Review: ECHO

I have mixed feelings on the state of modern stealth games. I feel as though the gameplay has fallen into a bit of a loop, with different coats of paint. I’ll always commit to clearing every level as quietly as possible, because this is the most systematically rewarding playstyle. This dedication to the shadow lifestyle slips into a reliance on the same overpowered tools, and a level designer’s artisanally crafted ventilation system. The power trip of fooling virtual goons can only last so long.

Along comes ECHO, the first game from the fantastically named Danish studio Ultra Ultra. A brief glance of ECHO’s visuals might seem to fall into the stealth formula, but the game takes has a hard twist which puts it closer a action-puzzle game like Portal. ECHO’s virtual goons are smart, but only as smart and you let them be. The rest of the game’s world and mechanics are tuned to make you think about how much of a teacher you want to be.

The game’s cast is small. The protagonist En, and her discorporeal friend London are the only acted roles. En is a Resourceful (Which I would not have realized was a proper noun if not for subtitles), a designer human who has fled her royal upbringing for a life of space-crime. The two of you have traveled to some unmapped planet in the hopes of reviving your mutual friend Foster, whom En “translated” into a shiny space cube while on his deathbed. ECHO has that hallmark of many fantastic smaller sci-fi and fantasy works, in that it knows how to focus on a specific character’s story, while vaguely gesturing at the larger world. The game’s opening is about 45 minutes of smart exposition, written to fill in our plot and hint at the edges of forces which have shaped the characters. The story is slowly rolled out through the game in more discussions as we learn more about the characters and the truth about their relationships. It wraps perfectly in with the gameplay and setting, and is just enough of a hook to push you forward when you meet a particularly tough challenge. Often I would put the game down for a day or two, but keep thinking about how I needed to get back and finish that challenge to find out where it goes.

Echo makes thinking about your actions important, because each one of them will be used against you if you aren’t careful. ECHO’s guard are, not surprisingly, echo’s of En, adopting her appearance and abilities. The labyrinth you find yourself in operates in power cycles, and every time the lights come back on your enemies respawn and adopt your moves from the previous round. By default they’re exceptionally dull, following short patrol roots with extreme nearsightedness and with a simple grab attack. But if you spend a round or two hopping down ledges, sprinting across hallways and vaulting over cover, they will adapt their patrols to make use of those abilities too. An enemy you snuck by once might now be sprinting back and forth, and hopping over ledges. This system of course this extends to your offensive powers as well, and you’ll learn pretty quick not to fire your gun while the lights are on. Your only time to act without worrying about it coming back to haunt you is a brief power blackout between power cycles, which become instrumental to success.

This feedback loop turns a stealth power-trip into more of a resource management game of give and take. The system only cycles when you’ve given it enough action data to significantly change enemy behaviours, which means that by feeding it enough information, you can control when a blackout will take effect. The difficulty comes in deciding how much and what kind of information to feed into it. I know I definitely don’t want my enemies learning to fire a gun, but maybe I can feed them enough movement information to trigger the blackout, then go loud during the blackout to reach my destination. Maybe instead I could stealth-kill my way across the room, knowing that when the lights come back on I could just leap a banister to escape anyone after me. Escaping is usually pretty easy, as they echoes are slow and not very investigative, but doing so without teaching them anything dangerous skills is tricky.

In place of a large suite of stealth tools & abilities, the player has nearly everything from the start. A diegetic-HUD is projected around En, displaying your objective, nearby enemies, and currently energy. That energy is vital, as it only self-charges up to one unit of power, and is used for most significant actions in the game. Partial upgrades to increase your max energy are scattered throughout levels, but they you still need to collect charges from the level if you plan to do get a lot done in a short amount of time. The static nature of En’s loadout means gameplay develops through level design, instead of a steady drip of new powers. However it also leads to some of the same solutions working over and over again. Knowing I could outrun enemies, I found that there was little danger in teaching them stealth kills, which would almost always start the familiar atmospheric hum of a coming power cycle. This often works regardless of the space I am in, because echos become a constant across the whole game I can always fall back on.

ECHO’s levels are a series of rooms smartly designed to be played any number of ways. They are often designed around long sight lines, but with many obstacles in the way of traversing those spaces. Right from the beginning of the game, you’re usually up against what feels like a minimum of ten enemies. Some rooms ask only that you cross that space, while other need you to fetch keys from throughout the space, or collect a series of charges from what can only be described as space-lampposts throughout the room. The need to backtrack through the spaces makes for interesting plays with the echos and opens up a lot of choice in how to tackle navigation, but never explores smaller, more focused spaces. Because the spaces are so large and the enemies are constantly changing, the challenge is often in adapting, not planning. If you travel across the room by vaulting over walls, your enemies will be doing the same when you try to return. In one level, I had to collect two keys from either side of a room, and return them to the center. After picking up the first one and having the power cycle, I discovered the echos had learned to pick up items and now my second key was in one of their back pockets, patrolling around the space. The game was constantly surprising me with that the depth of things my enemies were learning, forcing me to play in new ways.

These levels can get repetitive though, especially as a result of the game’s checkpointing. The satisfaction comes from completing a level and finally releasing your breath, not the minute-to-minute actions. As a result, dying halfway to an objective in incredibly harsh, as I feel like I got nothing from the last 10 minutes. The largest rooms do feature optional checkpointing, but I had more of an issue with losing progress in the densest of spaces. This is exasperated by every death leading to a excruciatingly long load screen, which only gives you load indicator to look at while you think about having to redo all the successful parts of your last attempt.

One of the largest twists upon first starting the game wasn’t plot related at all, but rather the opening credits. ECHO is fascinating looking game, and how it caught my eye in the first place. Equal parts cyber-goth and victorian luxury are blended into some bogglingly massive structures and impossible space. I’d liken it to putting Tsutomu Nihei inside of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s white room. And then the opening credits contain about 12 names total, and you start to realize how they did it. The spaces are like your enemies, constantly echoing and reusing assets. It aligns perfectly with the mood of the spaces, creating massive labyrinths and bogglingly large rooms, but when you are entering a what feels like a significant progress point, only to be greeted by the same walls in a slightly shifted colour palette, it’s gets exhausting. The lack of visual landmarks also makes navigating a bit trickier, which is probably an intentional choice, but a frustrating one. Some bespoke assets would have been very refreshing.

The budget assets are also visible in the one (1) character model in the game, En. You are En. All your enemies are En. London is just a voice, and Foster is a cube. En’s animations get the job done, but often feel a little sluggish. However, this too is as much of a blessing as it is a curse. While not explicitly a horror game, the tension of being hunted hunted by a dozen copies of yourself is extremely uncomfortable.

The game feels like every presentation shortcoming was planned for and incorporated into the game’s story or design. Ultra Ultra created a showcase of how to work with your project restrictions, instead of being bound by them.

ECHO is the fresh take on stealth action that I’ve been looking for the past few years. Although it doesn’t fully escape some of the pitfalls that I’ve grown tired of, Ultra Ultra built a beautiful world around a fascinating mechanic that made me have to learn a new way to play. It makes me interested not only in their next game, but what will hopefully be possible for others in the world of sneaking.

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