Painting the big city

Eastshade Review

A game about art, that is art.

February has been a month of hyperactive and violent game releases, securing another month of vitamin D deficiency amongst 13-year-old boys everywhere. Eastshade offers the antithesis of this – a place of wit and wisdom, and a wistful but always engaging tale in which capturing beauty is so much more than just a game mechanic. The real world is cold. It’s damp. And the Eastshade team have faced a rough couple of days being snowed in and without power. But curling up in a cozy chair and sinking into this warm hug of a game is the perfect antidote to the season.

Eastshade is not without depth and complexity. Within the first twenty minutes there’s a powerful lesson in dealing with social pressure in the face of potentially abusive parenting, opportunities to help or hinder the flourishing talent of a young artist, and a story that loosely hangs on the last wishes of your late mother as she finds joy in your artistic endeavour.

The whole “are games art?” argument could go on forever, but it’s generally accepted that walking simulators and avant-garde visual metaphors satisfy the same needs and can be regarded as such. Eastshade is a fascinating newcomer, wrapping you up in a richly textured world of flawed and genuine people, granting open-world abilities and allowing real gameplay and decision-making to factor into the art.

It is absolutely gorgeous, reminiscent of how playing Myst felt when I was younger, spending far too long gazing at the intricate backgrounds rather than actually playing. There are also puzzles that evoke a similar level of head-scratching – involving moving mirrors and painting scenes at just the right times of day to unlock responses from your new friends.

The controls are easy, but the story is stimulating. If ever a modern game could be described as “harmlessly pleasant” whilst still garnering a thriving user-base and exploring the limits of fantasy story-telling, this would be it. Wildlife runs free in this densely populated environment, put together by a team of experienced developers and designers. If ‘struggling artist in a means-based utopia simulator’ is a thing, Eastshade sits at the top of the list.

Without giving too much away, the developers even seem to have put an entire play into the dialogue. Sitting in a tavern in the city, after seeing some posters around town advertising an event at 7pm, an energetic Owlfolk gets up and tells the story of a witch and her spiders, everyone in the bar leaning in, listening intently. The attention to atmospheric detail like this is what makes Eastshade so effective in its story-telling and immersion. If you paint a picture for someone, you can expect to visit them and see it on their wall later on; if you have a creative solution to fulfil a request, the game recognises it as such and rewards you. It’s intelligently put together, and a real treat to play.

The music is elegant and adds a rich mysticism to the world, taking inspiration from Eastern rhythms in the city, and a more gentle – almost medieval-influenced – acoustic in the nearby town. Sweet, nature-inspired characters are brought to life with humour and empathy, and the crafting system means the world around you is seen through the lens of someone truly creative.

The lack of a customisable player-character may deter some, but it removes a level of responsibility and allows you to really soak up the environment without crafting your character’s ego as you go along. Eastshade is steeped in mystery and an absolute breeding ground for potential lore; you really do feel like a visitor to this strange and beautiful land where people go about their complex, and yet conversely simple, lives.

The only viable downside is the occasional glitch in pathing or draw distance – sometimes birds will hover unconvincingly in the same spot for days, sometimes a beautifully rendered bridge will become a strange low-resolution version of itself, like a still out of the first level of Pandemonium on the PS1.

At one point I managed to float across the ocean and climb to the top of a (surprisingly detailed) shipwreck asset off the coast of the island. At times, a character wouldn’t show up for their part in a cutscene and would have to be prompted. These aren’t massive issues and will likely be sorted over time, so they merely serve as occasional unintentional comic relief in the captivating depth of the narrative.

I am so excited by Eastshade. It was almost a privilege to play it. The whole experience is enriching in a way that too many games overlook, it is subtle and witty, and rewards intelligent choices and genuine immersion. Its design is incredible, both in physical terms and in terms of narrative and music. It is a secret space for the calm and quiet in us to reign supreme, and I am thrilled by the prospect of the games in years to come that will no doubt pay tribute to Eastshade.

[Reviewed on PC]