What do you enjoy most about RPGs? For me, it’s the sense of exploration and discovery, not necessarily the RPG elements themselves. I played The Elder Scrolls Online because I just run in any direction and see what I could find; and I enjoyed Horizon Zero Dawn not only due to the awesome Aloy, but also for its photo mode and hundreds of beautiful screenshots.
Perhaps the reason why I fell in love with Eastshade so quickly is because of this. Imagine playing a game like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim but with no combat; somewhere you can explore without fear of getting attacked by a wolf in the woods or troll in a cave, where there are secrets and interesting characters to discover, and where you frequently pull back from the screen and say ‘Wow.’ Eastshade Studios’ title is one in which you can take a holiday and never want to leave.
I picked up the game on a whim one weekend when I was free to start something new, after hearing several good things about it. The storyline described on its Steam page sounded gentle and calming – exactly what I needed after going through a few rough weeks at work. It starts when your character, a travelling painter, arrives on the island of Eastshade to capture the world on canvas and fulfil your mother’s last wish of painting four of her favourite locations.
You may read that and wonder if that’s all; and yes, it’s as simple as that and yet so much more. This isn’t a plot that needs to be driven forward by a big plot-twist and grand mystery. Instead, the player is taken by the hand and led on a charming, meandering journey through flower-filled woods, sun-filled coastal areas, snowy mountain peaks and cities full of beautiful architecture. It’s so relaxing it almost feels as if you’ve escaped to the countryside for a few days.
Along your way you’ll meet the inhabitants of the island, anthropomorphic animals who are all happy to see you and may request some assistance. There’s the bear who has got his head stuck in a jar, the owl who wants to advertise her hot-air balloon, and the monkey who needs to figure out who’s been nibbling on his carrots. Giving them a hand will not only reward you with in-game currency called ‘glowstones’ but also gain you a friend who’ll remember your good deeds and greet you the next time you swing by.
Those glowstones can be used to purchase items such as a coat so you can stay out at night when the temperature drops (perfect for completing certain quests which can only be triggered when dusk falls) or a wooden bicycle to get around the island far quicker than walking. Useful objects can also be created by collecting resources scattered about the environment. For example, picking up ten bloomsacs and a stick, and learning how to make twine from roots, means you can make a raft to sail to areas previously cut off by water.
As well as painting your mother’s favourite locations, inhabitants may ask you to pain them a picture of a specific place or object. Simply craft a canvas from fabric and wooden boards found throughout the island and then select it from your inventory to capture the scene in front of you. This mechanic seems a little oversimplified at first, especially when you consider this is a game all about painting; but after a while it merges with Eastshade’s easy-going nature and it’s a pleasure to see those paintings materialise.
Be careful though, because creating artwork drains your Inspiration. To refill your meter you’ll need to search out new locations and experiences: you can read books, watch performers at work, take a relaxing dip in one of the hot springs or have a nice cup of tea. This resource isn’t difficult to manage however. At no point during my 15 hours with the title did I once completely run out for Inspiration, for there are always new things to see and do if I was willing to go and explore.
This is a good thing because you’re going to need an awful lot of it! Eastshade is such a beautiful game that it’s almost impossible not to create a painting each time you come across a newly-discovered area. Sunlight casts patterns on paths that weave through the forest while red butterflies play in the breeze; waves break on sandy shores as seagulls fly overhead; and lights twinkle overhead in dark underground caverns so it looks like a star-filled sky. You’re creating artwork in a title that itself looks like a piece of art.
The music is just as mesmerising and it’s been a very long time that I’ve heard a soundtrack which suits the game it accompanies so perfectly. Each area has its own unique song that wonderfully adds to its character, and tracks merge in and out as you whizz past on your bicycle. A few songs have been added to my own personal playlist: Bloomsacs and Balloon Ride were particular highlights for me because they’re just so gorgeous and incredibly well-performed.
There are only two small negatives I could find about Eastshade. Firstly, there are a few minor visual bugs which are actually somewhat funny: on several occasions the birds around the coastal areas became stuck in the sky but still flapped their wings, and the owl who pilots the hot-air balloon drifted out of the basket each time I took a ride on her contraption. I also experienced a crash around 20 minutes towards the end of the title which made it necessary restart and retrace some of my steps.
Secondly, this isn’t a release which is going to appeal to everyone because of its gentle nature. There’s no combat or violence at all and so those looking for action will be disappointed; but those seeking a calming experience will find a title they can get lost in. I have to say that at no point did I miss having a weapon – and I can actually imagine the island’s inhabitants getting together to create a petition to banish anyone with a sword from their world.
When you look at the individual parts of a painting in real life, it’s easy to notice a number of tiny imperfections, but look at that piece of art from afar to take in its entirety and it’s amazing. This is exactly how I felt about Eastshade and I didn’t want to leave when I reached the end of the game. Just as my artist character’s mother had told me at the beginning of my journey, Eastshade would be a place I fell in love with.