Eastshade is a first-person game where you’re shipwrecked on a fantasy island and, running very much against the grain of the entire first-person genre up until this point, your primary mode of interaction with the island’s inhabitants isn’t to stab them in the face.
Instead your weapon of choice is a paintbrush and an easel, which miraculously survives the wreck and washes ashore with you1; Eastshade casts you as a painter, and you’ve come to Eastshade island to paint four famous landmarks and views. Of course it isn’t quite as easy as “go to place, paint view” repeated four times, as there’s an array of adventure-game esque obstacles blocking exploration of each part of the island. You need money for the toll on a bridge. You need some way of warding off the cold chill of night in order to explore during the twilight hours. You need to build a raft to cross a river to one location, you need to convince a hot air balloon pilot to take you to another, and you need a pass to the top of the tallest building in Eastshade’s major town in order to paint the view from there. All of these things require either money, or else doing favours for the anthropomorphic animal-people you’ll find dwelling in towns and houses scattered across the island.
Fortunately for you everyone on Eastshade is absolutely painting-mad. Seriously, they can’t get enough of the things, and so your easel and brush get a comprehensive workout as you explore each successive area of the island. Most of the time you’re given quests to paint a specific item or view as part of a commission, which will pay you money that you can then use to buy items that unlock or facilitate further exploration — commissions are your primary method of acquiring currency in Eastshade, as while there is a single shop where you can get rid of excess items the sell price is an absurd (and very intentionally so) single coin per item, which is going to get you nowhere fast. No, it’s far better to genuinely play the part of an artist and work on commission, or else produce paintings that you can essentially barter for favours. There are quite a few quests that don’t involve painting, mind, and these are the standard RPG “go to a place, talk to a person/pick up a thing” business, but they provide a bit of flavour if nothing else.
The actual painting mechanics are surprisingly fiddly, and somewhat unwelcomely so. Painting an individual picture is easy; you just open the painting menu, select a canvas to use, and then drag a box around your current screen view that crops the painting. When you’re done you press E to paint, and in an excellent touch the painting will actually appear in front of you on your easel in the game world so that you can admire it before picking it up. The paintings themselves have a decently good paint-on-cloth filter applied to them so that they look more or less like the real thing, so much so that you might find it difficult to part with a particularly good one. However, while the painting process is streamlined the process of acquiring the resources you need to paint in the first place is not. You need two things: a canvas on which to paint, which can be either crafted out of fabric (easy to find) and wood (not so easy to find) or bought from the painting shop in town, and an abstract resource called Inspiration. Crafting canvas gets annoying once your initial supplies of wood run out but it’s relatively cheap to just buy them and you can reuse a canvas again and again until you sell it as part of a commission, so that’s not so bad. No, the bulk of my opprobrium — and my major complaint about Eastshade as a game — is targeted squarely at the Inspiration mechanic.
The way Inspiration works is, well, I guess a little like inspiration works in real life. In Eastshade it’s abstracted to a bar in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. As you travel around the island you’ll constantly be discovering new areas, which will fill the Inspiration bar. You’ll also be reading a lot of in-universe books and documents (and I did appreciate that most of these were properly typeset and illustrated like real books instead of being just text) which will similarly fill the bar, as will talking to people and helping them with their problems by completing quests. Once the bar is full the number above it will tick up by one and the bar will reset; this number represents the number of pictures you can paint, as each painting attempt drains Inspiration by one full bar. I think this is supposed to be an incentive to the player to explore and read as much as they can, but since Inspiration is a finite resource what it actually does is make you extremely miserly about what you try to paint. Inspiration is precious, and so the only time you get the easel out to paint something is when you know you’re going to be able to flog the painting later for cash, as you’re effectively trading Inspiration for money. There’s little freeform experimentation with your painting in Eastshade because that would waste Inspiration, and so you’ll only paint around thirty of the things across the course of the entire game.
Considering the amount of work that’s gone into the painting bit of the game — not to mention Eastshade being a game whose entire point is that you are a painter who has come to this island to paint things — the fact that I feel so restricted around when I can paint things is a massive, massive problem for Eastshade. It’s effectively a game about taking pretty screenshots which makes the baffling decision to limit the number of screenshots that you can take, with the result that I ended up making far more actual screenshots of Eastshade via the F12 key in Steam than I did the in-game paintings. Having to lean on an out-of-game function to do the thing the game is about is stupid and counterproductive and I can think of many, many low-effort ways to fulfil Inspiration’s design goal (which is that you should have to engage with the world a bit in order to be able to paint it) without discouraging the player from actually painting. For example, you could let them paint at any time, let them admire the in-game canvas — but if you want to pick it up and keep it, you have to spend the Inspiration. It’s a bit gamey, but then so is the current system.
