Disclaimer: For the purpose of transparency, this Echo review was completed using a review code. The use of a review code does not affect my judgement of this game.
The story of Echo starts in medias res when En, the lead character, wakes up from stasis after 100 years on a spaceship as it reaches its destination. It is made clear that En has been up to no good, breaking some kind of rule/protocol before going into stasis which resulted in a friend of hers being killed. After waking, you are quickly introduced to London, a sarcastic and dry British-voiced AI who helps En along the way. It is quickly apparent that London does not like En in the slightest and the back and forth between them gives the game narrative. The destination that En has arrived at is a huge palace that takes up an entire planet, said to have the power to bring back the person she has lost, it quickly becomes clear however that the palace is not all it seems and will go to great lengths to stop En in reaching her goal.
The rest of the story is delivered using back and forth between En and London to give more information as the game progresses which help shape the lore, a device that works very well and kept me intrigued throughout. As there are very few cut scenes in the traditional sense, the dialogue needed to be rich enough to paint a picture, a mechanic that is used very successfully.
The goal of Echo is to travel through the palace, 1 section or level at a time whilst avoiding the defences that the Palace is throwing at you. The defences come in the form of ‘Echoes’, which are exact copies of En who will behave like her and copy everything she does. This will shape the way in which the game is played as the Echoes can only copy things that En herself does. These means if the player opens a door or sprints, the Echoes will learn how to do the same. This changes the way in which the game is played and forces the player to be strategic. If the player sprints around, running and gunning, the Echoes will do the same; take a more stealthy approach and the Echoes will themselves start sneaking around.
The way in which the Echoes evolve revolves around the palace rebooting every few minutes. While the lights are on, everything En does is captured. The lights will then go off which makes the Palace blind to what En is doing. The screen will then go black and cut out and when it comes back on, the Echoes will have reset (including any killed) and will have the abilities learned from the previous cycle. This sounds way more confusing than it is and before long, I was able to predict the cycles and use it to my advantage.
En herself is controlled in the third person and has a blue orb of energy surrounding her which is used to show enemy locations. Part of the orb will shine blue to show an enemy is close, yellow if they are suspicious and red if En has been spotted. Within the orb is a small HUD showing a stamina gauge for sprinting and pushing Echoes over and a series of triangles showing how much energy En has left. The orb replaces all other displays allowing the screen to be completely clear which I felt was welcome in a sea of games in which you lose half of the display area to pointless items. Energy is used for a range of purposes from jumping over ledges, sending out a pulse to show enemies, firing a bullet from a gun or firing a non-lethal energy blast to knock enemies over. These can be replenished from balls of energy around the level but are in very short supply, with En starting with just 2 slots. This adds a further element of strategy between stealth and offense, with neither having a distinct advantage due to the lack of resources available. As well as the gun and stealth, the environment can be used to remove Echoes; golden orbs are found in certain areas which can be thrown as a distraction or used as a bludgeoning tool and I found pushing Echoes off balconies particularly effective.
The gameplay is great fun although can be brutally difficult at times. The checkpoints aren’t particularly close together and I found myself on occasion, completing three-quarters of a puzzle only to mess up, get killed and have to start again. As we are in the age of punishingly difficult games such as Dark Souls, this won’t bother everyone but will not appeal to everyone either. This aside, the cycle system is utterly unique compared with anything I have ever played before and adds a whole new level to standard games of this ilk. On viewing the initial trailers, I was expecting a Hitman-in-space style standard stealth game but this could not be further from the truth. Stealth is an option sure, but it won’t work in all situations and sometimes shooting everything possible and sprinting for cover while desperately hoping for the end of a cycle to get a moment’s respite is the only way forward.
Echo is a good-looking game although due to the nature of the game, can seem a little same-y. The game is set in a beautiful, elegant palace full of marble floors, gold ornaments and elaborate lighting. The palace is crisp and clean and looks stunning in every area from the shining marble to the rippling pools and really creates an atmosphere of almost clinical perfection. En looks good, the textures are perhaps a little lacking but overall she looks gorgeous, which in turn means the Echoes are also stunning due to being exact replicas. The attention to detail on the environment and the characters is impressive and very quickly creates an immersive atmosphere, especially with the light effects in the when the palace goes dark. The issue that comes from setting the game almost entirely in the same place and having every enemy look identical to the lead character is that it gets a little boring to look at. This is a minor gripe as the game itself is very pretty, but a little more variety would have gone a long way.
Echo breathes new life into the standard stealth game and the evolving AI is unlike anything I have seen before. The feeling of getting better as the game progresses twinned with the dread that the enemy is learning as quickly as you do creates an intensity that I haven’t felt in a game for a long time. The game is fun to play but has a few pacing issues as some sections can feel like they drag a bit but this is a minor issue. The story is sparse but intriguing and gives the player a chance to fill in their own blanks with is somewhat refreshing as many modern games can feel like playing an interactive movie. Overall, despite a lack of variation and a difficulty curve that will not appeal to everyone, Echo is a truly unique experience that deserves recognition.