Adventure Gamers Awards
Your journey begins in the hold of a ship. An itinerant artist, you are fulfilling your mother’s last wish that you should paint four hard-to-reach locales in Eastshade’s eponymous region. While chatting with fellow passengers you are surprised by a strangely ominous thud, and the ship begins filling with water. You try to escape, but everything goes dark…until you wake up in a cave next to a beach. Somehow you have managed to survive, but you’ve lost everything except the easel that floated you ashore. As you continue on, you will find yourself thoroughly enchanted by this world’s beautiful, enticingly expansive environs and distinctive occupants – each with a story to tell or a dilemma to solve or a crisis for you to avert. By the time you explore, craft, and paint your way through all of Eastshade, you will have left an indelible mark, in both large ways and small, on this captivating world, and not just in the artwork you produce but in the changed lives of its most vulnerable souls.
Although your motivation in coming to Eastshade was to paint, you are quickly caught up in additional pursuits. The land’s odd denizens – anthropomorphic deer, bear, bird and ape creatures – sometimes appreciate your creations, yet often they need other types of goodies or assistance. Carrying out these tasks involves gameplay with RPG-like elements, but there’s no violence and only one action sequence (if you count the dream vision with a bit of hopping from pillow to pillow). Instead, the emphasis is on searching out specific landscapes to paint, helping or hindering various individuals, and learning more about the region’s unique history.
The characters are professionally voiced and gently animated when you speak to them (as the unseen protagonist, your own dialog is not voiced). Conversations are brief and full of choices that occasionally have long-term consequences, though you usually won’t realize this until later in the game. You don’t spend extensive time with any particular character, yet each personality is often memorable, such as the affable park ranger, the fickle fortune teller, the grieving ship captain, and the slug-cake-eating raft dude. By the time you are done you will have fallen in love with the terrain and cultures of Eastshade, just as your mother expected you to. You will also have rescued members of an archeological expedition, decided whether to protect or expose a mysterious cult, and wandered uncharted caves in the company of a long-lost tribe. Tantalizing ambiguities emerge as you interact with those you encounter: trustworthiness versus deceit, job disappointments, the influence of religious fervor, handiness of scientific tests, cruel effects of gossip, and the pros and cons of unusually potent tea.
The art style in Eastshade is similar to its prequel, Leaving Lyndow, but it is even more gobsmackingly gorgeous. Hillsides, ravines and meadows are literally carpeted in flowering plants (the soil here must be extra fertile). Leafy forests lead to spectacular waterfalls, vast reedy beaches and towering snow-covered mountains and glaciers. Most of the original town (now referred to as Old Lyndow) that we saw in the prequel has been destroyed by a mudslide several years previously. Still, some of the buildings in the newly built Lyndow, with their stonework interiors, curvy details, and fretted glass windows, will seem familiar.
Elsewhere, the main city of Nava boasts elegant rounded towers, giant arches, a terraced garden, and golden domes. Interiors are rustic with wooden floors and shelves of handmade pots and dishes, though the inns are fancier, sporting intricate tapestries and decorative masonry. Occasionally you will stumble across a book open to a page or two that gives some historical detail, and a bard at The Tarnished Teapot inn dramatizes episodes from the later life of Clara, the protagonist of Leaving Lyndow.
Delicate woodwinds, strings, and choral tones playing in the background give a fresh, new world aura to Eastshade. Sometimes the music is bagpipe-like, at other times it has a syncopated beat or a Mideastern twang. In the countryside you hear river currents rippling while observing the sunlight reflected across them. Trees sway slowly in the breeze and butterflies flutter near the flowers. At the beach you can watch the gurgling, lapping waves and listen to seagulls as they circle and cry. In the town environments, characters stroll about, going about their business, or stand in groups chatting.
The only downside to all this overwhelming beauty is that if you get too close to the foliage, it is sometimes angular and splinched, which seems endemic to first-person 3D games like this one. But that’s a minor issue in such a stunning world that even has a day/night cycle and an eclipse sequence that shows the surroundings in a different light. Then there’s a reaction to some of the teas you imbibe on your journey, which adds bright color and psychedelic haziness to the landscape.
Yes, tea is an important resource in Eastshade, and you will manage and brew it along with many other substances and equipment. You have to watch your inspiration meter (easily accessible with a simple keystroke), which depletes when you paint and refills when you discover a new area. You also have to keep track of money (glowstones). Intensive exploration will be rewarded by the discovery of useful items, which are highlighted once you get close enough to them. The game autosaves, but also allows for a few manual saves.
