ECHO is a well-crafted game with tense gameplay set against a beautiful backdrop. While some technical issues and a verbose story kept this game from being great, it’s a satisfying sci-fi stealth-action adventure.
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), PC
MonsterVine was provided with a code for review.
Developed by Ultra-Ultra, a team consisted of mostly IO-Interactive alum, ECHO is a sci-fi stealth-action adventure game. It also has satisfying gameplay and art direction. The game constantly learns from your actions, recording your every move and using your behavior against you. Shoot a gun, and enemies will soon start firing a weapon at you. Quietly stealth your way through a level and enemies will learn to mimic your moves. The game has some hiccups in its story and frame-rate issues were consistent, but I walked away pleased in Ultra-Ultra’s first game as a studio.
The game follows En, well voiced by Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones), a woman traveling in space with her A.I. partner, London. After the pair reaches the Palace, a vast and seemingly limitless structure, En sets out to use its own technology to bring back another life. ECHO’s story is filled with dialogue between En and London as both argue the necessity of her objective on the Palace. The story is driven by En’s curiosity in both the world and herself, while London’s harsher personality puts the pair at odds. I like the premise of this sci-fi story but the constant back and forth of the two characters is verbose. Their dialogue stretches in between levels and I think the story’s theme of introspection is buried in its own speech. The story does compliment the gameplay in a thoughtful way however.
ECHO’s gameplay is interwoven through the story, and for me it stayed fresh and fun through most of the game. Its mechanics have a solid rule set that offers enough nuance for players to exploit. The game will record any drastic moves you make and when it’s ready, will force the Palace into a blackout. Once out of the blackout, every enemy will start to mimic your actions that stood out. For example, if I decide to open a door or jump off a balcony onto a lower floor, the enemies will start to perform those moves after the blackout. Once you perform enough actions that diverge from the previous cycle, the game will reboot and update all of its enemies with those new behaviors. They recycle after every reboot, so actions won’t stack.
The blackout system is effective in giving ECHO highly tense moments. If I made reckless decisions like shooting my gun, which is a one-hit-kill weapon, the enemies will wield the same weapon on the following cycle. But thanks to the reboot system, I can make stealthier decisions that will show up in the next cycle, saving me from my chaotic behavior. ECHO’s fickle gameplay forced me to think out every action. It felt like playing chess with enemies reflecting my own tactics.
My only issue with the gameplay is the introduction of a late game enemy. The enemy, which is as plentiful as the regular A.I.’s, ignores many of the rules established by the game. It was an annoying trudge in the final moments of the game as I constantly died at the hands of an enemy that broke the game’s logic.
The PlayStation 4 version of the game, which I reviewed, had persistent technical issues. I constantly ran into chugging frame-rates throughout the game. Most of the chugging happened after blackout moments, which deflated tension in many cases. It’s a sticking point that really takes away some of the game’s hooks.
ECHO’s art direction is extremely effective in capturing the tense moments found in its gameplay. The first time you experience a reboot in the game is incredible. All the lights in the game will shut off except the one emanating from En’s suit. Soon the full reboot will kick in, making the entire television screen go black with the sound shut off. It’s an awesome moment that happens every time a reboot occurs in the game. Thankfully, it never got old for me. It highlighted the tension because it meant I was able to escape my own bad actions, or that my behavior was about to be used against me.
Use of sound also highlight the game’s subtle brutality. The thump of the gun feels devastating as enemies quickly hit the floor. The sound of footsteps racing towards you is terrifying as it made me feel like any wrong move meant having to restart from a checkpoint.
I think the most impressive aspect of ECHO’s art direction, however, is in its level design. The architectural design of the Palace uses lines that invite the players deeper and deeper into the structure. Each pillar, stairway, and wall constantly points in multiple directions, making the Palace feel limitless. You’ll see this in some of the game’s rooms and hallways, which left me feeling overwhelmed and dwarfed in its enormity. But its use of lines made me feel welcomed nonetheless.
There are redundancies in the design. You’ll see a lot of the same objects repeated throughout the game. At times I grew tired of the same details, but aesthetically and thematically it worked. Every action in the game is repeated back to me as I made my way through an abyss of futuristic gothic, Romanesque architecture. It makes the game feel endless as if my actions were doomed to repeat until I reached the end. But despite the repetitive nature of the world, it came together for me in a satisfying way.
The Final Word
I really adored ECHO for everything it achieves and strives to accomplish. The game mostly makes up in its shortcomings with interesting and fun gameplay and beautiful art direction.
– MonsterVine Rating: 4 out of 5 – Good