There was a time when I wasn't quite sure about paint 'em up Eastshade. It's a slow starter, a little clumsy with its introductions, a little distant. But over time it won me over, really won me over. And now, as I idly sail a boat I've built through the twisting caverns on the coast, listening to the beautiful violin strains, discovering magical caves, I'm just in love with it. Enough that I'll be just fine when the quote used from this on their store page reads, "I'm just in love with it."
In Eastshade, a follow-up to 2017's Leaving Lyndow, you play an artist. Shipwrecked off the coast of the titular region, you crawl onto the beach in the small town of Lyndow, and immediately begin to settle in. It was your mother's dying wish that you visit this area, and paint some specific details to remember her. But as you get chatting to the locals, you quickly find yourself embroiled in the personal lives, ambitions and tasks of all around you. Because it's an RPG!
It's probably worth noting that the residents of Eastshade are anthropomorphised animals - bears, owls, monkeys and deer in the main. No one seems to mention it, and I didn't want to be rude. Most people have something to say to you, many will happily chat about the location, others' situations, and the nearby towns. And lots of them will ask you to get involved in their business. But none of it, at any point, will involve violence.
As I mentioned up top, it's right at the start that I think Eastshade shows off all its worst features. None of these really go away, but it ends up being something so lovely and rounded and enchanting that the weaknesses fade into the milieu. So these are things like the slightly iffy voice acting from some minor characters, an underwhelming delivery of its opening story (it massively underplays the emotional significance of visiting the place for your character, wholly fails to explain any meaningful notion of your relationship with your late mother), and the rather big disappointment of the painting.
What I'd really hoped would be a key hook to the game turns out to be clicking a button. You bring up a canvas, point your view at what you want to paint, adjust the framed area, and the press P. That's it. There's not even a faux-painting notion, say sweeping the mouse back and forth on the canvas, let alone an option to actually paint for yourself. In a game where you've got a palette instead of a sword, I'd really hoped I'd be able to wield it. It's a shame. It turned out not to be a deal-breaker.
I think the turning point for me was a side-quest I'd stumbled into when chatting with a guy (deer) in his house who'd, well, got a pot stuck on his head. Quite how this Whinnie-The-Pooh-ism happens to a deer and not a bear, I am unable to explain. After fetching his wife to help him break free, you realise he's a bit of an oddun, especially after chattering with a gossipy neighbour (owl) who has nothing nice to say about him. It seems he's potentially violent to his family. He's certainly very rude. Then there's his kid (well, fawn) running around outside yelling about being able to fly. Being an RPG, and having the option to do so, I asked the father if he thought he was really being the best parent. He thumped me in the face. The police (bear) got involved. I was yelled at by the police chief for taking such serious matters into my own hands, and not talking to the authorities first. Goodness me.
The game doesn't wade its way through such serious issues very often, but it was a short sharp shock, the realisation that this wasn't BioWare - I wasn't going to magically restore a family by barging into their lives and intervening. I made things worse. The mother and son moved away to live with an aunt, the father distraught and broken, curled in a ball on the floor of his home. Shit.
I think it's testament to Eastshade's combat-free nature that I barely noticed its absence. Oftentimes when RPGs try to drop the sword-whacking, they forget to replace it with anything else, leaving a big awkward gap. That just didn't feel the case here, the world is big enough and interesting enough that I didn't feel the need to be hacking at bats or flinging fireballs at irate wizards. This just isn't that sort of place. It isn't that sort of game.
Instead it's a game about a place. After you've explored Lyndow, and indeed the spooky remains of Old Lyndow, you can make your way to the capital, Nava. The journey there is dotted with characters, sights, things to paint. And indeed items to pick up. Eastshade has a rudimentary crafting system, nothing overly complicated, but if you want to make tents to sleep in, fires to warm yourself at night, boats to float in, and an elaborate range of teas to drink, you're going to want to pick things up as you walk around. And most of all, you're going to want old bits of wood and material to make new canvases.
Lots of the quests involve painting something specific, perhaps a time of day, a particular region, or a view of a specific building. To do this you need something to paint on, and to start they can be quite scarce. Also, the game's main quest, such as it is, is to paint those specific sights you mother asked you to. And here the game design really shines, as achieving the last of these is going to involve deep-diving into the whole world, exploring far and wide, and stumbling on so many lovely moments as you go.
Not all of these pay off. It puts so much effort into a side-quest about a bear playing a prank on his brother, something about tricking him into eating a pie he won't like, that then pays off with the surprise twist that none of the apparent choices it gives you makes any difference to the outcome. Perhaps more seriously, another involves finding a man stranded on a occluded beach, who having been shipwrecked, has since lost his two young children. To rescue him you need to craft a rope (from a recipe he gives you), and to make a rope I needed but one more piece of tree root. As I looked for it, I stumbled upon two young children sheltering under a makeshift lean-to, and of course knew who they were. Except, apparently, I didn't. My character was unable to make the connection, and seemed wholly uninterested in these stray waifs. Roots found, I returned to the dad, rescued him, and he asked me if I'd found his kids. But I couldn't say I had! Quest over, he went off to look for them. Returning to them, I still couldn't talk to them! Argh! Later, they were just gone.
But so many really shine. There's a splendid vignette to be found in the icy regions, a short tale about a research group and possibly a ghost. There are characters you can delight or absolutely screw over. I helped two bears find love, but could have deliberately driven them apart. There are characters you can enrage into never speaking to you again, or those who'll always offer up a useful snippet of information. There are kooks who live in caves, leaving daft puzzles for you to solve. There are even secret animal races whose story is sooooo tiny in this game, yet my involvement with them felt so significant.
Oh, and there's a crime to solve! And a balloon to ride! And fish to catch! And if you visit the room above the inn early evening, you can listen to the lady (owl) telling long, meandering folk tales!
It's clunky - I had some real frame rate issues, the game jumping all over the place in busy scenes. And it took me a while to realise it's beautiful. It is! But it's not up-to-date beautiful. And I found a fair few bugs in there, most especially involving getting stuck in scenery when exploring the outer reaches, clambering over rocks (fortunately there's a quick travel option with the right cup of tea, that got me out of most scrapes). But then, you know what, the same is true of Skyrim! And goodness knows, we forgive that its every ludicrous failing for what it manages to offer. I feel the same way here.
Eastshade is a good length, too. I'm guessing, but maybe 15 hours? And in many ways it feels like the indie movie version of Skyrim's summer blockbuster. It has that same wandering, stumbling-upon charm, albeit in a much smaller space, with a much smaller scope. But at the same time, this helped it to feel more personal, more intimate. By the time the game was over I was really sad to be done. As it ended I thought, "Gosh I'm going to miss being in Eastshade." That's a pretty huge success. And I never, at any point, missed having a sword. Someone with a sword just wouldn't be welcome in Eastshade.
It's definitely a shame that painting isn't more of a thing. But this really comes together. A slow, gentle, personal RPG, with neat little stories, characters I remember, and a real sense of having spent time in a special place. Oh, and last of all, in Eastshade if you want to get around a bit faster, you buy a bicycle. Yeah, it's exactly that sort of place.