Don’t run or they will give chase. Don’t hide or they will be lurking around every corner. Don’t shoot or they will undoubtedly fire back. Every action you take has an echo.
These are the rules set forth by developer Ultra Ultra for its stealth action game ECHO, in which you must avoid and eliminate enemies that are programmed to mimic your personally developed tactics. In some ways, it’s a game that forces us out of our carefully constructed comfort-zone by continually reminding us that the gameplay advantages that we regularly take for granted as players can all too easily be taken from us. By leaving it up to the player how and when those benefits are removed, ECHO strikes a unique difficulty balance. It’s a beautiful game with a well-crafted science fiction world, but it suffers from some slightly misguided gameplay elements.
In ECHO, you play as En, a woman who awakens after a long journey across space and lands on a seemingly deserted planet. Upon inspecting beneath the planet’s surface, En discovers an elaborate and massive palace. Here, with the help of the less-than-cooperative AI that brought her, En endeavors to revive Foster, a man whose last remaining moments of life have been stored in a cube.
By bringing Foster’s cube to this ancient place, En awakens the palace and triggers the generation of life-forms that adopt her appearance. More than that, these Echoes begin to mimic her (your) behavior to prevent her descent into the palace’s depths and toward her goal of finally bringing back to life the man she loves.
It may be difficult for some to accept, but much of ECHO‘s core gameplay is entirely absent for the first hour of this 8-hour title. The majority of the game’s mechanics are relatively simple to grasp: aim, shoot, crouch, run, vault, etc. So, they don’t take long to understand fully. Elaborate tutorials are not what the introduction is spent on.
Instead, Ultra Ultra elected to use this time establishing the game’s eerie tone and introducing much of its science fiction exposition. Although I was surprised that it took so long for ECHO‘s action to take off, I caught vibes from some of the film’s most significant horror introductions. Early moments from The Shining and Alien quickly came to mind, and I began to enjoy how ECHO holds onto its slow start with a steady build of suspense.
Admittedly, going into ECHO, I wasn’t expecting a horror experience, but from the game’s very start-up, it’s off-putting. You’ll notice when beginning the game that a splash-screen is seemingly absent, and you are introduced to the game only with a close-up shot of En’s eye. I thought it was a beginning cutscene, so I lingered here for a while. Just after growing a little impatient, did I move the analog stick to roll En’s eye over and reveal the game’s start menu.
I was a little startled by the unexpected interaction so early into the experience and instantly felt disoriented by it, an aspect not at all absent in the rest of the game. For example, the game doesn’t waste any time pitting its two main characters, En and London (the ship AI), against one another, flinging animosity and insults between the two, all while dumping relevant plot information. Early on, this is confusing, but it’s meant to be. It all eventually gets explained, but at the start, the more about this world that is unknown, the more unsettling it feels.
Equally disorienting are the phases that ECHO‘s gameplay continually goes through. Throughout the game, you will sneak through environments littered with enemies who will instantly overwhelm En, given the opportunity. As stated before, these enemies will begin to mimic En’s behavior, but this is done through phases of light and darkness. When the lights are on, the palace records En’s every move, but when they go out, En can act however she likes without worry of enemies learning something new from her.
However, these phases are mostly random and unpredictable. Especially at the start of the game, it feels like a strobe effect where you must wander through the dark only later to find yourself in an unfamiliar place when the lights come back on. It can be quite stressful for someone new to the game, and the animation of the Echoes practically crushing En with their bare hands doesn’t help to alleviate that feeling.
After a few hours with the game, the feeling of constant suspense tends to wear off, though the gameplay doesn’t turn stale. Throughout ECHO, you run the basic formula of collecting keys to unlock a new set of doors all while avoiding (or shooting or strangling) monkey-see-monkey-do enemies. Fortunately, each new area varies elements enough to keep things challenging. If the game were a little longer, I could see how it might become tedious, but as it is, ECHO doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Unfortunately, it’s not all good when it comes to gameplay. Although not a particularly difficult experience overall, I did find a couple of quirks that made certain moments unnecessarily trying. For example, at the beginning of the game, you are warned not to let En get surrounded by enemies, something that should probably go without saying.