At least the island of Eastshade is full of nice things to paint. (By which I mean, screenshot with F12.) Visually Eastshade doesn’t have the bells and whistles you’d expect of an AAA title and there are rough edges around animations, some very ropey voice acting, and other mechanical weirdnesses like the old trope of impassable vegetation blocking you from going out of bounds that frequently remind you that it was a game made on a relatively tight budget. Still it’s certainly no slouch in terms of looks and gets the important things right. Crucially, as a place to walk around in, Eastshade feels different enough from the generic fantasy of an Oblivion or Skyrim to have its own rather visceral sense of atmosphere. The anthropomorphic animals help out quite a lot here, which I wasn’t expecting them to; a lot of them are apes, which don’t really work because they’re too close to humans, but the bears and the birds are very good and accentuate the other-ness of this place that you find yourself in. It does help that they’re written as normal people with no stupid character tropes based on what type of animal you’re talking to, which makes the experience of talking to the island inhabitants feel a little bit dreamlike.
The island landscapes are, in general, very good, where you can sit yourself in just about any location and find something worth painting. However, I think the thing that impressed me most about Eastshade’s world was its sky. First, the planet that Eastshade is set on is orbiting — or being orbited by — a twin Earth-like planet, which is always visible in the sky and whose constant presence really emphasises that you’re not just blundering around in a field in rural Dorset. Second, and possibly the thing I like most about Eastshade, are the eclipses; every day the sun will be occluded by the twin planet and Eastshade will grow dim and red, and it’ll stay like that for around ten in-game minutes before the sun reappears and things gradually return to normal. And the third thing about the sky that I found striking were Eastshade’s nights, as during the day the features on the twin planet are obscured because the sun is behind it and you’re mostly seeing it in silhouette, but when the sun sets the ocean and the landmasses there suddenly pop into focus. The sky gives Eastshade an otherworldly ambience that reminded me of Myst2 or The Dig, and anything that reminds me of The Dig is okay in my book.
In terms of other systems Eastshade feels a little light. There’s a crafting system that’s used mostly to build one-off items like tents and rafts that you can pack up and carry with you, and mobility items to buy like a handle you can use to traverse the ziplines you’ll find scattered across Eastshade. There’s also a fishing minigame that’s used in all of one quest and which I couldn’t figure out for ten minutes of trying, and a bunch of teas you can brew, one of which acts as the fast travel system for the game. Aside from talking to people and doing their associated painting/other quests there’s not much else to do in Eastshade. However, there’s a certain genre of game disparagingly called a “walking simulator”3. — i.e. heavily scripted narrative experiences with a light sprinkling of adventure game elements, such as Gone Home or Firewatch — and while you do spend a lot of time walking around in Eastshade it’s nowhere near as linear as one of those. There’s enough freeform exploration packed into it to keep you busy for several hours; it took me just over six to finish it and I didn’t quite do everything.
In the end I think I’m prepared to forgive Eastshade’s major flaws — the weird Inspiration system and your character’s molasses-slow running speed — because it does such a good job of transporting you inside its world so that you can soak up its atmosphere. Exploration may be all there is to do in the game but it makes that exploration as worthwhile as possible; it looks great for an indie game (although performance got a little choppy in places) and the music is fantastic4. Eastshade may be slow, but it is also thoughtful; it may not be particularly deep, but it is reflective. It is, above all, a nice example of what games could be if we weren’t so obsessed with violence and confrontation, and focused on learning about other people (even if those people happen to be bears) and helping them solve their problems instead of shooting them with guns. Despite having many of its own problems Eastshade has been a very refreshing change of pace, and a rare occasion when an impulse purchase on Steam has actually worked out. I feel good after finishing it, as it’s a celebration of some of the more horizon-broadening things in life such as travel, sightseeing and exploring new and different communities, and I’m very glad I played it.
- Along with the entire ship’s complement of passengers and crew. Eastshade’s got a very definite idea of the things it doesn’t want to do and “mass death events” are pretty high up on that list. ↩
- Which is the only thing that Myst actually did right. ↩
- My personal opinion on them is that, while they might be rather more restrictive than we’re used to from videogames, the good ones such as Gone Home and What Remains Of Edith Finch are some of the most memorable games I’ve ever played — there’s nothing quite like literally putting you in somebody else’s shoes to make you live their experience. ↩
- In fact it’s probably going to be a contender for best soundtrack of the year; it’s a bit low-key in places but is absolutely perfect when combined with the visuals. ↩