area where the frame-rate would half, audio bugs, collision issues, and several other minor problems. I don’t much care about the technical aspects of a game, but given how “broken” this game is, the visual fidelity is not good enough to excuse the state of the game, but even if it were, this is a game that relies heavily on presentation to work as an experience and those issues are at best comical immersion breaks and, at worst, frustrating and progress-loosing issues that seriously harm a game that really does not need you replaying sections.
However, saving frequently, turning the settings down to stabilize some aspects, and just accepting texture pop-in and the various bugs you will see, is something I often do to experience something I feel is worthwhile, and Eastshade is no different. What I can’t excuse and what almost lead me to not finish the game was “curation”; the game is roughly 12 hours long, and while for most of that, I was happy with the progress and variety the game had to offer, at some point I felt done – that point was a full 2 hours before I finished the game. I’d be lying if I said that the game had obvious quest that needed to go, or easy solutions to this problem; I liked all the quests and loved several, I hated the walk speed, which was too slow, but without it, night time (which will cause you to freeze if you don’t wear a coat or have teas and a tent to survive the cold) would be uninteresting, the bicycle (which provides a speed boost) would be unnecessary, and the whole experience would have felt more like a checklist rather than a meditative and relaxing exploration game. Even beyond that, the best part of the game is when you have several options to pursue – whether that’s quests, materials to gather, items to buy – so removing an upgrade would have, probably, brought this sense of “being done” sooner not later. I wish they were a bit harsher with their quests and provided an intermediate upgrade for the walking speed, but I still don’t think there would be enough to justify a 12-hour commitment.
As I said though, I don’t think these criticisms are enough to make the game bad in any way; in fact, I’m so impressed by what this studio has achieved that I want to see more from them, not only to fix what didn’t work, but also because I can tell they are clearly able and creative enough to create something that’s even more impressive and ambitious than Eastshade. Eastshade is not perfect, but as I concluded my time with it and looked at my paintings one last time, I felt a sweet melancholy about what finished and just sat there reminiscing about some of the moments that are now burned in my memory. Eastshade is a magical island and, if you know what you’re getting into, one worth visiting and exploring.