Available on PC and PS4
Rated M for Mature
ECHO is a game that flew completely under my radar. I got the review code back when it released in September, popped it into my PS4, and then promptly forgot about it until I scrolled across it after finishing Dead Rising 4. It’s understandable how I’d miss it. The game had practically zero fanfare, even managing to release on Steam with a “Horror” tag without my noticing. I do like to check out indie games, but their promotional description was uninspired. It claims to be a game where the enemies learn from what you do, which I’m pretty sure is how competent video game AI just works. Hell even F.E.A.R. back in 2005 had a enemies that would learn to avoid your grenades and flank you.
ECHO takes this idea, distills it to its core, and makes it terrifying. You play as En, a girl who awakens on a spaceship in a distant dystopian future. Greeted by an AI that is most generously described as pissed off, you stumble your way through the halls of the ship to find a suit that supports your atrophied body. You descend on a shuttle to a strange planet that appears to be a series of perfectly cut icy squares atop mechanical pillars, and soon find your way into the sterile and lifeless halls of a vast palace.
This doesn’t last long, as you soon activate the system using a strange red cube on your back. The power goes out, and an objective appears thousands of kilometers below you. As you make your way to the first of many elevators down, the power goes out again. Suddenly, the air is breathable. The power goes out again, and there are flowers. One more time, and food appears. It seems that the palace is coming to life. After the next blackout, a strange black stain appears on the ground. After the next one, it gets bigger. After the next, it now registers as alive.
These writhing masses piece by piece evolve into the enemies of Echo: clones of En. The spectacle of watching these monsters all too quickly go from slugs to lurching masses to copies of you is one of the most heart pounding and disturbing sequences in any horror game. Seriously, this tops the RE7 family introduction. The way it seamlessly blends into the world and gives you hints at what is to come is what true game design is about.
After the copies are fully functional, you’ll begin to notice that sometimes it seems the game takes a “picture” of you. Leaving a silhouette behind, this happens when you perform any action more complicated than walking. At first, it’s unclear exactly why this is happening. As you continue, you quickly find that this is the palace learning from you. The frequent blackouts are the palace rebooting, teaching the robots the actions you did in the previous cycle. Open a door, and the copies will learn to open doors. Shoot your gun, and they will learn to shoot. This is where the enemies get their name: “Echoes.”
Echoes only remember things from the previous cycle, meaning they will forget if you don’t do that again during the next powered up period. Blackouts are triggered by completing a certain number of unique actions, so eventually you’ll have to do something that makes you vulnerable. There are certain actions that are far more advantageous than others. Shouting, crouching, and stealth kills are all practically useless for the Echoes. Walking across water, shooting guns, and God forbid running are all things best left from their short memories.
The result is a terrifying game of keeping the Echoes just stupid enough to survive. As the game goes on, their memories will expand and more complex actions will be learnable. There’s also a period of time where the power goes down before the actual blackout which allows you to perform actions without the palace learning from you. These are the times you want to sprint and take out your pistol.
You might think this system sounds easily exploitable, but here’s the kicker. Enemies do not stay dead. Even if you kill them with a pistol shot, melee weapon, or stealth kill, all downed enemies revive in the next cycle. There’s no sneaking around and snapping all the necks to win. When you realize that no matter how many necks you snap or bullets you fire, the same unending horde is always hunting you, the game truly reveals itself as horror.
Despite looking just like En, the Echoes also fall hard into the uncanny valley. Despite copying you, they don’t really “learn” the action. If you crouch around, they will just randomly crouch around without any real reason. Shout, and they just shout randomly. They will use the useful skills like vaulting and door opening to pursue you, but not actively hunt you. They kind of just amble about until they spot you. If they catch you, you’ll have to fight them off as they stare into you with their cold, dead, unthinking eyes.
It’s a kind of horror that doesn’t rely on chainsaw decapitations and weird bug monsters. It’s sterile, clean, mechanical. The unrelenting inhumanness of it all is what gets to you. It’s heavily aided by brilliant visual design and a haunting score. Seriously, the music is beautiful. I’m not one for video game soundtracks, but I’d listen to ECHO’s music and feel feelings.
I don’t really want to spoil things, since learning about this strange and alien world is a lot of what makes it appealing. So I’ll just say that the plot makes more sense as it goes along. The ending is kind of weak, but once you see the bigger picture you’ll realize that the world of ECHO is much broader than these vast illogical halls.
