When I say “developers getting bored”, what I really mean is that Echo is created by ex -- Hitman developers. They have peeled off from Square Enix to create UltraUltra. The studio’s flagship title delivers a sci-fi game that focuses primarily on what these people have always done -- stealth. As we’ll soon learn in this review, Echo doesn’t have to be part of a defined genre which, in itself, makes it uniquely memorable. A deep shame then that, as a newly formed independent studio, nobody knows about Echo. As such, I hope to detail exactly why Echo could well deserve your attention.
Everything I detail in this segment of our Echo review is revealed in the first hour of the game. What follows may seem “spoiler-iffic” but plenty more is yet to be unravelled later on.
As we start our journey into the oddly reserved scope of UltraUltra’s new universe, En wakes up. We’ll be playing as En and as she rises, groggy from cryo sleep, we’ll hear some dialogue from her unwilling partner in crime, London. He’s a very well spoken cynic who doesn’t believe in any of En’s values. Imagine Han Solo not believing in the force and having a British accent and you’re just about there.
We learn that En has run away from her home in pursuit of the one mystery humanity is aware of in the cosmos. A mysterious man made palace, hidden somewhere in space, that offers the gift of immortality. After receiving a location tip off, she successfully manipulates her way onto London’s ship, simultaneously directing him to the supposed coordinates of the palace. To be clear, all of this is explained to the player through dialogue as they descend into the mysterious and lavish palace. From the get go, the ex -- Hitman devs have shown us that, probably for a long time, they’ve wanted to be storytellers. That shone through a little in Hitman: Absolution. Now, with their own creative direction, players can experience the here and now in Echo’s story, while hearing about its past events at the same time.
A tricky story telling technique to harness effectively, for sure. It’s just as well Echo’s dialogue, rare as it may be, is fantastically written. Most of the player’s understanding of this fresh new universe is neatly gift wrapped into the first half hour of the game. It may have been all very well and good for UltraUltra to design a singular story through the player’s experience. But thanks to the fantastic script, we are made well aware there is plenty going on that we’re not seeing. For example, we are kept thinking when En recognises a “man cage”. It looks both lavish and sinister. London asks what it’s for and En simply replies “you don’t want to know… It’s horrible”. This drip feed of exposure to En’s wider context implies Echo has plenty of lore it could be showing us in future titles. More importantly, for this outing, script writing like this adds believability and structure to a totally new franchise, settling the player in perfectly.
As En descends into the palace, activating its power, she also triggers an in-built glitch. An odd organic goo is found dotted about, until eventually, it forms into hostile clones of En. The overriding mystery of the palace is what this organic matter is and of course, how the hell this palace was built and who it’s for. Why is it derelict? Who built it? These questions will haunt the player for the entirety of their playthrough. That’s the idea, and UltraUltra have totally nailed it.
I’ve mentioned an “any playstyle” kind of gameplay a few times now, so let’s get into it. Echo is an experimentation in game programming and A.I that I have never seen before. The entire experience of the palace runs in cycles. Each cycle, determined by the lights being on, the palace “watches you”. It learns everything you do in that cycle and imprints it on the many hostile clones surrounding En. These cycles never ever hit you with a load screen and immersion is never hindered.
In countless games, many of which I’m sure you could think of right now, we’d leverage enemy A.I against itself. Perhaps we’d jump up to a ledge where enemies couldn’t see us. Or close a door in their face. Echo is aware of how you’ve been playing your games and it slaps you in the face for it.
When things get a little out of control and a horde of clones race toward you, how will they be doing it? Have you taught them to jump over ledges after you? Perhaps you’ve shown them that, yes, we can walk through water. Maybe, in the last cycle, you used your pistol and now, all by your hand -- the grand palace has been turned into a glimmering sci-fi shoot out. The game is engineered primarily for stealth as En is not overpowered. She has limited shots before finding a recharge point and can only take two hits before it’s game over. If you try to get around this with stealth, choking out the clones as you go, you will again be punished for your initiative. The palace learns everything you do and before you know it, you’re the one getting choked out from behind.
“So doesn’t this all get a little bit bloated?”, I hear you ask. Well, with each cycle, players will get the chance to change their gameplay in a way that they believe will make it easier to fight themselves later on… Yes, it’s mind boggling. But each cycle is a refreshed set of learnings by the A.I. So if you agonisingly only walk in one cycle, you can run in the next while the clones crawl at a snail’s pace behind you. Then, in the next cycle, yup, they’ll all run around looking for you.
At the end of each cycle, the lights go out. The clones are still coming to get you but the palace will not observe you. In these precious ten seconds, you could sprint to the objective, choose only to open doors when it’s dark or shoot a few clones. But here’s the kicker -- none of them die for good. Not matter what you do, they’ll all get back up at the start of the next cycle.
