Echo (Playstation 4 Review)
There is as much to be said about where you find an echo as there is about the echo itself. Often they are found in vacuous spaces, big enough to scream whatever troubles us but without any real acknowledgement. As we shout into the void, our troubles resonate above all else until – a muted sentiment of a trouble we let go. So, how would you translate this to a game? Well, Ultra Ultra, a team partly made up of ex-IO Interactive developers, have gave it a go with their aptly named Echo.
Just like an auditory echo, Echo starts off with a bang. A fragile looking girl called En, draped in a blood-soakeddress, awakes from cryosleep on her way to a location known as a The Palace. With information flying at you left and right, you start to piece together that En has been created by an entity she refers to as her grandfather and appears to have killed an accomplice by the name of Foster. Stricken with regret, En’s main goal is to pursue the rumours of a device capable of resurrection within the heart of The Palace.
Although, piecing this information together to understand the premise of the story was surprisingly difficult. More often than not, Echo expects a lot from its players when there isn’t a lot to show. With the vast majority of the exposition often left to in-game dialogue between En and an AI that regularly argues with her, you’d be forgiven in missing a large portion of the story. That doesn’t mean it’s an entirely bad story though,. In fact, some of the more human elements that leaves En questioning her own motives and her reason for being are quite intriguing, if not a little contrived.
Just like its story, Echo’s gameplay toys with the intricacies of nuance but largely gets washed away by its convoluted delivery. At its heart Echo is a stealth game. As the underground maze known as The Palace unfolds, you’ll find yourself ducking behind every chest-high wall and crouching on every corner, hoping to evade the eerily familiar denizens. But, digging a little deeper shows a marvellous series of ideas at play. The enemies are familiar because they are you; they are your movements and actions brought to life by a constantly refreshing simulation within The Palace geared at doing its utmost to keep you from the treasure that resides within. This means that anything you do can be turned against you. Something as simple as running can be the difference between the reflections catching up to you in a tense situation or getting away, although these memories only last as long as the space it takes for the system to reboot with a very noticeable blackout phase. In what would otherwise be some really unremarkable environments, there is a great focus on tactics and how to manipulate situations that would prevent your enemies from pursuing you.
It’s just a shame that they are pursuing you through a very uninspired environment. Living up to its name, The Palace is a decadent affair decorated with even more decadent artefacts, like really expensive chimes and ornate vases. Every area has a similar ring and design to it, the kind of design you’d only really afford if you happened to possess the wealth to buy what appears to be a full planet, construct a subterranean summer home, and populate it with indistinct blobs that take on intruders’ appearance. At first it was awe-inspiring, but in the latter stages where the pure white and gold colour schemes shift through various other shades of regality and gold you struggle to really appreciate the design and linger on the feeling of repetition. You are even pushed to explore with the promise of slight upgrades to your energy stores hidden about levels and a series of chimes that build up to decrypting a hidden message buried under Echo’s surface. There are, however, a few situations where you are shown that Ultra Ultra do think outside the box and allow the mechanics to play into some really curious puzzles but never commit enough to incorporate these elements in further level designs.
You are also pushed away from exploring due to the implications the penalties of death are when you are faced with some of the tougher rooms. Given the option of a straight line to the finish, or a meandering loop in the hopes of finding a chime or upgrade that have no real tangible impact on Echo, many players will opt for the easier route as there is no real impact on your game whether you choose to embellish these extras or not. Couple that with the rather extensive number of crashes that seemed to plague my playthrough, I wasn’t willing to risk my progress in game for the sake of a series of items that jeopardised my run to the end.
It seems to be a common theme in Echo that the truly interesting parts fade, slowly losing their selves to the repeated barrage of ideas at the forefront. Even the emergent ideas are lost when you realise that The Palace only really tracks your movements when the lights are on, meaning that you can play it safe when the lights are on and shoot anyone that dares to cross you as soon as the lights go out with absolutely no penalty. It feels like a lot of work to impose a series of ideas that are easily subverted due to how large areas can be instead of doubling down on such a concise idea. That’s not a good look for a game that comes in at around 5/6 hours.