Never in my reviewing career have I felt so completely at a loss for words about a game. At this very moment, I’m pacing around my house grasping for words that can translate such a masterpiece into several succinct paragraphs while maintaining its splendor. But no luck. So in the meantime, allow me to use a picture instead (they’re worth a thousand words after all). There’s this one comic strip from Calvin and Hobbes where Calvin is looking at the night sky. “If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I’ll bet they’d live a lot differently,” he proclaims to Hobbes. This sentiment best describes how I feel about this game. Eastshade is an impressive interactive art piece that might not necessarily change your life, but may change the way you look at life.
Spurred by your mother’s final wish, you find yourself on a boat heading towards the titular island of Eastshade. Just as the boat nears the dock, several leaks spring from the port and starboard, leaving you and your traveling companions shipwrecked off the Eastshadian coast. After regaining consciousness, a nearby beach dweller recounts what had transpired earlier. With only an easel in your possession, you make your way up the sandy slope, determined to witness and enshrine the places your mother fondly cherished.
Eastshade inspires introspection the same way viewing an art piece in a gallery does. Unlike other open world RPGs, there’s no pillaging, no monster to mangle or realm to rescue. Instead, you get a game that tells its own story. Fulfilling your late mother’s request is nothing more than a mere impetus for you to discover and experience the beauty Eastshade has to offer — and I assure you it has heaps.
First, and most pronounced, is the graphics. The 15 hours I spent in Eastshade were filled with pure visual bliss. Well, for the most part, anyway. Barring a few graphical glitches, and frame rate issues, this game is relentlessly beautiful. The night sky feels like a glimpse into a cosmic infinity beautifully adorned with a sea of otherworldly stars; the snowy reaches are lined with naturalistic mountains. Every bit of scenery is a sight to behold.
Imbuing emotions into this bewitching backdrop are Phoenix Glendinning’s atmospheric compositions. Chills ran down my spine the moment “The First Eclipse” first played in the game. The slow legatos of the strings perfectly capture the somber atmosphere the eclipse brings as it paints the entire island in a brownish-orange hue. “The Tiffmoor Bluffs,” on the other hand, brings to mind Journey’s main theme with its solo string performance at the beginning. Initially despairing, it gradually transforms into a tune brimming with realistic hope. Collectively, Glendinning’s arrangements create a wistful tone that underscores Eastshade’s nostalgic glow.
Yet for all its sublime presentation, Eastshade fumbles in the execution of its main attraction. I was lured in by its painting premise — I mean, how often do you come across an open-world RPG with painting at the forefront? Needless to say, the artist in me was bursting with anticipation, even with some generally clunky controls. To my dismay, the painting mechanic turned out to be nothing more than a glorified version of Microsoft’s Snipping Tool, but functionally worse. At the very least, Snipping Tool allows you to save your images onto your computer. Eastshade, on the other hand, doesn’t currently have export support. I was looking forward to showcasing several of my paintings alongside my review. Alas, maybe another time (and patch).
Despite its underwhelming simplicity, painting still feels purposeful on two fronts. First, painting your late mother’s four favorite places is what triggers the game’s ending. Second, doing the art commissions through the local gallery is the perfect way to familiarize yourself with the land and the best way to earn a living. And believe me when I say that you need all the money you can get. Resources are limited in Eastshade, and the majority of my time was spent foraging for materials I could sell to purchase key items or use to craft spare canvases in order to fulfill commissions. This adds a challenging — and all too realistic — layer to the game and provides firsthand insight into what it feels like to be a starving artist.
There’s a host of interesting critterfolk to encounter throughout your journey. Many of their plights echo our own despite a difference in appearance. A baker in love is in need of relationship advice. A skilled architect has removed himself from the world after being ostracized for his appearance. A struggling apothecary is trying to make ends meet for his family even if it means resorting to underhanded tactics. Each of their tribulations hit close to home in some way, the relatability of it all sorely tugging at my heartstrings. Herein lies Eastshade’s true splendor. It’s an honest portrayal of human nature, an authentic form of beauty rarely seen nowadays.
Eastshade isn’t for everyone. But if you’re part of the subset of people looking for a relaxing and introspective experience, then I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a game that offers you a world to lose yourself in. Which I did, many times over. Eastshade is eager to share its story with you, earnestly and emotionally. And lastly, it’s a game that brought tears to my eyes by simply being beautiful. To love and be loved; to be fearful and fearless; to deceive and be deceived; to draw boundaries and break free. Eastshade reminds us that it’s these half-tones that paint our existential canvas, our reason for being which is eclipsed by a world that’s forgotten what it’s like to stop and smell the roses — or mountainworts in Eastshade’s case.