I don’t want you be confused by my score however, as the game is far from perfect. There are very few mechanics, so the niggles I have are amplified. First off, the way you die is kinda bullshit. If you get caught by an Echo, you’ll have to spam the struggle key to knock it off. This will put you in a vulnerable state, meaning that for about 10 seconds the next one to grab you will kill you. You can fight two off at once, but three will kill you. So if two are chasing you, you’re incentivized to let them both catch you and then fight them off. In the game’s more crowded sections, this becomes a very difficult task. Often times I’d have a second enemy be just out of range of catching me in time, meaning I’d fight the first off and the second would instantly kill me. It’s a big problem when so many of the deaths stem not from player error, but general bullshit.
This is also going to make me sound like an idiot, but the game also just takes way too much brain to play. Make no mistake, despite the gun and stealth kills, ECHO is at its core a puzzle game. There is no challenge you can approach without taking careful stock of enemy positions, what actions you do, and your eternally limited ammo supply. It’s hard in a very cerebral way, and this is from a guy who plays Dark Souls religiously. For some, the game is hard to just have fun with. Don’t get me wrong, I respect the shit out of it. If you do Sudoku for fun in your free time, you’ll love the challenge. But at the end of the day games are supposed to be fun, and unless you’re in a very specific mood then ECHO is hard to just fuck around with.
The length you’ll get out of ECHO is directly proportional to how hard you hunt for the collectibles. I watched one decent runthrough that took just over 4 hours. My runthrough took 12. There is a lot of challenge you can impose on yourself if you want to find every collectible chime and power core in the game. As I said in the previous paragraph, the game is hard to have fun with, so collectible hunting really did feel like a chore. But hey, at least it wasn’t just finding every tchotchke on a map the size of Egypt.
ECHO is one of those rare indie gems that I’ll tell everyone to play but and no one will. At the end of the day the mechanics are just too weird for the average gamer to wrap their head around. I can just see the average CoD player scratching their head in bewilderment that the game would give them a gun that doesn’t kill things forever. That being said, the purity of design and breathtaking atmosphere really makes this game worth every penny. I can’t promise you’ll love it, but anyone that appreciates games as art will not want to miss this in their collection. It’s also scary as a motherfucker.
…the purity of design and breathtaking atmosphere really makes this game worth every penny. I can’t promise you’ll love it, but anyone that appreciates games as art will not want to miss this in their collection.
American Psycho Meets Creep – Strawberry Flavored Plastic Review
Starring Aidan Bristow, Nicholas Urda, Andres Montejo
Directed by Colin Bemis
Recently I wrote up an article here on Dread Central which was basically an open letter to anyone who was listening called “I Miss Found Footage.” Well, it seems like someone WAS listening, as I was then sent the link to an all-new found footage film called Strawberry Flavored Plastic from first-time writer-director Colin Bemis.
The film follows the “still-at-large crimes of Noel, a repentant, classy and charming serial killer loose in the suburbs of New York.” Basically, you could think of the flick as American Psycho meets Mark Duplass and Partick Brice’s Creep. That, or you could think of it as “Man Bites Dog in color!” However you choose to label Colin Bemis’ psychological thriller, just make sure you check out the film once it hits in the future.
As I alluded to above, the film is basically a found footage version of American Psycho. But that said, the film sports a twist on the charming serial killer subgenre that I have yet to see play out in any of the above-mentioned classics. I’m not going to go into spoiler territory here, but I will say that the film introduces an element to the tale that spins it into much more of a character drama than a straight horror film. Not that there is anything wrong with that!
Truth be told, the film’s turn from serial killer flick into a layered character study might have been its kiss of death, but this slight genre switch is rendered a minor issue as the film’s central narcissistic antagonist is played by Aidan Bristow. Bristow is an actor you may not have heard of before this review, but you will hear his name more and more over the years to come, I promise. The guy gives (no pun intended) a killer performance as the film’s resident serial killer Noel Rose, and time after time surprised me with how chilling, charming, or downright vulnerable he chose to play any given scene.
Bristow’s performance is, in the end, the major element the film has going for it. But that said, as a fan of found footage, I was smiling ear to ear at first-time director Colin Bemis’ understanding of what makes a found footage suspense sequence work.
In Strawberry Flavored Plastic director Colin Bemis is confident and content to allow full emotional scenes to play out with the camera directed at nothing more than a character’s knees. Why is this so important? Because it keeps the reality of the film going. Too many found footage directors would focus on the actors’ faces during such emotional scenes – no matter how contrived the camera angle was. In this film, however, Bemis favors the reality that says, “If you were really in this emotional state and holding a camera, you would let it drop to your side.” I agree, and it is small touches like that which make the film feel authentic and thus – once the shite hits the fan – all the scarier.
