Eastshade feels like somebody made an entire game out of a launch trailer. About five minutes after you start a new game, it turns into an endless series of interactive landscape paintings, as a colorful guided tour through someone’s imaginary island. There are a lot of incidental scenes in Eastshade — weird buildings, distant cities, a picturesque eclipse every day at noon that turns the sky red — that look like other games’ concept art, or which they’d use as big, triumphant moments. It’s ridiculously pretty.
It’s the result of five years of work by Eastshade Studios, an indie developer founded in Bellevue, Wash. by Danny Weinbaum, who left a job as an environment artist at Sucker Punch to start the project. According to Weinbaum, Eastshade didn’t begin with a planned story or game mechanic, but instead, is an attempt to create a world that had a real sense of place. Everything else came after that, including its central gameplay loop.
The game is set on an island of the same name, with you playing the part of a traveling painter who arrives one night by ship. (You never leave a first-person perspective or see your character, so in all the ways that matter, your character in Eastshade is you, reimagined.) Your character’s mother has recently passed away, and you’re here to fulfill her last request: travel to Eastshade, a place that she loved, and paint four specific landscapes that were important to her.
Your ship sinks right before it was supposed to dock, which initially strands you in the one-horse village of Lyndow. Broke and alone in a strange town, you’re forced to rely on your wits to figure out how to reach the far side of the island and complete your mother’s request.
Notably, you’re an artist, not an adventurer, and Eastshade is not the kind of fantasy world that has an apocalypse breathing down its neck. There are no evils brewing on the horizon; no bandits are randomly harassing people in the countryside; there aren’t a lot of suspiciously hostile wild animals out in the forest; and so far, the most violent encounter I’ve found is when an angry villager punched me out. (Frankly, I had it coming.)
There are problems on Eastshade, but they aren’t the kind of problems that have to be solved with murder, and even if they were, you’re not the kind of protagonist who’s equipped to do so. Instead, you get around obstacles and complete quests by solving puzzles, gathering information, collecting resources from the wilderness, and exploring the area.
Your central goal is to paint your mother’s four memorial paintings, which requires you to get all the way across Eastshade, into its capital, and up into the mountains. That turns out to be a lot harder than it sounds, thanks to short funds, local bureaucracy, and your lack of supplies. You end up having to do odd jobs, befriend the locals, and intervene in a couple of local disputes, but the stakes stay low and nobody ever tries to start a fight.
Eastshade is 100 percent worth your time, if only for its visuals.
It’s actually sort of weird. Eastshade is set in a big, open world, played from a first-person perspective, with a lot of animal-people around, so I kept thinking it’s an Elder Scrolls game. In Elder Scrolls games, you have to fight half a dozen monsters and cutpurses every time you leave a town. Being able to just walk outside a village in Eastshade and meander around for hours without being repeatedly attacked by skeletons or something makes me feel like I’m cheating somehow.
Your character’s skill at painting comes in handy occasionally to make money and finish quests, usually by bribing people with a portrait or landscape piece. You’re limited in how many paintings you can make, however, by your supply of canvas and a stat called Inspiration. The latter is generated by completing tasks, finding new places, and reading new books; the former has to be built on the cheap by scavenging scrap wood and discarded rags from anywhere you can find them.
You may never get into a fight in Eastshade, but you will walk into every house you can find to steal all their candles, laundry, and spare boards. There are some fantasy-game tropes that you simply cannot escape.
Eventually, you open up repeatable ways to generate Inspiration, as well as a merchant who’ll just sell you spare canvases, but neither are located anywhere convenient. You’re encouraged to be careful and precise about what you paint and when, as well as to constantly explore, read, and scavenge for fresh materials. The whole game is thus built around making you check every stray corner of the map for whatever might be hiding there, whether it’s a new place, a few materials, or maybe an obscure solution to a puzzle that’s been bothering you for the last hour.
Eastshade actually reminds me of old adventure games from the 1980s. The user interface is deliberately stripped down to the quick, without a lot of the typical hand-holding features you find in a lot of modern games. It’s about an hour in before you find a map, for example, and while you get a quest log, its instructions are typically vague. This is the kind of game where you’ll get a quest from someone, and in order to finish it, you have to go halfway across the map to an unrelated area, solve two strange puzzles, and get an item that doesn’t seem immediately relevant. You’re just supposed to check everywhere and do everything until you figure out what works.
Sometimes, that’s relaxing, especially since there’s no time limit or real urgency. You can calm down, unwind, and go do something else for a while, like fishing. Other times, though, Eastshade’s deliberately languorous pace gets on my nerves, especially when it hits me with a particularly obnoxious quest or two. Sometimes, you just want to play a game where you get something done, and at that point, you’d do better to play something else entirely.
I’d also be a little happier if it was easier to make money. There are a lot of quests that can’t be finished without equipment you can buy in the capital city, all of which is surprisingly expensive. There are ways to come up with the cash, like working in the local farmers’ fields, but it’s a bit of a grind, which feels at odds with the easygoing nature of the rest of the game. (There’s actually a whole feedback loop the fans have worked out here, which feels like it’s got to be an unintended exploit. You can turn Inspiration into money working in the fields, then go below the city to the local hippie hangout and repeatedly drink cups of hallucinogenic tea to regain all that Inspiration.)
Those amount to nitpicks, though. Eastshade is 100 percent worth your time, if only for its visuals. I’m legitimately impressed that a small team was able to pull a game like this off, to produce landscapes like this that you can explore from every angle, and I’ll be really surprised if Eastshade doesn’t pick up a handful of art-direction awards nominations at the end of the year. It’s a beautiful sort of fantasy world to spend some time in, and while I have to be in the right mood to enjoy Eastshade’s slow-going atmosphere, it’s a great game to fire up just to walk around and see what it’s got to show you.