Developer: Ultra Ultra
Publisher: Ultra Ultra
Release Date: 11/10/2017 (Playstation 4) 19/09/2017 (PC)
Format(s): Playstation 4 (Reviewed), PC
Every so often a game comes out that’s so original and creative in design that I just can’t help but to feel enamored with it. ECHO, the third-person sci-fi adventure from developers Ultra Ultra, is one of those games. From the outside it’s easy to see it as yet another stealth-action title, but it’s so much more than that. This is a game where each and every action you make can and will be used against you, thanks to the fact you’re facing off against enemies that literally ‘echo’ everything that you do. It might sound strange, and believe me, for the most part it is, but it also just so happens to be bloody brilliant too.
ECHO’s narrative is a little difficult to get to grips with at first, with protagonist En waking up aboard a strange spacecraft where she has been asleep for a hundred years. After speaking with her AI partner London, she heads down to a mysterious planet that they’d been searching for in order to try and help recover a man named Foster from the mysterious cube that contains his soul. Who exactly Foster is isn’t fully explained at first, but as you go on through the game you discover more about each character’s past and how they found themselves in the circumstances they’re in. Pretty weird, right? You’ll get used to it.
When you’re on the planet things take an interesting turn though when you find out it’s made up of a strange Palace-like structure that’s full of bizarre yet elegant sights. This Palace is also home to enemies that want to kill you, though these enemies take an unusual form themselves; they’re exact clones of En known as ‘Echoes’ that base their actions upon everything that she does.
The story is introduced in a compelling way, though the introduction did drag out a little bit. The small conversations that En and London share will certainly intrigue you thanks to the subtle ways that they introduce the overarching plot, but there’s so little to do on the interactive side; I begun to feel a little bored of simply walking over bridges or exploring long hallways as I waited for something to happen.
However, once the Echoes start coming in the game takes a darker tone – it was actually one of my highlights of the game and felt quite jarring to witness, especially with the way that they start off as a small black piece of slime and eventually grow into a human form. Just be warned that the initial twenty minutes before their appearance might drag a little…
Gameplay is made up of a mixture of stealth and all-out action, with some basic puzzles thrown in for good measure. The unique hook of the experience though is that as you unlock new abilities and manoeuvres in-game, so do your enemies; random blackouts occur through the Palace during gameplay which essentially reset the Echoes’ behaviour and have them learn everything you did following the last blackout. It forces you to be aware of the tricks you’re trying to pull off to defeat your foes, because they might just end up doing the same to you.
You start to dread the aforementioned blackouts that occur during gameplay because you know that your enemies have just become a little bit more intelligent than they were before. This might be something as simple as being able to climb over obstacles, taking a sneakier approach that’ll see them carefully trying to creep up on you, using guns to shoot at you, or simply being able to walk through water rather than be afraid of it – the Echoes may seem a little incompetent at first, but as soon as they’ve seen YOU do something they’ll start doing it too. The only good thing is that as long as you don’t perform those actions again between blackouts, they’ll forget it the next time around.
It actually affects the game in more ways than you’d think thanks to the fact that you’re able to take the stealth approach or the action-focused one; whatever you go for will determine what kind of Echoes come after you, so you’ve constantly got to be flexible in adapting your actions in order to get around them which, of course, essentially makes the process start all over again.
It almost lulls you into a false sense of security at times. I remember feeling smug when I finally learned how to sprint and could out-run my foes. Of course, silly old me didn’t realise then that this meant my enemies would be sprinting towards me after the next blackout, so suddenly I had to watch out for speedy clones of myself that wanted to cave my skull in. It ensured that the game always keeps you on edge and that you’ve always got to be aware of everything that you’re doing.
In many ways you’re your own worst enemy, but you can also take advantage of this. Before the system blacks out, there’s a moment where the lights dim and your actions aren’t being monitored. Anything you perform during these moments won’t get picked up on by the Echoes, so if you’ve got some trick up your sleeve that you don’t want them to use against you, that is the time to do it. It takes a lot of patience to take advantage of, but it’s the one of the cleverer ways in which you can make the game a little easier for yourself.