This encourages a sequence of thought processes I’m willing to bet a game has never induced in you. Like planning ahead in a game of chess against yourself. As mentioned, En is not a warrior. She is young, inexperienced and not a tank unit. Her suit powers her pistol which has a lethal shot that goes through infinite targets or a riot shot that knocks down a group at close range. She also has a scan function that briefly reveals hostiles around her. Each requires a power cell to use… En has two cells at the start of the game. She can find collectibles around the palace to power up to a higher capacity. But this comes with a trade off. Seeing one in the distance presents a decision to press on to the objective or risk a lot of what you’ve achieved so far. You see, checkpoints in Echo are punishingly spread out.
The game will not autosave over time. It will only save your progress through actually getting further in the game. Think of Alien: Isolation’s punishing save system and you’re about there. Great wide open areas would normally be traversable quickly. However, if you want to stay alive, you’re slowed right down, upping the stakes of just about everything you choose to do. On top of that, there are tuning fork collectables to find. Ringing one adds a decoding fragment and if you find all in a level, a supposed paragraph of wisdom is revealed, giving knowledge on the Echo universe. Frustratingly, I happened to find the game so difficult that I gave up looking for these tuning forks as the pursuit of them often cost me En’s life and a lot of progress.
Similar to Hellblade, it’s fair to call Echo a “triple A indie”. So expect the same singularly focused gameplay. There is no inventory screen and the only levelling up to speak of is upgrading En’s power cell capacity. As with Hellblade, that’s just fine because it allows the core gameplay we have in Echo to enjoy pinpoint design focus. It’s evident that experienced gameplay technicians have worked on Echo. That said, it is unequivocally an elitist game. Echo’s relentlessly punishing levels pushed me to my limit time and again, reminding me of the older games of the 90’s. Like Abe’s Oddysee, where developers made their name primarily on what a challenge their game really was.
Graphics & Sound
If the steep difficulty curve of Echo is putting you off, consider this… Well, consider the screenshots in this review. Graphically, Echo is astounding. The palace is absolutely massive. Which is why it’s particularly impressive that none of it is procedurally generated. Everything we see in the palace is a specifically designed area that coaxes new gameplay methods out of the player. Some areas will have a lot of verticality, challenging you whether you’d rather teach the clones to jump down or use a lift if they give chase. Or areas are completely flat, asking for smarter use of cover.
As the palace is completely untouched, exploring it reveals all the shiny surfaces of a brand new car in massive scale. I found myself gawking in awe at it before I even turned on the lights. When the power did come on, I felt obliged to walk slowly through it, rotating the camera gently just to take it all in. Case in point -- the game’s field of view is literally not wide enough to have taken “the perfect screenshot” at least once. Echo’s mysterious palace really has to be seen to be believed. From the intricately unfolding doors to the odd instruments dotted about, Echo’s pursuit for mystery is found not only in its wonderfully handled script but also in its spectacular world design.
From the moment we first take control of En, we’ll stumble through the corridors of London’s ship. UltraUltra have not been at all afraid to show you a very focused art direction. Light and particle effects set the mood perfectly as we’re forced to walk slowly through this wonderfully designed segment. These opening moments of quality are sustained consistently in Echo’s presentation from start to finish. There is a question of a little too much ambition, at least where consoles are concerned. Echo is undeniably a powerful piece of software. As such, my experience of it was a little hindered by the occasional stutter. Sometimes the game would freeze for a full second. I’m sure my PS4 just had to take a breather for a second.
With this very minor gripe out of the way, I should say that I was drawn in so effectively by Echo’s atmosphere that I was more than willing to forgive it. That atmosphere is largely built up by the game’s soundtrack. We are nudged ever forward by tastefully handled string orchestras that only kick in when respawning after death or during cutscenes. The silence in between these moments only adds to the tension and compliments sheer concentration. Speaking of which, the script is fantastically complimented by Game of Thrones’ Rose Leslie, voicing En.
Echo is a game that is designed with a focus on a very specific audience. If you are a gamer that has been a part of this neglected audience over the years, gasping for a title that challenges you to constantly think and outsmart it, Echo is absolutely for you. It is little known right now as, sadly UltraUltra hasn’t been able to market it properly.
Yet, mark my words, in years to come Echo will the be the A.I benchmark that future titles get compared to. For sheer creative originality in both world design and gameplay, Echo gets a huge thumbs up from me. If you think the game is for you, support UltraUltra in buying it. They need all the help they can get right now as they clearly deserve a future in the games industry. As such, it’s only right that I pop some shop links for you down here too.
|+ Art direction that never loses its way||-- Consoles suffer with powerful software|
|+ Tension building of a quality rarely seen in games||-- Harsh save system may put a few people off|
|+ All you can eat tactical gameplay|