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Eastshade Review — A Gentle Journey

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The term ‘walking simulator’ has acquired unfortunate pejorative connotations over recent years, though the purpose of that sort of game—to provide a relaxing, combat-free game—remains a valid creative choice

Eastshade builds on the legacy of its walking simulator predecessor Leaving Lyndow and marries it with the trappings of an open-world RPG to create a beautiful and relaxing experience where the player takes on the role of an artist who is shipwrecked near the small town of Lyndow.

The player discovers that the artist main character recently lost their mother, and the mother’s dying wish was for him to see Lyndow and the region it inhabits, known as Eastshade. As such, the main quests revolves around travelling and finding specific locations described by the artist’s mother, and then painting them in an act of remembrance.

Though Eastshade clearly takes inspiration from games such as The Elder Scrolls series, it has no world-ending catastrophes, and the protagonist does not gain phenomenal power in any sense. Instead of aiming for an epic feeling, the developer instead aimed for cosy. The result is that while player actions do have consequences, they tend to be of a local, familiar, or even personal scale, affecting who will talk to the player or whether or not a family stays together.

Though the scope of Eastshade is smaller than other open-world games like Skyrim, it nonetheless feels like a real place. Interestingly, exploration is wide open to the player right from the outset. Nothing is blocked off, and the game does not appear to provide any severe negative consequences to the player for wandering where they should not, since the game has no combat and the protagonist is only armed with a palette and paintbrush.

As a game about art and starring an artist, one would expect the graphics to be notable; that is certainly the case in Eastshade. Especially as a game comes from a small indie studio, the visuals are extremely impressive, showing depth and vibrancy.

Eastshade 4

The central mechanic revolves around capturing the more impressive of these graphics, with the artist character wielding their paintbrush to transform a view onto paint and canvas. This mechanic ends up being something of a disappointment, as all that is required of the player is to correctly line up the camera and hit a key, and the game obligingly creates the painting based on the view selected. Unfortunately, the mechanic is somewhat like taking an elaborate screenshot.

The main thrust of the game actually involved ‘finding inspiration’, which works on a type of points system that racks up as the player discovers now places. This system becomes in impetus for exploring the game world, though the beauty of the world encourages exploration all by itself.

In order to create these paintings, players will need materials in order to keep on painting, which brings in a the lightweight crafting mechanic. Most significantly, players will need to gather wood and cloth in order to make the canvas to paint on. The crafting also becomes useful in other ways.

Eastshade screenshot

Eastshade also features side quests for the player to complete, mostly in the form of anthropomorphised animals providing fairly simple fetch quests, often involving the crafting mechanic where painting is not directly involved. These side quests are typically small, domestic issues, adding further detail to the open world, though the characters themselves lack depth.

Thankfully, all of the game’s NPCs are fully voiced, adding a layer of realism to the world. The voice performances are good, with only very occasional hiccups of mediocrity. The game’s characters hint at deeper lore and history within the world, but this is rarely expanded upon, which can be frustrating to players hoping for more.

Eastshade‘s original soundtrack, composed by musician Phoenix Glendinning, is gorgeous. Every track is gentle and relaxing, and each note feels relaxing and entirely suited to the open world and tranquil gameplay.

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The game suffered a few frame rate drops in areas with high graphical loads, and players may occasionally find themselves unable to move from awkward placements of scenery. However, besides these examples and a few minor graphical bugs, the game runs quite smoothly.

Eastshade takes roughly 20 hours to complete, including all side quests. However, once all the game’s quests have been completed, players are unlikely to find any reason to return to the game, which is a shame. The game is stunning and deserves to be revisited, and more hidden lore or secrets around the world could encourage players to spend more time turning over every stone.

Eastshade is transcendent. While the game may not be perfect for everyone, fans of RPGs and players looking for a relaxing video game will certainly want to check it out. The game’s gentle soundtrack and gorgeous visuals nicely accompany its detailed open world for a beautiful, chilled out experience.

OnlySP Review Score 4 Distinction

Reviewed on PC.

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Review

Stranger Things 3: The Game Review — Mindflayingly Average

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Stranger Things 3: The Game logo

The Stranger Things series has been a big success for Netflix. A love letter to ‘80s pop culture, with a focus on the science fiction and horror movies of the time, the show has been hugely popular, with the latest season screened on over 40 million accounts in its first four days. Accompanying the launch of the television season is Stranger Things 3: The Game. Developed by BonusXP Inc, which previously created Stranger Things: The Game for mobile devices, the game is an isometric brawler which competently retells the story of Stranger Things 3, but has little of its own to say. Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 3 ahead.  

The game opens one year after the events of Stranger Things season two. While trying to contact his camp girlfriend with a high-tech ham radio, Dustin overhears a strange recording spoken in Russian. Determined to figure out what it means, he teams up with Steve and his coworker Robin to try and decode the message. Meanwhile, strange occurrences have been happening around Hawkins, with rats devouring fertiliser and chemicals. Max’s brother Billy is looking decidedly unwell, thickly wrapped in jumpers while he works as a lifeguard. A tingle at the back of Will’s neck tells him the mindflayer’s presence still lingers around the town. As events progress, a group of average kids must save the world from an otherworldly monstrous threat once again.  