When you first start out, you are unable to walk about at night because ice forms on the screen and you find yourself plunked back at the nearest inn. There are a couple of ways to overcome this problem by buying and crafting things, and I recommend doing this right away because you will need to explore at night and control the time cycle when you’re far from an inn. You will also complete a quest that provides you with a map of the world; this combined with drinking a certain type of tea allows you to fast-travel. Well, most of the time – for a stretch the fast-travel option stopped working for me, and then after a couple of hours began functioning again (I have no idea why).
The inventory system is logical and easy to use. Clicking the “tab” key and then clicking on the backpack symbol brings up the inventory screen, where you can see all items you’ve collected on one screen or click a bookmark that will show you the most important categories: equipment, drinks and books. To the right of the screen is an icon that reveals a drawing of every currently craftable object – camping equipment and floating vehicles, for instance – and lets you know how much of each resource you’ll need to build it. Brewing tea involves a separate simple interface.
Some goods you can’t craft but must buy in the shops and booths in Nava. You can earn glowstones through painting commissions, helping the local gardener or by completing quests or selling stuff you have already acquired. You will also learn to fish and to steer a boat. Steering is easy, but fishing is less than intuitive, though it’s fun once you master it.
Painting a picture is quite simple. You click on a canvas once you’ve crafted it, drag the mouse to frame the scene, and then press a key and the finished work goes into the painting section of your inventory. A specific screen reveals icons for the four scenes your mother has requested. If you’ve managed to paint one of her favorites – or if the painting otherwise fulfills a mission or advances the story – an on-screen message makes note of your accomplishment. If you paint a scene that doesn’t trigger an acknowledgement, you can always reuse the canvas, but painting a scene or two just for your own enjoyment spawns a recompence of sorts as you exit Eastshade.
An in-game journal lists your many quests (there are 37 in all). A fair sampling includes helping a wounded waterfox, gifting an aspiring child artist with a new canvas, discovering the source of drumming noises in the forest, and advocating for hot air balloon rides. When you make partial progress, a star appears next to that quest’s title with a short description of how the mission has just been furthered or updated. This is a handy tool, as you are often pursuing multiple quests at the same time.
Your objectives usually have compelling motivations – I rarely felt as though I was schlepping around for fruitless reasons. And the world is so large that, even going back and forth, you aren’t just retracing your steps. You can take different paths (or ignore the paths altogether) to see something a bit different each time. Some missions are straightforward, but others require a series of actions and not everything is spelled out for you, which adds challenge and sparks reflection, especially later in the game.
Although traditional puzzles are not the emphasis here, you will encounter some from time to time. For instance, you must solve a mystery at an inn that could have come straight out of an Agatha Christie novel. You play detective by interviewing the guests and observing the environs and will eventually be asked to name the suspect. (Exposing the identity of this thief is a trifle ironic, as by that time you have already stolen candles, fabric and wood from everyone else in Eastshade.) You will also analyze riddles, manipulate some awkward-to-handle boxes, and locate specific substances or creatures. One optional puzzle will be almost impossible if you haven’t played Leaving Lyndow already, but is virtually effortless if you have.
About two-thirds of the way through the game, I was nearing the end of my tasks for that part of the gameworld and I was in a bad way. I couldn’t find any new areas to explore without crafting a certain conveyance, was running dangerously low on glowstones, and I was drinking tea like mad to raise my inspiration level out of negative numbers. Even the gardener was refusing to hire me because I looked sick. The only way forward was to scour all the forests for a particular organic item that was increasingly scarce. This particular experience should not apply to others who are playing the game now, however, as the developers have since released an update that made ALL “harvestable” objects regenerate after three in-game days. So the items I diligently had to search for will be significantly easier to acquire from now on.
In any case, after a long stretch of scavenging, frustration finally gave way to the thrill of victory when I located the last well-hidden element, crafted the right device and then made my way into an entirely new locale, just as exquisitely beautiful as the one I’d left behind. My heart racing in anticipation, I dashed through the lovely open meadows and wheeled like a maniac around the giant windmills and stone ruins, subsumed in a sort of rebirth. (And no, I wasn’t just wobbly from too much tea.)
I spent more than 25 hours in Eastshade and found it a fantastically engaging experience. It’s been a while since a game so grabbed me that, in real life, day slipped into night without my awareness. The spectacular vistas compel exploration and will encourage you to capture them on canvas. The multiple quests overlap one another and offer a variety of intriguing ways to affect the world and its residents with their ongoing dreams, setbacks, curiosities and challenges. It was actually bittersweet to complete the game because it meant leaving everything and everyone behind. But happily, there’s an unusual gallery of farewells that lets you see some of what you painted and think back on your experience before you go. There’s no indication yet that a follow-up is in the works, but I’ll raise a glass of Bloomsac Tea to any prospect of a sequel.