04/11/2017

☆ Review: Echo "A beautiful game marred by repetition" ☆ #GameDev

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Echo is a new third-person stealth-adventure video game that from the studio Ultra Ultra, a team of developers who are based in Copenhagen and formed from ex-staff of IO Interactive (Hitman series).


Echo has a very strong start, the menu itself is a close-up of an eye which you use to choose new game/load game/options, etc. It instantly throws you into its sci-fi aesthetic. The intro cutscene is deeply intriguing and a real scene-setter, introducing the two main characters in a very well-written fashion. 

These characters are En and London. En has just awoken from a 100-year stasis and arrived at a planet which contains ‘The Palace’, she is certain that within this palace lies the ability to bring back her deceased friend Foster, the main thrust of the game is En’s mission to achieve this. 

London meanwhile, is an artificial intelligence that accompanies En on her journey, having ‘known’ Foster and trusting En as she has a cigarette lighter gifted to her from him.

The two characters are very well-rounded and the dialogue is very tightly written, intense without being overwrought and dripping with atmosphere. 

The voice acting is superb, En’s husky tones, (she is voiced by Game of Thrones’ Rose Leslie) alternating between existential musings and spiky comebacks are the perfect responses to London’s (voiced by veteran Nick Boulton) dry sarcasm (London also acts as a guide for the player).

The first hour of the game was the real highlight for me. The combination of rich, expansive scenes combined with the accompanying soundtrack that lilts and drops to match the tension in the game as En and London trade barbs whilst also hinting at the universe around them gave a real sense of depth, size and history to the in-game world. Unfortunately, after this, the game started to go downhill for me.

As wonderful as the opening hour of the game is, when the game begins in earnest aboard The Palace, I immediately began to have reservations. The settings are eye-wateringly gorgeous, with tall ceilings, marble pillars, golden chairs, reflective marble flooring and enormous mirrors giving a huge sense of scale and successfully show off the abilities of the game’s engine. However, these graphical assets are constantly re-used and even though the game is only around 8 hours long, I was tired of seeing the same bowls of flowers, chairs and tables scattered haphazardly around the labyrinthine building (the placings of the furnishings serve only to act as cover for the stealth sections, there’s no real rhyme or reason to their setup, some rooms will have dozens of chairs in rows or just staircases or railings to leap over that lead nowhere), the lack of variety visually drives home the repetitive nature of the gameplay.

The first segment of the game acts as a tutorial to ease you into the gameplay, strange happenings and blackouts start soon after your arrival on the planet (the game is almost entirely set indoors) and the initial introductions to your enemies are really well-done. Beginning as black blobs on the floor, they soon take the shape of torsos, then rambling zombie-like creatures before eventually becoming clones (or ‘echoes) of En herself. The way these enemies are brought into the game is again, very well paced and it gives the proceedings an almost survival-horror feel.

As the game mechanics were illustrated, I was quite intrigued as to how the game would pan out. You can shove enemies away from you, use the (extremely limited) power supply within your suit to fire at them, hide from them or creep up to them and choke them out from behind. 


The ace up the developers’ sleeve here is that the enemies learn from your movements. For example, if you shoot an enemy, the next time there’s a blackout the enemy will learn to do the same to you. This means that your own actions work against you as you work through the game. Echo works with this as the main game-play element and it is a really solid idea that inaction is quite creepy and effective. However, beyond this, the game-play is quite bland. Each section has several orbs that you must touch to open the door to the next section, so you must sneak your way around the echoes to achieve this. Bearing in mind that you can only take one or two hits before dying, the enemies are rampant in the game (some rooms will literally have dozens) and that checkpoints are scarce and the scene is set for quite a challenge.

My issue with this is that the game-play in itself doesn’t feel rewarding, it takes an interesting game mechanic and builds a bland game around it (with the exception of the opening hour). I found myself sneaking from one room to another almost identical room in order to touch orbs to open a door, it just didn’t feel exciting. The setup of the game, with its strong writing and dialogue, doesn’t match up to the gameplay itself. 

There are distractions; occasionally touching tuning forks to unlock sections of a message hidden in sound waves throughout the complex or the admittedly gorgeous in-game cut scenes but then it’s back to sneaking round touching orbs in a non-changing environment. As I played, it dawned on me that it felt like a constant tutorial. The game is extremely linear in that there are no side-quests or branching-paths and I felt like I was completing a long trudge through a basic virtual-reality scenario designed to introduce the game mechanics before the main game started properly, there was genuinely a point where I thought, ‘oh…this is actually the game’.



Summary
Echo is one of the best-looking games I’ve played this year and it has one of the best introductions in recent memory but the nature of the gameplay is where it fell flat for me. 

I’d recommend this game if you like challenging games in the stealth-puzzle genre and won’t be bothered by the lack of variation in the environment or how the gameplay doesn’t live up to the concepts or sense of scale that the introduction touches upon. 

I noticed as I was writing this review that the Steam ratings are highly positive and there are only a couple of negative reviews on the game so I went back to play it for a while longer, as I wondered if maybe I had been in a strange mood during my initial gaming session, but within a few minutes I was again bored by Echo and found my mind wandering.
Ultra Ultra are clearly very talented developers with strong ideas and a real knack for writing and dialogue who know how to get the best out of a game’s engine. 

I look forward to playing their next game to see where they take us next; sadly this one just didn’t grip me.

Game: Echo
Developer: Ultra Ultra
Reviewed on: Steam

Rating: Melting












Review By Britt

Ratings Explained
ICE COOL (Great Game Recommended)
MELTING (Just Falls Short Of Greatness)

MELTED (Not A Recommended Purchase)