Stranger Things 3: The Game takes place in a semi-open world, with more locations unlocked as players progress. The player starts out in control of Mike and Lucas, who wield a bat and slingshot respectively. Two characters are always on screen, with the other person controlled by AI. Local co-op is available and seems to be the intended way to play—the AI for the second player is not very smart. When in single-player mode, the player can switch between the two characters on the fly, and any unlocked characters can be swapped to as well. The other characters unlock over the course of the story, with a total of 12 to choose from. Each character can attack and block and has a unique special move, such as Max’s healing hearts or Jonathan’s stunning camera flash. Special moves cost energy, which can be replenished by drinking New Coke or picked up from defeated enemies. With each character playing so differently, the game would benefit from restricting which characters can be used in each scenario, as finding a favourite combination and sticking to it is far too easy. This lack of restriction also caused some weird story occurrences, like Nancy wandering around the void or Hopper hanging out with Mike while he mopes about breaking up with Eleven.

Exploring Hawkins involves lots of switch puzzles, and using characters’ special abilities, like Dustin hacking into a locked door or Joyce cutting the lock off of a gate with her bolt cutters. The puzzles are generally straightforward, with the Russians inexplicably leaving clues in English for the player to find, but more complicated riddles can be found by wandering off the beaten track. The creepy deserted pizza place has some based on pi, and exploring optional rooms in the Russian base will reward the player with rare crafting items.

Crafting in Stranger Things 3: The Game is poorly implemented. Items can only be made at workbenches, which makes sense for complicated contraptions, but is annoying at other times (for example, having to retreat out of the pool area because Eleven needs to put duct tape on her swimming goggles). When looking in a store, no indication appears on what items are already in the player’s inventory. Apart from plot items, the player can also make trinkets, which improve the party’s statistics. A wide variety of trinkets are available, from improving a single character’s attack to increasing the health of the whole party. Finding the missing items to create a trinket is tricky due to the poor shopping interface, and the sparse placement of workbenches gives the player few chances to actually craft the items. Fortunately, fighting enemies is easy enough that crafting can mostly go ignored.

Combat is simple, for the most part, with the player smashing everything on screen to progress. Hawkins is absolutely infested with rats and Russians, with even the library packed to the brim with bad guys. Though the excessive numbers of similar enemies is normal in the brawling genre, more variety would have been appreciated. The late game Russians become more interesting, with knife throwers, chemical spills, and grenades, but the first three-quarters of the game consists of the same baddies over and over.

An exception to this repetition is the challenging boss battles, which are far tougher than the average gameplay. Bosses will need extra conditions to be met before they can be damaged, like switching lights on, dodging charge attacks, or keeping several baddies away from each other. Some work better than others—for example, one battle relied on keeping two boss creatures apart to prevent them from healing each other, which simply did not work in single player since the AI fighter closely follows the main character. Instead, defeating the boss required exploiting Nancy’s critical hit ability to do enough damage to kill the monsters before they could heal, a strategy that required some luck to succeed. Other boss encounters fared better, with the trial of constantly repairing Hopper’s cottage as slimy creatures crawl through the windows proving tough and intense.  A dodge button would be a useful addition to the movement options, since the bosses run so much faster than the player does. The game is also a bit stingy on providing a place to stock up before a boss battle, which should be included considering the spike in difficulty they represent. Still, these battles are where the game shines brightest, showing creativity and variety that is sorely lacking in other areas.

Stranger Things 3: The Game is faithful to a fault, feeling like a very detailed recap of the season. A few sidequests tell their own story, like doing chores for the creepy Granny Perkins or exploring the abandoned electronics store, but for the most part, the player will be re-enacting scenes from the television series, with a bit of extra rat murder and crafting thrown in. Clinging so closely means the story has nowhere exciting to go since the player has presumably already watched the season. If the player has not seen the show, that would be even worse, as it is a non-scary adaptation of a horror show that completely loses the tone. The occasional dialogue choice is thrown in, but the response makes no difference either way. Adding in some choices alongside possibilities of events going differently would make things far more engaging. 

A highlight of Stranger Things 3: The Game is the art direction, with some beautiful 16-bit recreations of the cast and environments. With the exception of Jonathan, who looks like his pointy-chinned cousin, the sprites are a good resemblance of the cast. The monsters are appropriately fleshy and gross, with the final boss, in particular, looking foreboding. Environments can get a bit repetitive, with one sprite for all the beds, one for all the cupboards, etcetera. Sprite laying issues do occur on occasion—the ashtrays all hover in front of the characters, for example. The chiptune recreation of the show’s music, however, is spot on, and converting the title theme into a Zelda-like solved puzzle jingle is impressive indeed.    

Stranger Things 3: The Game gameplay

Stranger Things 3: The Game is only for really big fans of the show. Even then, the title is hard to recommend since it is an inferior version of the television season. While the gameplay is not bad, it is too repetitive to be enjoyable on its own. The game would perhaps be best played just before season four comes out, as a novel way of recapping the previous season.   

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS and Android devices.

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