On the dull side of the kitchen knife, the film does feel a bit long even given it’s short running time, and there doesn’t seem too much in the way of visceral horror to be found within. Again, graphic blood and gore aren’t a must in a fright flick, but a tad more of the old ultra-violence would have gone a long way in selling our main psychopath’s insanity and unpredictability. But all the same, the film does feature a rather shocking sequence where our main baddie performs a brutal home invasion/murder that puts this film firmly in the realm of horror. In fact, the particular POV home invasion scene I’m talking about holds about as much horror as you’ll ever wish to witness.
In the end, Colin Bemis’ Strawberry Flavored Plastic is a must-see for fans of found footage and serial killer studies such as American Pyscho, Creep, and Man Bites Dog. I recommend giving it a watch once it premieres. If only to be able to point to Aidan Bristow in the near future and tell all your friends that you watched (one of) his first movies.
Lead actor Aidan Bristow turns in a star-making performance in Colin Bemis’ Strawberry Flavored Plastic, a found footage film that plays out like Man Bites Dog in Color before introducing a new element to the charming-serial-killer subgenre and becoming more character study than a straight horror. Think American Psycho meets Creep.
Who Goes There Podcast: Ep 148 – Inside (2017 Remake)
We’ve all heard the old saying, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Well, I’m here to tell you that’s only partially true. It seems there is a third certainty that had been omitted from the original quote, “It is certain, if you enjoy a movie, at some point someone will remake that movie.” Now is the time when one of my favorite movies gets reimagined, “for an American audience”.
In the late 2000’s an explosion of “French extreme” horror films was released. Martyrs and or High Tension can often be found on any number of lists of the “most fucked up horror movies ever”. Unfortunately, the vastly superior Inside is often forgotten (as well as Frontier(s), but that’s a whole ‘nother rant). Now, ten years after it’s initial release, Inside has been Americanized. Don’t worry, we watched it so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.
Mommy says you’re not dead. Is that true? It’s the Who Goes There Podcast episode 148!
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Totem Review – It’s Not Always A Bad Thing To Look Up From The Bottom Level, If You Like That View
Starring Kerris Dorsey, James Tupper, Ahna O’Reilly
Directed by Marcel Sarmiento
Following the untimely death of a family’s matriarchal figure, a young woman finds out that managing to hold all of the pieces in place becomes increasingly more difficult when otherworldly infiltrators make their presence felt. We’re going to have to work our way up this Totem, as
17 year old Kellie is the leading lady of the home following the passing of her mother Lexy, and with a needy father and tiny tot of a baby sister, she still keeps things in working order, regardless of the rather large hole that’s been left in the dynamic due to the death. Kellie’s dad after a while decides to ask his lady-friend to move in with the family, so that everyone can move onto a more peaceful existence…yeah, because those types of instances always seem to work seamlessly. As fate would have it, Kellie’s sense of pride is now taking a beating with the new woman in the mix, and her little sister’s new “visitor” is even more disturbed by this intruder – only question is, exactly who is this supernatural pal of sorts? Is it the spirit of their dead mother standing by to keep watch over the family, or is it something that’s found its way to this group, and has much more evil intentions at hand?
What works here is the context of something innately malicious that has found its way into the home – there are only a couple moments that come off as unsettling, but the notion of having to weave through more than half the film acting as a sullen-teen drama is rather painful. The presentation of the “broken family” is one that’s been done to death, and with better results overall, and that’s not to say that the movie is a complete loss, it just takes far too much weeding through at times stale performances and even more stagnant pacing to get to a moderately decent late-stage conclusion to the film. Under the direction of Marcel Sarmiento (Deadgirl), I’d truly hoped for something a bit more along the lines of a disturbing project such as that one, but the only thing disturbing was the time I’d invested in checking this one out. My best advice is to tune into the Lifetime channel if you want a sulky teen-melodrama with a tinge of horror, or you could simply jump into this one and work your way up…but it’s a LONG way to the top.
Sulky, moody, and ridden with teen-angst buried in the middle of a supernatural mystery – SOUNDS like a decent premise, doesn’t it?
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Funko Giving Jurassic Park the Pop! Treatment as Only They Can
American Psycho Meets Creep – Strawberry Flavored Plastic Review
Who Goes There Podcast: Ep 148 – Inside (2017 Remake)
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