Echo Night: Beyond (Video Game)
Developer: From Software
In the future, mankind will live and work on the moon. I mean, it’s inevitable. It’s a piece of land we haven’t conquered yet, it’s only a matter of time before we figure out a way to build a station there. Before long, flights to the moon would become commonplace, like an airline, as people from all walks of life start using the moon as a vacation spot, a chance at a new career, perhaps an opportunity for scientific research.
Echo Night: Beyond takes place in this world, a future where the moon is colonized by a corporation seeking to plunder the moon’s rich mineral deposits. The base also doubles as a spaceport, a place for travelers to refuel and vacation. Set in 2044, Echo Night: Beyond tells the tale of a man heading for the moon on a shuttle to marry his fiancé, Claudia. Seeing as how this is Dread Central, you know things go very, very wrong. The shuttle crashes into the station, leaving your character unconscious. When he awakens, he’s alone and in a space suit on the ruins of the crashed shuttle. Only a quickly scrawled note on the back of a seat gives him any direction: "come to the facility." Once he exits the passenger cabin of the shuttle and encounters the ghost of a fellow passenger, it’s clear that this is not going to be an easy trip to the altar.
Right off, let me say this game is extremely scary. The effect of the searchlight mounted on your spacesuit is very realistic and the first-person perspective allows the designers to plant many "jump" scares as you wander through the deserted passages. Moving through foggy areas, never knowing where the next violent spook might be hiding, is very intense. This game made me jump at least three times, and I’m fairly jaded at this point. Okay, so it’s scary, but what kind of game are we dealing with?
Echo Night: Beyond is, at it’s heart, an adventure game. It does have some survival horror elements, but this should not be confused with a Fatal Frame or Silent Hill. Your goal here is exploration, making sure you find every nook and cranny that you can explore and talking to every ghost until all conversational avenues have been exhausted. As is common with adventures, you have an inventory, and you do have to find an awful lot of keys. The combination of styles is odd and unique, it defies easy explanation, but it’s this definition that will be most important in deciding if the game is for you.
The bulk of the game is finding and conversing with the ghosts of the residents of the station and the passengers on the shuttle. Your goal is to put them at rest, give them peace, so they can move on. This is the only apparent connection to the first Echo Night game, finding ghosts and honoring their requests to continue in your own story. The ghosts are inherently benign, but sections of the base are filled with a mysterious fog. When in the fog, the ghosts become desperate or violent, and can scare you quite badly. You can dispel the fog by activating ventilation systems, but these are rarely conveniently placed or instantly accessible. This is where the survival horror elements come in. You don’t have a health meter, you have a heart rate meter. If you hit 300bpm, you have a heart attack and die, literally scared to death. What makes this interesting is the economics surrounding it. Running into violent ghosts is the only thing that can cause your heart rate to go high enough to be lethal, but many other actions can increase it above the normal, resting rate and put you that much closer to danger if a ghost should surprise you. Running for an extended period can easily raise your heart rate to over 100bpm from the resting rate of 77bpm. That’s a big difference if you run into an angry ghost that sends you spiraling into the red. You have to manage your heart rate carefully in order to avoid sudden death. You do have access to sedative syringes that will bring a temporary relief to your heart rate if an angry ghost is pursuing you, or quickly lower a heightened rate if you’ve returned to safety and need to stabilize quickly.
The management of "health" is unique and very challenging. I found that if you try to manage it as a health gauge, like in another survival horror game, you don’t last very long. This is the hardest element to explain, so bear with me.
You see, the action sequences aren’t really action sequences at all. Sure, some of them require some deft physical maneuvering, such as outrunning one angry spirit to reach a ventilation system that will dispel the fog. These are really puzzles to be solved, as there’s always a trick to get past a particular ghost to activate the ventilation.
As long as you are prepared for this, the game is a hell of a lot of fun. It’s a deep, engaging story that never becomes dull even when you’re just playing errand boy. The story is developed in a very elaborate, detailed way. You aren’t given every answer, even in the end, but the various twists and turns of the plot are revealed at a good pace to keep you moving on to that next answer. As with many Japanese games, the smaller stories behind each ghost are frequently very sweet and emotional, such as the couple celebrating their anniversary, seemingly on the verge of divorcing, who find they really do love each other more than anything after their deaths. There’s a lot to love about this story and how it plays out.
Unfortunately, there are some problems that I need to mention. Much has been said in the gaming press in regards to the game’s control schemes, and I agree. The default control scheme (labeled "B" in the options) is patently useless. Simply switch it over to option "C" and you’ll find that controlling your character is a breeze. Also, some of the puzzles require you to find items that are nearly invisible or very, very small on the screen. You can easily search the base for hours looking for a very simple item to solve a puzzle, only to find it was in the first room you looked…and just too small to notice. Having a walkthrough handy will get you past these points, but better design would have made these sticky spots a little easier to defeat. It also must be said that the sudden scares, which are very prevalent in the beginning of the game, seem to peter out as the game reaches its climax.
There are a few more important elements I need to discuss before you should decide whether or not this game is for you. First, the game is relatively short. I clocked between eight and nine hours total playing time, not counting much time lost to reloads after getting offed by a grumpy ghost or missing a jump on the lunar surface. In most cases, that’d be enough to keep me from recommending a game, but this is an exception. The story seemed to take just the right amount of time. Any less, and there wouldn’t have been time to provide enough backstory to fill in the plot; any more, and the errands run for the ghosts in the station would have become boring. Also, there are four different endings, which gives it some replay value.
Ah yes, the endings. There are two "normal" endings, then a "good" ending and a "bad" ending. I’m not sure I agree with those definitions, so suffice it to say that you can partially complete the story and get either of the two “normal’ endings, or you can complete the story , save every ghost and collect some key items, which gives you an opportunity to get the "good" or "bad" ending. In my opinion, only these latter two make any sense. The two "normal" endings just don’t make a lot of sense, based on what the rest of the game tells you about the plot. They feel like they were tagged on in an attempt to flesh out an otherwise brief game. I strongly encourage you to take the time to find and see everything, solve every puzzle, save every ghost. The quality of the "good" and "bad" endings is worth the effort, as there’s a twist that blew me away, even on top of the twists and turns that played out during the heart of the game.
Lastly, I need to mention the opening cinema that plays before the "Start" screen appears. The opening cinematic is simply a wonder to behold. In two or three minutes, the events that fill the gap between your shuttle crashing and your entrance into the facility play out in silence, with only a beautifully arranged version of the Moonlight Sonata playing over the top. This incredibly detailed, gorgeous movie sets the stage perfectly. You watch a group of workers return to the base and find it partially destroyed by the shuttle. They split up to investigate, but are picked off one by one by the ghosts. The way this is handled is absolutely brilliant. By the time it’s over, you know exactly what you’re facing…and then you have to walk into that dark building alone and unarmed. I know, I know, it’s just an opening video…but it sets the mood so perfectly that it greatly enhances the tension and fear, especially for the first couple of hours.
Your potential enjoyment of the game depends entirely on whether or not you enjoy the slower pace of an old-fashioned adventure with a smattering of visceral survival horror thrills. You need to appreciate story and emotional development more than action. You need to enjoy exploration and a steady sense of tension more than combat and gory, visceral thrills. Most of all, you need to enjoy a good ghost story in an unfamiliar setting, because that’s what Echo Night: Beyond provides. I, for one, enjoyed the hell out of it, regardless of the game’s few shortcomings. I’d love to see more from the studio in the future, especially if they learn to make better use of the opportunities for scares in their level design.
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