Some of the best gameplay experiences I have ever encountered have been in an environment where risk and reward are well laid out and presented to you. Where actions and consequences dynamically work together to weave a rich tapestry of player pathways and choices, and the prospect of making your bed very much leads to your lying in it. This particular bed’s name is ECHO, and ECHO has turned player choice into an art form.
ECHO puts you in the sci-fi shoes of a young woman named En (Voiced by Rose Leslie of Game of Thrones fame), who has made quite a journey across space to a planet that seems almost non-existent – in the words of London (the ships AI and your companion for the game): “Even with the exact coordinates, I nearly missed it”. Her goal? To locate a mysterious macguffin upon the planet and bring a lost friend back to life. To do this, she needs to navigate The Palace – an almost endless, impossibly decadent array of flawless ivory and gold trim, furnished with all manner of luxurious goodies. Then it gets weird.
The Palace is more than a structure. It’s aware. And En’s presence isn’t welcome
Right about when you have finished drinking in this incredible open home of super space cribs, you are greeted by the main hook of the game. Well, there’s two of them. Firstly, the Palace has started creating copies of you (named Echoes, strangely enough) and secondly, at regular intervals, you will be plunged into darkness.
Echoes will wander about, and if they spot you, they will grab you and murder you. They are named Echoes because that is what they are – echoes of you, the player. This means that the actions you perform in the game, they will inherit and be able to perform against you. Each time the Palace is plunged into darkness, the Echoes are rebooted and will inherit any actions that you took in the previous period of lights-on. Did you sprint? Did you open a door? Did you fire your weapon? Enjoy as you face off with sprinting echoes, that open doors and who attempt to shoot you in the face.
This gameplay is intensely cerebral, as you start to analyse every situation you find yourself in. At any given moment you are unsure of what kind of safety might be available to you and the way you handle any particular task may well be perfectly suited to bite you in the arse. ECHO has nailed the premise of lying in the bed you made, as any horrible experience is likely your own stupid fault. A moment of impatience saw me choose to sprint past a number of echoes, as I was finally fed up with the game of stealth I had employed for the majority of the chapter – and I saw what I perceived to be the end of the section. As I made it down the corridor and through the doorway of my would-be salvation, I was greeted with an open room with many echoes milling about. At that moment, the lights dimmed and shut off. My gut sank as I realised full well that at that precise moment, I had fucked up.
A string of mentally challenging opportunities are presented like a canvas, and you get to paint with whatever brush you choose
This incredible moment to moment gameplay can be mentally exhaustive – trying to explain to a friend about how it drained me, his initial reaction was that “Oh, that must suck”, and the only analogy I could come back with was that sex is also tiring, but I enjoy the heck out of that.
This is ECHO at its core. A string of mentally challenging opportunities are presented like a canvas, and you get to paint with whatever brush you choose. Your actions directly correlate to your experience. Your unnerving simulacrums reflect your play style, and as such that playstyle must evolve. Imagine my surprise when I decided to uncharacteristically use the dedicated ‘yell out’ button to distract an echo, and upon the next light reboot I was beset by parroted calls of “HEY! OVER HERE!” by the creepy doppelgangers. I even idly tinkled my fingers across the keys of a grand, golden piano with not much thought – only to discover that they too were now amused by the instrument. Observing the echoes make use of what they have learned was fascinating, like a strange form of birdwatching that took place in a mirror.
I ended up devouring the game in one massive session, clocking in at around 9 hours. During that time I felt every ounce of the game’s atmosphere seep into me as I felt my methods shift. By the end of the game, I had become a master of stealth and manipulation – going so far as to teach my replicas useless abilities like eating grapes or sliding over counter tops to better my chances at evading them. During this time, ECHO’s narrative had been drip fed to me during moments of quiet reflection. When danger had passed, and a moment to breathe was offered, En was happy to converse with London about why she was so driven to be here. The two were happy to bicker about intentions and motivations, and a glimpse into what had made En who she was only seemed to raise more questions. The game’s story was sparse – but not disinteresting. It was an odd situation where I found myself wanting to know more about the world of ECHO, but also feeling that the unknowingness of it all wasn’t a detractor.
It still blows me away that the game was built by a team of eight incredibly talented people, where every aspect of the game is polished to a brilliant shine. Even the audio of the game, though simplistic in nature, is beautifully put together to maximum effect. Gameplay beats, particularly a short percussive drum beat to notify that you have been spotted (and are now pursued) are instantly recognised and catalogued alongside all the other spinning plates that make up ECHO’s immersive gameplay. It’s the kind of world that as you sink deeper and deeper into it; you start to lose grip on minutes, and then hours as they start to melt away. The Palace itself is an artistic masterpiece, and it constantly surprised me with its efforts to ante up its own visual impact. The further I descended into it, the more it worked to impress me. There are moments where I feel it simply must be procedurally generated, but until such time as a talented soul from the Ultra Ultra development team feels fit to reveal their secrets, I’ll just push to believe it. Even during the moments where you end up leaving the Palace, The harsh planet that houses it is desolate and sinister.
A thoroughly unnerving, yet innately rewarding experience that graciously pocketed hours of my life, and had a lasting impact. In our world of instant gratification and wrought gameplay experiences that are ever derivative, ECHO stands to surprise us all. Definitely on my short list of ‘experiences that may prove games can be art’, or at least on my list of ‘games that will freak out my friends, and entertain me greatly’.
Reviewed on PC