Sometimes, when I’m feeling stressed, my mind instinctively hearkens back to peaceful, idyllic days and just lingers there for a little while: a perfect Sunday brunch. An hours-long walk along the beach. A concert so good that, for just a moment, the outside world vanished. Eastshade is a game that feels like those memories.
In Eastshade, you play as a painter journeying through the fantastical landscapes of the eponymous country. You’re there to paint some of your deceased mother’s favourite sights, but that emotional pursuit mostly takes a backseat to open-world adventuring reminiscent of Skyrim—all the way down to the manner in which the camera pulls in and time grinds to a halt when you’re talking to people.
The people are anthropomorphic animals, in this case. Eastshade’s world is not one where creatures attack you; rather, they breathlessly tell you about their newfound puppy love, lament the difficulty of playing stringed instruments with talons, and of course, ask you to paint things for them. There is no combat in Eastshade. Just exploration and painting. While other fantasy games were studying the blade, Eastshade marathoned Bob Ross episodes.
With no combat to break up the rhythm, you might be concerned that you’re staring down the squirt-gun barrel of a slow-paced, tedious slog. You’re not. Eastshade’s world is gentle and kind, flavoured by the breadcrumbs of small tales that are surprisingly affecting. It’s less Mordor and more the Shire. Sunbeams pierce through striking, verdant foliage as people read books, tend their farms, gather in taverns, and wind through lavish-yet-homey works of architecture.
Details do a lot of heavy lifting here. The central city of Nava, for instance, has a daily newspaper (you can even donate money to help “keep the paper free, without ads, and unmotivated by pop news and tabloid journalism”) and a tavern orator who tells new folk tales every evening. Eastshade is the kind of game you play to go somewhere else, but to a somewhere else that’s comfortingly familiar. It’s a delight, the perfect game for when I’m worn down and stressed out but also want a proper, decently hefty 20-hour experience to adventure through.
Many characters you meet are pleasant but still granted complexity by their rough edges. There’s the architect who abandoned his own wondrously constructed town to live alone because people talked more about his facial deformity than his craft. There’s the rich dandy who’s elated when you paint him but refuses to return the favour—he declines to recommend a city allow you inside its walls because “we already have too many vagrants for my tastes.”
And then there’s my personal favourite, whom I also mentioned after playing Eastshade at GDC last year: the bumbling bear who gets a jar stuck on his head but turns out to be an angry, violent man and an abusive father. This time around, I confronted him, he punched me in the face, and the cops intervened to tell me, basically, that I should have let them handle it. I’m no fan of cops, but I feel like they had a point here: Thanks to my actions, the bear’s wife and kid are gone, and he just mopes on the floor. He deserves it, but my Skyrim fantasy-hero instincts tell me I should have been able to save everyone.
But that’s not who I am in Eastshade. I’m just a scrawny-armed painter making meagre scraps off my work. Well, “work.” Painting in Eastshade is really more of a glorified screenshot button than an intricate series of brushstrokes. You’ve got to craft canvases and other items to facilitate your art and adventures, but when it’s time to put paint to page, it all occurs automatically. You pick the angle and the framing, but that’s it.
At first, I was kind of disappointed by this, but then I realised two things: 1) moving through a big, open game world Pokemon Snap-style still causes you to consider your surroundings in a totally different way, and 2) Eastshade isn’t really about painting.
To that first point, I unlocked the option to paint commissions for people around Eastshade’s three-hour mark, and I was inundated with specific requests. To my surprise, I instantly knew where to find almost everything people were asking for. I’d already painted, screenshotted, and lived in so much of this magnificent world that I’d automatically made a mental map of a e s t h e t i c places.
Ultimately, your role as a painter in Eastshade acts as an excuse for you to explore—but not in the traditional point-A-to-point-B, kill-some-giant-spiders-along-the-way sense. Eastshade wants you to stop and smell the roses—and then paint them. Maybe it’s because somebody asked you to, or perhaps it’s just because they’re part of a magical moment, a memory you want to hold onto.