These days, big games like Destiny 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Origins are made by several hundreds of people spread across multiple studios all over the globe. The end-results are, of course, grandiose, but there’s no individual fingerprint on the canvas. A small development team of ten people can carry out their unique visions without compromises, and if they happen to be a talented bunch of former IO Interactive (of Hitman series fame) employees, there’s no trade-off in an audiovisual quality either. Sci-fi thriller ECHO, a debut title by the Danish Ultra Ultra, looks good, sounds great and plays smart.
A girl named En wakes up after a hundred year’s cryosleep. Her ship has finally arrived at the planet where, according to legends, a lost human life can be brought back to life. En carries a cube on her back which contains the soul of Foster, a man she once knew. En is adamant Foster can be resurrected but her AI partner doesn’t share her optimism. Quite the contrary, London is rather annoyed by En’s hard-headed quest.
When En descends into the depths of the planet, there turns out to be a palace inside - a huge, sprawling mansion with luminous halls and corridors, all symmetric in design. At first, the palace seems to be abandoned. Soon, En discovers dark lumps crawling on floors. A few moments later these things get up on their staggering feet and start to get shape. A shape of En herself, in every detail, down to her looks and actions. Only thing is, these echoes are not friendly.
Late and great Stanley Kubrick would be proud of ECHO. There’s similar clinical detachment in the game’s ambience as in Kubrick’s intriguing movies. Not only in the clean-cut looks but also in the intelligence of the story and more so, the gameplay. Indeed, ECHO isn’t your typical third-person stealth action game, even if it can perfectly be labeled as such. Don’t be fooled to think that it’s just saving in resources by having only En's replicas as enemies. ECHO is built around this idea, hence the name.
There’s a cycle of light and pitch black in the palace. Whatever you do in the light, be it sneaking, vaulting over barriers, opening doors, walking across water, doing stealth takedowns or shooting, the echoes will eventually learn it. Being out of sight doesn’t help because it’s the palace itself that photocopies En and uploads her action to echoes. The updated knowledge takes place after the blackout, happening every so often and heralded with an ominous voice and a tremble in the controller. The palace can’t copy actions done in the dark though. All this must be adjusted to achieve mission goals, like picking up scepter keys to open locked doors or collecting blue orbs to get elevators between levels working.
The game is like a twisted play of hide and seek, a macabre stage performance by En and her mimes. In essence, ECHO is as hard as you make it. If you go running and gunning, the echoes will too after the next blackout. Ultimately, I ended up playing smart and cautious, only drawing out the gun in the dark and even then, with reservation as its loud bang is bound to attract nearby echoes. All actions are regulated by En’s stamina and her suit’s upgradable energy cells. Running, pushing echoes and thwarting their chokehold eat stamina while shooting depletes energy cells. There’s a limit to echoes as well. Before they become TOO capable (unless you really want them to), their talents are reset after a certain number of cycles. The game plays perfectly within its limited set of rules. There’s room for different approaches as well and you play with what you do. It’s rare to see this focused gameplay design and even rarer to see it work out flawlessly.
Especially in the beginning, ECHO presents chilling sci-fi horror as you first discover the twist the palace holds for En in the form of her mirror images. It’s intriguing how the game perpetually repeats itself, both in its environments and set pieces, but it never gets old. The palace is beautiful, monotonous in design but endlessly fascinating. Everything there, from objects to architectural details, are repetitious, but it doesn’t get boring to look at them. It’s perhaps because how the game embraces into its mystery and trusts the player’s intellect. It’s not too keen to explain anything, from beginning to end, though in the process it manages to inconspicuously build an integrated sci-fi world of its own.
The narrative depends almost solely on the dialogue between En and London. Rose Leslie (a Game of Thrones alumnus) and Nicholas Boulton (most recently Hellblade’s conscience Druth) lend their voice talent to the complex roles. The acting is superb and the script is great so it’s a shame the narrative takes long pauses mid-game when the vast gameplay set pieces take focus. ECHO knows when to stop, after good eight or so hours, before it gets repetitive for real, despite of all its virtues. Still, I would have liked a couple of more levels before its abrupt and unpretentious, but at the same time expected ending.
I love En’s unconventional character design. With her icy blonde looks, sharp features, a short hairstyle and a black bodysuit, she’s like straight out of a catwalk of an alternative high fashion show. The soundscape works brilliantly. It’s minimalist but strongly present. ECHO looks almost as good on PS4 as it does on PC. There are some frame rate issues and shimmering in sharp edges but somehow these technical details become irrelevant as the attention is purely in the engrossing gameplay.
I was prepared that ECHO is perhaps agonizingly hard, given its unique gameplay mechanics. But it wasn’t, as I completed it somewhat effortlessly. Maybe it was due to my anticipatory play style. I confess, I watched several streams of PC version of ECHO a few weeks before the PS4 release. So I kind of knew what not to do in the game. Thank you, you all pioneering Ens on PC streams who clanged too much to their guns. ECHO is intelligent sci-fi without any artificial provocation or emotion manipulation. It’s cool and enigmatic to the end, and much like Kubrick’s movies I referred to earlier, it takes a certain state of mind to appreciate its fearful symmetry.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.