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ECHO Review – Like Nothing You’ve Seen Before

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ECHO

echo header - ECHO Review - Like Nothing You've Seen BeforeDeveloped and Published by ULTRA ULTRA

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.

Echo scenery - ECHO Review - Like Nothing You've Seen Before

It’s disturbing how how close it comes to a real building. It’s wrong in the dimensions, too vast and too repetitious to be real.

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.

Echo - ECHO Review - Like Nothing You've Seen Before

“Stop hitting yourself dur hur”

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.

echo run - ECHO Review - Like Nothing You've Seen Before

You do NOT want them learning how to run

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.

Echo sneak - ECHO Review - Like Nothing You've Seen Before

Not that you won’t do a fair amount of sneaking

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.

Echo attack - ECHO Review - Like Nothing You've Seen Before

No matter how you slice this, it’s spooky

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.

Echo story - ECHO Review - Like Nothing You've Seen Before

The nature of the palace and the logic of its inner workings will always be a mystery, but En’s journey is what this is about

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.

Echo gun - ECHO Review - Like Nothing You've Seen Before

If you find yourself in this situation, you’re in for reloading a checkpoint

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.

  • Game
4.0

Summary

…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.

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