Echo kind of came out of nowhere for me. The game has been created by 'Ultra Ultra,' a new studio born from the demise of IO Interactive, famous for the Hitman series of games.
It quickly becomes apparent that the design of Echo
, although partly inspired by IO's most famous franchise, is attempting to offer something new to the adventure/stealth genre. The opening few hours of the game are both intriguing and confusing.
The story, told via a conversation between the main character En and her shipboard AI, is delivered in pieces and begins to make sense as the player's actions uncover new areas and abilities. The sense of mystery, particularly in the opening hour of the game is extremely well executed and imparted in me a sense of both wonder, but also dread as I knew that the exploration I was undertaking on a seemingly abandoned planet would inevitably be disturbed by something unpleasant.
The game opens onboard a spaceship as the player learns that En has been asleep for over one hundred years. She wakes as the ship lands on a planet covered entirely by mysterious structures that extend deep below the surface. These structures are believed to be ancient, built to house humans that never arrived. En steps out on to one of these structures and descends, slowly, into the depths. She eventually enters one of the structures, describing the interior as resembling a 'palace'. Her overall goal to explore the enormous palace and resurrect a person believed to be dead.
's narrative strongly hints at the importance attached to consequences of earlier actions. It quickly becomes apparent that the game has been designed to explore this concept both via the narrative and also through the game design.
Ultra Ultra describes the game as being a 'stealth adventure.' If the player is going to see the end credits then adherence to the 'stealth' part of the design is essential. The 'palace' beneath the planet's surface is quite beautiful, a baroque style with a modern sheen that feels clinical and machine built.
As En explores this 'palace' the lights begin to flicker, before going out completely. I continued exploring using the limited light sources to navigate. I began to expect that something would lunge out and attack me. I wasn't expecting the controller to begin gradually vibrating before intensifying, followed by the screen going completely black, as if I had switched the console off.
Momentarily the lights returned. Everything appeared to be as it had been before the lights went off. However, I then noticed on the ground a patch of black goo. I explored some more and the lights began to flicker again. The controller vibrated, the lights went out and the whole cycle repeated. However, this time when the lights came back on the black goo had begun to form into a humanoid shape.
This cycle repeated several times and it then became apparent that the palace was generating these humanoid creatures. They appeared harmless at first. However, after a few more power cycles they began to mimic my behaviour.
It was at this point that the 'hook' of Echo
became clear. To navigate the palace En would have to face these creatures and either by stealth or violence defeat them so that she could progress and uncover the secret of the planet in order to save her friend. During each light cycle the palace 'learns' the player's behaviour. If the player makes En run then in the next cycle the enemies will also run. If she shoots, then in the next cycle the enemy will shoot. The challenge for the player is consequently to always plan ahead and consider how their actions in one cycle will impact on the next.
As the game progresses the player can work out how to manipulate the system to make progress easier or more challenging. Each area functions like a puzzle as navigation to the end point is blocked by both the adaptive enemies and physical barriers. Each light cycle must be used to consider how to progress through the area in the most efficient way.
I found some areas required patience and timing, whereas in others it was possible to run. I could avoid attacks and make it through the exit with seconds to spare. Being grabbed and pulled to pieces by the enemies is truly horrifying. I found En's screams and the claustrophobic nature of being overwhelmed far more disturbing than more graphic horror games. The game can be quite difficult, meaning that failure is inevitable. The nature of death within the game most certainly encouraged me to think and adapt to each puzzle as quickly as the Palace adjusted to my actions.
Although the core gameplay mechanic of Echo
is extremely well executed, the lack of diversity in environments but also in challenges lets the game down somewhat.
Although visually it is pleasing the design of the palace does not change. This, combined with the rather repetitive soundtrack does make exploration occasionally feel like a bit of a slog. Fortunately many of the puzzles are extremely memorable and returning to replay missions should be rewarding given the adaptive nature of the game design. As the plot of Echo
develops it does become clear that it perhaps is not quite as interesting as the mysterious premise initially suggests.
The voice acting and delivery is excellent throughout, although the conversations do begin to become far less frequent two thirds of the way through, to the detriment of the narrative.
Fortunately, the core gameplay never becomes dull and as the challenge increases it does begin to feel like a well-designed battle of wits between the mysterious palace designer and the player. Whilst it would be difficult to argue that Ultra Ultra has revolutionised the stealth genre with Echo
, the team has certainly provided an extremely refreshing new take that I hope is returned to in subsequent games. Echo
's universe may be smaller than it initially appears, but the innovative design ensures that it is a game that I will not forget.
+ Core gameplay mechanic is extremely well executed.
+ Strong, coherent design.
+ Extremely atmospheric.
- Palace design, although beautiful, lacks variety.
- Exploration can feel like a bit of a slog.
- Narrative could be more developed.
SPOnG Score: 8/10