Landing on a snow-covered planet, you descend levels of a vacant industrial site, looking for a sign of anything other than wintry nothingness. Your ship’s AI tells you this is a bad idea, but you have to press on, hoping to save a lost friend. Eventually, you come to a large metal door buried in a cliff wall. It seems out of place amidst the metal towers and walkways, and what’s inside is even more foreign, housing a massive palace of empty hallways and echoing rooms. Quickly, things start to go awry with blackouts happening every few minutes. Each time the lights come back on, something new has changed, eventually populating the floors with dark organic matter. A few minutes later, the matter begins to resemble humans, writhing around on unformed limbs. Minutes after that, you’re face to face with uncoordinated clones, echoes of yourself that seem unsure of the world around them. And minutes more, you’re doing whatever you can to avoid the echoes as they try to kill you.
This is the world of Echo.
Echo is the first game from ex-Hitman devs, Ultra Ultra, a third-person sci-fi action game which aims to pit you against an army of yourself. These echoes learn from your character in cycles, formed by a few minutes of light before the palace dims and eventually goes completely dark. Anything done in the environment will be a learned skill the echoes will possess after the next blackout. Use a gun, they’ll be able to shoot during the next round. Open a door, the echoes will be able to open doors instead of staying trapped behind them.
The system works both ways though. Refusing to use doors or guns for example will rob the enemy of that skill. If the area is surrounded by water and you don’t want the echoes to be able to go in the water, stay on land throughout the cycle and after the next blackout, they’ll unlearn how to traverse the terrain.
This all sounds complicated, but the game effortlessly guides you through the ins and outs, introducing one piece at a time while main character En talks through the situation, verbally assembling the picture for you.
The adaptable AI make for a lot of cool solutions to puzzles as well, like keeping the echoes trapped behind doors as mentioned above. You can also do seemingly pointless things, like eat grapes or pluck a harp, to cause the echoes to distract themselves the next cycle. There are numerous solutions to each problem, and the game allows you to lean on your creativity to solve them.
The mechanics in Echo are rigid but in a way that supports exploitation and creativity. Your sprint ability is limited, and your gun is even more limited starting at two shots max. You can upgrade your gun capacity by one charge for each eight power cells you find scattered throughout the palace, but these extra cells take a long time to obtain and the extra charge doesn’t give you that much of an advantage.
If that wasn’t enough, the only way to get more ammo is to let your cell recharge very slowly (limited to one cell total) or to find recharge stations that recharge one cell at a time when you walk into them. Descending levels in the palace uses the same energy as your gun too, so if you find yourself cornered between some angry echoes and a balcony, you better hope they don’t know how to jump to a lower level because you won’t have the charge to fight them off once you land.
And chances are it won’t be worth it since you can only take two hits before dying. If you manage to stay unharmed after your initial hit, your suit will recover, but generally, three more echoes will have found you and latched on by that time.
Always Against You
These restrictions on gameplay make for a much more tense and orderly play style that pretty much demands stealth. The thought of playing this game in a fast-paced shooter/brawler style is appealing but would be wholly chaotic and alter the puzzle-based nature of the game. When you only have two shots and limited sprint, you have to carefully consider every move, especially if you’re about to teach the enemy how to act towards you.
Because of this, I wouldn’t necessarily describe Echo as fun. It’s the type of game that keeps you on edge for the entire playthrough and often kicks you in the face with its difficulty curve. It’s intriguing and allows for a number of ways to get through each stage, but the lack of checkpoints and an overwhelming number of enemies makes the idea of further, harder stages that much more daunting.
To be fair, I am horrible at stealth games and get easily frustrated when I can’t jump into a thrall of foes and murder them to my heart’s content, but the odds do seem to be more stacked against you in Echo than in other stealth-based games. It’s not unenjoyable by any means, just not a recommended game if you’re not looking to up your stress level.
Outside of gameplay, Echo’s story and environment are intriguing, but not necessarily anything worth playing the game for either. En has come to the planet searching for a friend who’s believed to be dead. The mystery builds as she chats with a faceless voice on her com, but the game never reached a point where I needed to know what happened next. The environment also falls a little flat. The game quickly welcomes you to a massive, resplendent palace, which when juxtaposed with the bleak icy planet of the intro sequence, is stunning, but you quickly come to realize that the palace is the setting for the rest of the game which grows to feel very samey over the course of several hours. The repetition and sterility of the palace can actually lend themselves to the intrigue and sci-fi feel of the game, but after hours of dying in the same rooms I grew sick of seeing them.
Echo is a tense and intriguing sci-fi puzzler that keeps you on your toes but is not without its faults. It places a strong focus on stealth and can often make you feel trapped because of it, but as a stealth game feels rewarding creative thanks to its smart AI system. For those looking for a quiet and patient challenge, Echo is a worthy contender for your time and skills.