It’s rare that a game trailer comes along that makes me stop and take notice. I’m the kind of person who knows what they like and trailers rarely win me over as I’ve been burned too many times in the past, but ECHO looked just weird enough to grab my attention and pull me in.
• Developer: Ultra Ultra
• Publisher: Ultra Ultra
• Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
• Also Available On: Steam
• Release Date: Available Now
The story follows En, a young woman waking from a one hundred year cryo sleep. As En you are exploring The Palace, a structure of legend built into a dead planet that may hold the secret of resurrecting your friend. En is not alone however, and frequently converses with her AI companion, London.
These conversations are definitely my favourite part of ECHO. The voice acting by Rose Leslie and Nick Boulton as En and London respectively is absolutely superb. The way the story is drip fed through these conversations is fantastically satisfying and genuinely creepy at times. It’s no surprise both actors have had stints on Game of Thrones in the past.
When arriving at The Palace, initially, the power it out. But once power has been restored all hell breaks loose. Creatures called Echoes, exact replicas of En, begin to emerge from the ground, and En must sneak and fight her way through several chapters and seemingly endless floors to reach the core of The Palace, and possibly the solution she seeks.
There are two types of objective that En must complete before moving further into the palace. First, she must collect a key (or sometimes two) from one side of a room and carry it over to the other side of the room to open a door. The second is she must collect a number of blue orbs from lamp posts in order to open the sealed elevator to take her further in. And that’s it. The majority of gameplay is focused on either key retrieval for door unlocking or collecting orbs to power a lift, it’s extremely repetitive and because of it, ECHO gets old quickly.
The only thing that differentiates the current key/orb collection to the last is the colour of the room. Credit where credit is due, the environments look amazing, and developer Ultra Ultra have really made the most out of the Unreal Engine 4, but fancy scenery isn’t enough to keep me invested when I’m constantly replaying the same objectives with the same enemies. Occasionally there are corridors to run down, and En will sometimes make her way outside and have a slow walk and talk with London (which are genuinely great moments that reveal more story), but toward the end of my 6-8 hour play through I was more than ready for it to end.
It isn’t just a simple case of avoiding the Echoes, however. These creatures learn. The power to The Palace isn’t stable and the whole place reboots every few minutes, resulting in a blackout. Once the power has kicked in again the Echoes are changed. They learn from En’s behaviour. Every action you take while the lights are on; opening doors, sneaking, jumping over ledges, etc., will be learned by the Echoes during the next reboot cycle, making En’s traversal through The Palace more difficult. And believe me when I say they learn everything.
I enjoyed this element to the gameplay, adding an almost environmental puzzle element to what could have been a simple stealth game. The actions you take are varied and all have major influence on the behaviour of the Echoes. It is possible to interact with random distractions around The Palaces absolutely huge rooms, causing the Echoes to become distracted and giving you an advantage.
However, killing Echoes while the lights are on will cause them to become deadly during the next cycle. En can only take a couple of hits before she dies so conflict is the last thing you need. Luckily, learned behaviour only last for one cycle, so if you do find yourself surrounded by extra aggressive Echoes (as I did many times), a bit of careful traversal will reset the behaviour during the next reboot. Be warned though, remaining still and hoping for a reboot will not work. I know. I tried.
Combat in ECHO jumps between satisfying and troublesome. It controls like a standard third-person game, with aim and fire on L2 and R2 respectively. The gun is extremely powerful, able to shoot through several Echoes at once when lined up correctly. There are three melee attacks mapped to the circle button; when approaching an Echo unseen from behind, it is possible to do a insta-kill takedown, when holding an Orb (one use melee weapon found around the rooms). Hitting an Echo will also insta-kill them and the default attack is a shove; a shove that depletes stamina and knocks Echoes down and over ledges, which admittedly is quite funny. Stamina recharges naturally over a short time.
En’s piston uses energy from her suit, which is limited, especially at the beginning of the game when only two cells are available. Once depleted, energy must be collected from ‘Suns’ scattered throughout the room, but the suit will always recharge at least one cell. The recharge time feels like it takes forever, especially when an Echo is running at you. It is possible to upgrade these energy cells with collectibles that are scattered about each area, and it is well worth the extra effort to find them.
There is quite a bit of resource management going on with energy and stamina, and a quality of weighing up the risk and reward when deciding how to approach a situation which keeps things interesting. It’s an engaging way to force limitations on a player without them feeling tied down, and I enjoyed being made to think outside the box at times.
For the completionists out there, there are several ‘verses’ to unlock throughout the game. This is done by finding tuning forks dotted around each chapter and knocking them, allowing your suit to collect the sound signature and decrypt their message. I don’t know what it reveals, I didn’t complete any verses. I didn’t have the patience.
The story and atmosphere and fantastic and engaging, the musical score is superbly tense. Despite the repetition and the sometimes janky animation and mechanics I was completely engaged all the way through. If you’re looking for a stealth/action/sci-fi hybrid to play over a rainy weekend you can do much, much worse than ECHO. This isn’t quite for everyone but those who it clicks with will have fun.