However, there will inevitably be situations where two, three, or even four Echoes will be trailing En as she tries to escape. En is allowed to momentarily stun enemies by pushing them away, but this locks her into an animation that will let the next enemy in line to attack. After button-mashing that enemy into submission, the following enemy (perhaps the one you previously stunned) will strike at En, killing her since it only takes two attacks to send you back to your last checkpoint. While there is a crowd-control mechanic in En’s gun that will instantly stun multiple enemies, it requires that she first ready the weapon — something that slows her down and is nearly impossible to do while pursued.
This situation arose at almost every stage of the game, something that became increasingly frustrating as stages progressively grew larger. Although checkpoints exist throughout each map, they must first be interacted with. As they are often hidden on the edges of a map, it’s possible that you could progress to the end of an area without stumbling upon one, become overwhelmed by enemies, and be tossed back to the start of the stage.
While these situations were certainly frustrating, they do not overshadow the mechanics that Ultra Ultra has sold as the most defining part of ECHO: the mimicking enemies. In addition to arming enemies with the power to kill En in two hits (a harrowing prospect in itself), I felt the game trying to strike fear into me for every one of my actions. Shooting arms your enemy. Sprinting makes them faster. Even hiding can make them harder to detect. However, not every step you take is necessarily rife with consequences.
ECHO also provides options for misleading your enemies. Taking a grape from a table and eating it or playing on a piano will cause the palace to learn something seemingly useless, but full of opportunity for the player. Watching as Echoes turned their attention away from En just to fiddle with the sound of an instrument long enough for the player to slink away made for an incredible and satisfying payoff. It didn’t happen all the time, but when it did, it was spectacular.
ECHO‘s performance was nearly flawless except when encountering a new stage. At the beginning of an area, the game would stall for an alarming length of time, leading me to believe it may have crashed. I came to understand that the game was merely still loading, and though it never did crash, these moments interrupted an otherwise immersive and spectacularly-presented experience.
One element that I cannot overemphasize is how expertly-designed the palace looks. As En ventures through it, the architecture evolves so that it never feels like precisely the same place. Its ornamental detail continues throughout making it feel like a cohesive environment, but with enough set-piece and object variation to make it feel like an expansive construct that lines the inside of this planet. Never did I doubt that En could walk the palace’s halls forever without seeing the same place twice. It just felt infinite.
Over the course of ECHO, you get to know En and London better as they banter, analyzing details about themselves, describing their relationship to Foster, and painting the far-flung future universe that they inhabit. A great deal of world-building and characterization goes on purely through dialogue, making for some really valuable and enjoyable interactions between our confident heroine and the curmudgeonly computer even if it comes and goes in chunky spurts. Despite feeling like the occasional information dump, getting to hear these characters’ views on the world seemed like a preferable alternative to Ultra Ultra trying to show it through some narrated flashback or intrusive cutscene.
While I felt invested in ECHO‘s characters, setting, and plot, it wasn’t all good in the end. The game’s conclusion has plenty of lead-up but fails to fully deliver by leaving some unanswered questions that were pointed-out earlier. What we are left with is a story that ends on a rather massive cliffhanger and feels ready for a sequel or DLC at best.
ECHO is a game with a singular gameplay mechanic that it delivers on with precision. Its setting is a spectacle, and its plot is well-developed despite some slight details that feel glossed over and an ending that barely wraps everything up. Those looking to invest a little time into one of the more unique and stylish titles of the year will find a great experience. If you’re hoping to spend a bit more than eight hours into ECHO, there aren’t additional gameplay modes, but the option for increased difficulties unlocks after the first playthrough, and there are plenty of collectibles available to keep the avid achievement hunter busy for a while longer.