Of course, you’re could just try fighting or sneaking around the Echoes, with the game allowing you to either try avoiding them or taking them on directly in combat. You’re always made aware of what enemies are around you thanks to the UI around En’s body that not only directs her as to where to go, but also shows if any nearby threats are aware of her presence. It starts off as just a blue tint, but as soon as it turns yellow or red you know you’ve either got to make a run for it or hide. If you stay out of enemies’ sights and sneak up on them though you can take them out with a stealth kill, which is probably the best approach as it doesn’t make the others aware of your location.
Everything you do in the game is powered by En’s energy meter, which can be upgraded in-game by finding special crystal-like pieces. It’s something that’s worth doing, especially since even the most basic of actions depends upon it; if you want to jump down to a platform below you’ll need energy to have a safe landing, or if you want to use your gun to take out enemies you’ll need energy too.
The gun is incredibly useful thanks to the fact that it will kill anything that’s in your line of sight regardless of whether or not another enemy is blocking their way, though the fact that you’ll constantly need to keep your energy topped up in order to use it means you’ve really got to pick your moments. There are strategically placed energy recharging points throughout each area though, so you can typically keep on top of it if you carefully co-ordinate your path through a level. In many ways it makes each showdown in a room a puzzle; you typically know where you’ve got to go and what you’ve got to do, but getting there whilst ensuring your energy is constantly charged and that you also avoid the hordes of enemies that are lurking around is the part of the puzzle that needs solving.
ECHO is just so clever in its design that I couldn’t help but to be in awe of it. It’s enjoyable to play anyway, but the fact that I would regret using my gun to get out of a situation or that I’d avoid doing a particular action just because I knew my enemies would end up doing it too was a strange (albeit exciting) feeling. Each of the game’s mechanics compliment each other perfectly, and it makes for an experience that simply never allows you to switch off but also keeps you thrilled throughout.
Whilst ECHO is generally a pretty game thanks to the slick visuals and impressive architecture of the Palace, I couldn’t help but to feel a sense of familiarity as I made my way through the constant hallways and rooms. Each of the different areas of the Palace looks good, but they never change up too much throughout the game. You’ll see a few subtle difference here and there and a couple of changes of colour, but the styling itself stops wowing you when it feels so similar throughout the whole of the game.
The same thing applies to the enemies; I mean, you are essentially facing off against clones of En all the way through, after all. Mix that up with the environments that also feel samey and you’ll find it’s hard not to feel a little underwhelmed by the aesthetic variety of the game. It might never look bad, but those hoping to see a wide range of impressive sci-fi sights might be disappointed.
ECHO isn’t a huge game in all with the six chapters easily beaten in around six hours, though that number could vary a little each way depending both on how you approach the game and how good you are at it. It felt long enough though; the shorter length meant the lack of variety in your surroundings never grew frustrating, whilst I also never started to feel overwhelmed by the constantly evolving approach enemies could adopt. I think you definitely get a good amount of bang for your buck, if only because the game is such a unique experience.
It’s not often that a new release comes out and does something that genuinely feels fresh and exciting these days, but that’s exactly how ECHO felt thanks to its constantly evolving enemies. The fact that they were changing their behaviour and abilities based upon how I played only made the whole thing a lot more thrilling – especially since there are plenty of different ways in which you can approach each situation in the game. It’s just incredibly clever and ensures the player is kept on their toes from start to end.
It isn’t quite perfect thanks to its slightly drawn-out introduction and lack of aesthetic variety, though these flaws don’t stop ECHO from being a thoroughly enjoyable experience; in fact, I’d actually say that it’s one of the most original and clever games that I’ve played for quite some time.
Just be warned though: ECHO takes the phrase ‘every action has consequences’ to a whole new level, so think very carefully about what you let the game see you do – you might end up regretting it…