ECHO takes place in the distant future. It begins with En waking up from stasis on board a grey metal spaceship. Everything is dim and the only company she has is London, the ship’s AI. They talk and in conversation London mentions En has been in stasis for over 100 years. He has woken her up because they’re approaching The Palace, where they want to go to bring someone named Foster back to life.
The game’s plot is very well told. It is mostly back story. What I mean by that is you spend most of the game learning about the characters. As you make your way through The Palace, En and London will talk to each other. Initially London believes En is wasting her time and that there’s no way The Palace holds anything of any use. En and London don’t get along for the longest time but as they venture onwards they learn more about each others’ pasts and grow to respect each other.
While I’m generally not a fan of exposition dumps, it feels natural in ECHO. En has nobody else to talk to. The Palace is deserted and London is stuck on the ship since he’s just an AI with no body. It makes sense that they’d talk a lot. Especially since they both have connections to Foster and The Palace.
Not long after reaching the Palace, En finds what she believes will bring Foster back. His soul has been trapped in a Cube and there is a machine that should let it out. She puts the Cube in the device and that’s when the game really starts.
Now we get into the meat of the game. After En puts the Cube into the device there’s a bright white light and then the lights go on. Up to now the palace had been in complete darkness. Now the lamps and chandeliers along the way are lighting up, with intermittent blackouts. This is a key feature of the game. You see, something went wrong and the palace created an army of En clones called Echoes. They look like her, they sound like her and most importantly they act like her.
But you can control how they act. Here’s how it works. There is a cycle of light and darkness. Every couple of minutes the lights in the palace will switch off for about 30 seconds. Then when they come back on the Echoes will reawaken with new knowledge. When the lights are on the clones learn. When you do anything like open a door, fire your gun, vault over a short wall, walk through water or even sneak around, the clones take note. When it’s dark, you can do as you like and they won’t learn from that. However, they don’t learn straight away. After the lights come back on, the Echoes will remember everything you did the last time the lights were on. Once it goes dark again, they’ll forget everything and will only remember what you did during the last light period. In short, if you fire your gun the first light period, they’ll start firing next time. If you don’t do anything when the lights are on, they’ll not learn anything for the next period of light.
This is such an interesting game mechanic. It gives you influence over your enemies in a very unconventional way. You can’t directly control their actions of course but you can choose what abilities they’ll have. For example, if you use your gun a lot in one light cycle, you know the Echoes will readily open fire on you in the next one. So maybe you want to be sneaky instead, focusing on mêlée stealth kills. This means the Echoes will be sneaking around the place, trying to grab you from behind in the next light cycle. You always know how they’ll behave because it’s how you’ve been behaving. Apart from being able to indirectly control your enemies behaviours, this mechanic also makes it so everything you do is a choice with serious consequences.
You don’t want to go guns blazing all the time because one or two shots will kill you. Therefore there are a lot of stealthier options. Sneaking, picking up glass balls to can throw as a distraction or smash over the Echoes’ heads for example. But if you do that, then you’re likely to get smashed over the head. If you get spotted you don’t want to fire so you run. That means the Echoes get faster next time. You want to hide so you open a door into a room or hop a wall to get there. You’re safe for now but the Echoes are going to be opening doors and jumping walls in no time. It all makes you think about what you’re going to do next. You know where you need to be so you can condition the Echoes to act in a way that lets you get by easily, unless you screw up and end up acting rashly yourself. Then you’ve got a bunch of sneaky, fast, gun-toting killers on your hands.
ECHO‘s central mechanic is great and the level design complements it well. For the most part the levels are well designed. They’re fairly open with different paths for you to go down but sometimes the pacing gets a bit bogged down. At the end of each act you’re faced with the same challenge: Gather an increasing number of blue orbs to open the elevator to the next level. At first it isn’t so bad because you only need 10 of them. But the next time you have to get 15, then 25, then 30 etc. This isn’t so bad in itself but checkpoints are infrequent. In earlier levels if you die you get sent back to the start of whatever room you’re in, forcing you to recollect any of the collectables you found that upgrade your suit but it isn’t a big inconvenience because the rooms are small. Later on the levels have “save arches” incorporated into them.
These are archways you walk through to save your progress. This is fine at first but by the end of the game the levels get so labyrinthine and samey looking that it can be difficult to find the save arches. Even more annoying is they only work when the lights are on. It’s worth noting also that there is no quick saving. This is annoying for sure, especially given the infrequent checkpoints, but having them in would remove all tension from the game. Carrying out a risky manoeuvre isn’t so scary when you know you can try again right where you left off. The lack of save scumming means you really have to play the game right to get ahead.
To go along with the well crafted gameplay is a beautiful art deco aesthetic. If that’s you’re style then you are in a for a treat. The palace is ornately furnished with golden chairs, marble walls and floors, exquisitely intricate golden doors and archways everywhere. There’s barely a wall or ceiling in the game that isn’t alive with carvings and decorations jutting out. Everywhere you look there are copious amounts of detail for you to marvel at. Unfortunately though, this can be to the game’s detriment at times. Each level of the palace is designed with a different aesthetic.
The first level is all marble and brass, then you move into ivory coloured level and finally end up in levels where each wall, floor and piece of furniture is made of gold. While it’s stunning to look at it can make levels difficult to navigate. As I mentioned in the above paragraph, it can be difficult to find things like save arches because this pure golden chamber with 6 foot vases of coral plants looks just like the one I was in five minutes ago. An in-game map would have gone a long way.
You do have an in-game HUD, however that points the way forward and I particularly like how it’s designed. It’s a diegetic HUD, meaning it exists within the game world. The suit En wears is linked to her brain and to London and so he can put waypoints in the world and project a holographic sphere around En that lights up to show where enemies are around her.
I enjoy this style of design because it keeps the player immersed in the game’s world. While health bars and numbers showing your damage provide necessary information in other games, they can remind you you’re playing a game rather than experiencing another world. ECHO does everything it can to keep that from happening, even giving a reason for En not being able to sprint indefinitely or take huge jumps without the suit being fully powered. Her muscles have atrophied after a century of stasis and so the suit is basically moving for her.
Overall ECHO is definitely worth playing at least once. The problems I had with its gameplay are only minor ones and don’t detract from the overall experience. It is a short game however, clocking in at around 6 hours. This may turn some people off personally I think it’s just the right length for the story it tells and the developers clearly did everything they could with the mechanics without having to add any unnecessary padding.
Personally I hope developers, ULTRA ULTRA expand the series because there is a lot of interesting lore in ECHO. If you like character driven stories and stealth action gameplay then I urge you to give ECHO a try. It will be available on Steam on September 19 and PS4 shortly after.