People tend to look down on so-called walking simulators. They are decried as being devoid of gameplay and purpose—nothing but pretentious tat. I always felt this was odd, because there is a lot you can do with the core elements of a walking sim. Simple does not have to mean shallow. A fact that Eastshade illustrates brilliantly.
Eastshade casts you into the role of a painter. To fulfill the dying wish of your mother, you have journeyed to the land of Eastshade to capture its beauty in your paintings. You want to revisit all of your mother’s favorite locales; to see what she saw and understand why she was so in love with this country. However, your journey is not going to be an easy one. Your boat sinking on the way in is but the first of many setbacks.
To answer the most obvious question: yes, this really is a walking simulator. It’s a first-person game in which you wander around, admiring the scenery and soaking up bits of story. It’s a laid-back kind of game with a slow pace to it. If you are thoroughly allergic to games like Dear Esther or Gone Home, then this game won’t appeal to you either. Even though it has plenty of innovations to it.
Foremost among those innovations being the painting itself. With your easel in hand, you can stop at nearly any time to paint the world around you. You can do this in return for rewards by seeking out people in Eastshade that have quests to offer, but also as a form of expression purely for yourself. There is no shortage of beautiful vistas in this game. Sometimes I just wandered around and was suddenly struck with inspiration, even though there was no immediate reward for painting what I did. You can even export your paintings through the pause menu, which is very nifty indeed.
Those quests form something of a backbone for Eastshade. You have your ultimate goal of making 4 special painting to commemorate your late mother, but along the way there are many people to meet with commissions of their own. Some of these will be straightforward requests to paint specific things. A gardener will request a painting of a sandy beach, you go and find a beach for him, paint it, and get your reward. Other quests are more freeform or require puzzle-solving, which the game is careful not to spoil. No objective markers or overzealous hints here. Other quests aren’t even quests at all. You might overhear gossip or otherwise learn of someone’s interest, and find out that making a painting for them in an unmarked quest. It rewards you for paying attention and experimenting.
Making paintings is restricted by two factors; canvasses and inspiration. You can craft canvasses from bits of wood and cloth, or later buy them a vendor. It’s not hard, but it does encourage you to not be wasteful. You also need a full bar of inspiration to make a single painting. Inspiration is gathered by discovering new places, progressing the story, or experiencing other wonders of Eastshade. Like getting high on medicinal tea. It’s not difficult or even finite to gain inspiration, but it encourages you to take your time. Find a good spot, try to get the ideal composition, and only commit to the painting when you got it looking just the way you want.
Exploration is another appeal of Eastshade. Not only is the world beautiful, it also has a tendency to lure you off the beaten path. I constantly found myself getting side-tracked on my way to just about anything. I’d head off into the woods or decide to investigate some location I could vaguely see far off in the distance. And then the next distraction was usually right around the corner. The game makes this feel rewarding because any exploration is usually worthwhile. You might find side-quests or interesting characters, or at the very least get some inspiration and crafting resources for your trouble. I don’t recall the last time when I was so thrilled to be exploring new places in a video game. I was so stoked when I headed off a path and ended up randomly finding one of the objectives for the main quest.. Only to then realize that I was out of canvasses.
While Eastshade is beautifully-designed, I do have to stipulate that this is mainly when you’re standing still in it. No matter whether I ran it on the highest or the lowest settings, the game has issues with animations and rendering. Scenery constantly pops in or notably shifts in detail, even if it’s just mere meters ahead of you. NPC’s move awkwardly and there are weird issues like fish swimming above the water, items floating above the ground, or NPC pathfinding steering them into obstacles. I also clipped through the scenery numerous times. Thrice did the game lock up on me completely, forcing me to force-close and reload an older save.
I also have to say that the story has a rough start. I like the idea of going on this arduous journey to honor the player’s mother, but the first few characters you meet are rough. A lot of the anthropomorphic inhabitants of Eastshade are… assholes, really. Like the captain of the ship you arrived on, who lashes out over her grief; complaining that she’d rather you be dead and her boat fine. Even the people you help are sometimes rude. One dude begs for your help and then basically tells you to sod off right after with no reward whatsoever.
In a way I respect the subversion of typical RPG expectations. You always assume you can just waltz in to people’s houses and that NPCs are generally appreciative towards you. It’s novel when that isn’t the case for once. It does however make for a rough introduction to the game. Only after about an hour or 2 did I start really getting into this game and care for its lore—after I’d met some more agreeable characters around the island.
Eastshade is unique in many ways. From its world design to its writing, it’s a game that shirks common trends in favor of experimentation. The result is a game of many surprises, which was so enthralling that I ended up finishing the whole thing in a single 8-hour session. I was so caught up in the exploration and making paintings that I didn’t want to stop. If you feel like playing something that challenges your expectations of how a game is meant to play, then Eastshade is very much worth considering.