From the few fond memories I have of my father, our chess matches stick out the most. We didn’t have much in common—even before I hit puberty—so the arrival of a simple yet sturdy portable chess set brought us together for a few moments. Since I was never a genius, I would lose time and time again. My only chance of winning was playing against my cousin, who was younger and dumber. And then, in all his surfer pot-head wisdom, daddy taught me a lesson that dramatically influenced how I interact with people: “If you want to beat others, you gotta first beat yourself,” meaning I had to play chess against myself in order to identify my weaknesses so that my adversaries couldn’t exploit them.
This little advice about one of the oldest board games in history was indeed crucial to my upbringing but not something I would usually think about until ECHO came around. Created by ex-IO Interactive developers—who banded together to start Ultra Ultra—ECHO is a stealth game where players are put against themselves. It follows En, a woman who wakes up after a century of stasis to a bitter AI, a distant planet, and a red cube. She’s part of a society who call themselves Resourcefuls, all implied to have been genetically engineered by a patriarch figure known to them as their grandfather. Whether he was their real Gramps or not is a mystery, but what’s important is that he started a cult regarding a mysterious place called Palace, which En is after. The Resourcefuls believe that this place is capable of bringing the dead back to life with the help of the red cube the woman carries. With that belief, she sets out to save a bounty hunter named Foster.
The story of ECHO sounds interesting at first but what’s really attractive about this game is its premise. Upon arriving at the Palace and accidentally powering the whole thing up, En is faced with a defense mechanism that creates copies of her. These copies, named echoes by her, mimic her every move as long as the Palace’s lights are on. Once they go out, the whole place starts a reboot process that imprints into the echoes whatever En did in the previous cycle. From a gameplay perspective, this means that so much as opening doors, walking on water, up and down stairs, or even sneaking around will be used to hunt down the player once the lights go back on. This mechanic and how we’re forced to think about our own moves perfectly embodies my chess lessons in a neat-looking package.
This is all ECHO has to offer, which might be unfortunate depending on the perspective. The mechanic that puts players against themselves by teaching the AI how to catch them is ingeniously executed, with everything else coming off as an afterthought. While the Palace is a feast for the eyes and the gameplay is intriguing and rewarding, the story is lackluster to the point where it’s a hindrance. It is clear very early on that the plot is an excuse, something to give players a reason to keep on moving. No doubt that Ultra Ultra’s first idea was the concept of having a game where you teach the AI how to defeat you. The stealth mechanic might’ve come later due to their experience with the Hitman franchise and when the whole concept was tightly put together, they had to come up with a story to explain how the mechanic plays in this reality. It is my honest opinion that ECHO could’ve been better with its style choices and mechanics and without the loose narrative.
Players are first exposed to the universe En lives in through a pretty sequence punctuated by the woman’s narration. Her words are vague, leaving most of the plot to the game’s later sections. After waking up and walking an unnecessary length to reach an unnecessarily large room where the mysterious red cube lies, the title dramatically and unexpectedly shows up on screen in an anti-climatic fashion. Once London (the aforementioned AI) takes En down to the planet they reached prior to the opening sequence, the game becomes the most boring walking simulator there ever was. En walks around linear corridor-like walkways while talking to London, exposing as little as possible for no reason other than a continuation. After what feels like a lifetime where nothing happens, En reaches the Palace and the player is once again exposed to a number of details and hallways that are supposed to develop the characters and the universe surrounding them. Unfortunately, every one of these attempts fall short thanks to these unrealistic corridor-like sections (which happen more often than they should), long loading screens, exposition, an alarming number of plot holes, and cutscenes that end so abruptly they remind me of old PlayStation titles which had short CGI scenes that served as a cool tie-in between gameplay and storytelling. In summary, ECHO‘s story is a roughly wrapped package with a tiny little ribbon on top, all leading to what I’d describe as the most underwhelming conclusion of the year.
Fortunately, the way Ultra Ultra explores the mechanic the whole title is designed around makes the painful exposition and anti-climatic cutscenes worth the trouble. While not without its flaws, the stealth aspect and how the player has to think ahead of every move is first intriguing, then frustrating, and finally extremely rewarding once you learn how to deal with your own mess. I started this game fully aware of the concept and how it was implemented—also because En and London discuss it in detail early on. Yet, getting around the levels without being seen and dying multiple times was unavoidable. ECHO‘s level design is one of its best facets. Early on it makes you feel comfortable and in control. En walks around a room where the echoes can’t reach her because there’s water in their way. Of course, you’d have to walk on water for them to learn how to reach you, but that wasn’t necessary thanks to perfectly placed dry paths. As you arrive at the next section, you’re faced with a flooded room. There are only a handful of platforms and reaching them requires walking on water. One of the objectives is at one side of the stupidly large room while the other is on the opposite side. There’s no way to reach either objective without walking on water at least once—and that’s all it takes. ECHO does this a lot, presenting a concept that makes the player feel safe and then crying out a big “aha!” the following moment.
If there’s anything the gameplay and the idea surrounding the game suffer from, however, is how it forces stealth instead of encouraging it. One thing I find interesting about Hitman and Deus Ex is that, while they’re mainly stealth games, they don’t hold players back should they need firepower. In fact, taking out grunts with a headshot is always a viable route in Hitman as long as no one spots 47 doing so or finds the body later. ECHO, unfortunately, has mechanics meant to hold players back. The suit En wears is designed to “keep her safe,” meaning it won’t let her do things that could put her in danger—or even save her from danger in some cases. The story makes us believe that En, despite being a spoiled child who kept running away from home, is a capable woman. Not ideally strong as many other female characters to grace the industry in recent years, but rich, spoiled, aware, arrogant, and physically capable. Yet, we barely get to see her capabilities because the suit’s energy resources are awfully limiting. Most actions such as jumping off ledges or shooting the alarming weapon she carries require energy and unfortunately, there just isn’t enough in case you find yourself surrounded by echoes. While there are ways to turn the tables either through careful thinking or quick reflexes, there isn’t much freedom with how limited the game is. It would’ve been more interesting to give the player as much aggressive freedom as possible and in turn, make the AI far more aggressive. This would encourage a stealth approach rather than forcing it, in turn making for a more varied and interesting game.
Despite its shortcomings, ECHO is a decent game and a refreshing study of mechanics. It suffers from a poorly written and directed story as well as limitations that hinder players instead of encouraging the intended approach to gameplay. It honestly surprises me that prior and after its release on Steam, only a handful of websites were talking about it. Although ECHO is not a Game of the Year contender, it certainly deserves credit for how well it executes its core concept. Those looking for a deeply engaging story may be disappointed with the lackluster narrative, especially the unimaginative corridor-like sections filled with exposing dialogue. However, anyone interested in how the game explores the link between the player and the AI and how difficulty depends solely on skill will be pleased with the mechanics. Stealth fans might get more out of the package due to how it relies on the concept.
Developed and published by Ultra Ultra, ECHO is available now on Steam and will be available on the PlayStation 4 later this month.