Put down that PS5 and grab your switch for the pixelated pleasures of “Eastward”

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By Keller Gordon | NPR
Thursday, September 16, 2021

The most agile game developers borrow. Like Shakespeare himself, they dig into revered titles created by the Old Guard and grab whatever is useful to them. They wonder “How can we make a game as inventive as Publication date, as artistic as Zelda and also taking that The last of us? “

The latest title from Shanghai developer Pixpil, to the east, is a triumph that extends the standard for the development of independent games; it masterfully combines popular tropes of older titles and genres without feeling hackneyed and outdated. It’s no small feat, but to the east passes the test with flying colors (and pixels).

An unlikely pair – and an unlikely weapon

to the east follows two main (and very endearing) protagonists, John and Sam, who, unlike their names, are quite unique: John is a laconic blue-collar digger who wears a flannel and wields his trusty frying pan like a weapon. Sam is an exuberant young girl with shiny white hair and supernatural abilities. Together, they not only make a terrific fighting duo, but also a father-daughter type relationship (they’re not actually bonded) that grips your heart at many points in your game. They make a great pair, and when they’re not taking down monsters, the adorable Sam usually inhales something delicious that John has cooked on his handy frying pan.

As the mysteries unfold to the east, it becomes clearer that Sam and John’s world is deteriorating. There are hints of a declining population as a deadly miasma engulfs forests, towns and distant towns. While the game does include apocalypse footage from classic video games – burnt houses, looted shops, and collapsed bridges – to the east does a better job than most headlines at revealing information about upcoming disasters. I felt tense during my game; the plot-related dialogue shrouds in enough mystery to leave players guessing at the calamity to come.

to the east skillfully distinguishes between adorable and really dark. While the game has too many cutscenes, the most important ones play out like off-Broadway drama; there is tension, pain and loss. It’s especially shocking when this darkness appears in pixelated form. When characters uncover hard truths, profess feelings, or show compassion, you can see it in their faces: Pixpil proves that you don’t need high-res graphics to convey genuine emotion.

Deep details keep players engaged

Pixpil’s small team has managed to incorporate incredible detail into every part of to the eastwithout sacrificing quality in other aspects like writing or character development. Each pixel projects color onto the Switch’s limited screen. It is as if every stitch has been designed with the utmost care. As John and Sam walk through dark dungeons or the bright, Japanese streets of New Dam City, I feel like I’m part of their history. What interesting shops were waiting for us around the corner? What monsters were going to try to tear me apart while I smashed them with my frying pan?

It’s clear that Pixpil has put a lot of time and effort into creating something visually appealing. When I think back to the handheld Zelda games like The Minish cap or even the recent one Link’s Awakening redo, I realize that to the east went beyond the artistic prowess of Nintendo. This does not mean that these famous Zelda the titles are not impressive – they are, but to the eastThe team managed to capture my sense of adventure even more than these titles. Each character sprite has distinctive traits, like a woolly beard or purple hair, each building embraces the misfortune of an impoverished city, advertisements stuck to cement, and air conditioners sunk into the windows. In a way, to the eastThe visuals make me want to ditch my DC apartment and travel to these seedy cities, even when they’re on the verge of falling.

Some awkward musical choices don’t spoil the masterful sound design

A sound design masterclass is integrated into this visual gem. Dialogue bubbles buzz and chirp playfully, John’s frying pan kicks hard against the electrified slugs. Even Sam’s muffled footsteps in a quiet room are carefully crafted. The sounds are physical and add another thoughtful dimension to to the east.

It took me a few hours with to the east enjoy his music. I didn’t like repetitive synth tunes at first because they seemed a bit lazy, but over time some of the more hidden elements of the music in the game jumped out at me, like a piano accompaniment that I had not noticed or a guitar stroke that I enjoyed. Transitions between cutscenes often meant cutting one piece and starting another; just as I was starting to enjoy a track, a cutscene or a change of location interrupted it. I expected more musical flair and originality from a game that exudes quality elsewhere, but that satisfied me enough.

It’s games like to the east this remind me that it is okay to leave the PS5 idle next to the TV. It’s so tempting these days to dedicate all of my games to a badass new console, but indie diamonds like this prove how much story can be told with so little processing power. It renews my confidence in the originality of the game when a team like Pixpil can produce something on par with the big pennies from the big studios. Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are expected to rate games like to the east – they will have a lot of ingenuity to borrow.

Keller Gordon is a columnist for Join the game. Find him on Twitter: @kelbot_

Copyright 2021 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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