Taking place in a mysterious, planet-sized machine that resembles a richly-appointed palace, ECHO is a science-fiction stealth game with a generous helping of unadulterated terror. As the debut game from Ultra Ultra, an independent team of ex-Hitman developers, ECHO takes the multifaceted and unforgiving complexity of the Hitman series and strips it of almost all extraneous details. With a minimalistic presentation belying its space-opera backdrop, the game boasts three characters (depending on the definition), one kind of enemy (to begin with), and a starkly creepy—but beautiful—main setting.
ECHO is incredibly difficult, uncompromising in its clockwork puzzles and rewarding for fans of modern sneak-’em-ups. Similar to other recent sci-fi games such as SOMA and Alien: Isolation, ECHO develops into a horror game, although it arrives there from different direction. Rather than the inventory management and cupboard-hiding of the survival genre, ECHO is a puzzle game at heart that, eventually, reveals rules and boundaries that make traversing the game’s main locales akin to exploring the test chambers of Portal‘s Aperture Science laboratories. The terror, then, comes from the game’s main mechanic: the AI-controlled Echoes of the title that can mimic the player’s actions.
As players attempt to make their way through each puzzle-chamber-like segment, the “Palace”—apparently an impossibly enormous computer—records their actions. When a quota of actions is reached, the Palace reboots and applies all learned actions to the Echoes. Should the player run, vault, and shoot their way through a cycle (no small feat, given the limited ammo), they will find it more difficult to stay safe in the following cycle.
On the other hand, the patient player can move slowly, eat grapes, and call elevators, in which case enemies will be much less scary in the next cycle. Additionally, while the Palace is rebooting, player actions are not recorded, leaving a few seconds at the end of a cycle to go for broke trying to escape the Echoes.
As a gamer might expect from a puzzle-centric indie, the game finds new and interesting twists on its primary mechanic as it continues. Echoes might not always be the threat, and avoiding them is not always an option. Unfortunately, the title is not completely without flab—no short and sharp Portal here. Beginning in deep space, ECHO establishes a refreshingly literate science-fiction universe reminiscent of the works of Iain M. Banks or Alastair Reynolds, whose Redemption Ark almost certainly inspired the central relationship between protagonist En and the ship’s computer London.
However, this setup is largely unnecessary and provides the game with a grander, more philosophical stage at the expense of the opening pacing and revealing the specific rules of the world. Thanks to the pressures of marketing, any given video game tends to be well understood by the time of its release—even more so than the subject matter of a film. ECHO spends its opening chapters drawing out the reveal, as though its core mechanics had not already been exhaustively described by the developers themselves. As players progress deeper, rhetorical questions about the Palace, such as “why was this built?” and “what is its purpose?”, are just as intriguing without En’s backstory and the circumstances that brought her there.
Once the story gets going, though, the slow-walk-and-talk gives way to cleverly-designed challenges that make the best of slightly imprecise controls, mostly on the analogue sticks. Perhaps to justify her jerky movement, En begins her journey in an exoskeleton-like suit that protects her from fall damage, but will also keep her from performing certain actions until they are activated. Eventually, she has a suite of different abilities available to her—and of course, the more abilities she uses, the tougher her journey becomes.
Bolstering the scare-factor of the Palace’s immaculate halls are the sound and visual cues that help to make each reboot an unnaturally unsettling experience. The whooshing noise when En has performed enough unique actions, the switching off of every light in sight, and the eventual complete blackout that accompanies the restarting of the system is a pattern players will come to love and dread: if they have been smart, the Palace going dark offers an opportunity; if complications arise, and particularly if Echoes are still on the player’s tail, the darkness will almost certainly mean death—if not immediately, then when the lights come back on and the Echoes now leap around or aim operational weaponry in En’s direction.
Other aspects of ECHO’s presentation are equally effective, less the occasional glitches that smaller teams without AAA budgets cannot be expected to entirely eradicate. The score is uniquely suited to the world’s mix of lofty sci-fi and constant danger, a sort of synth-pad version of Psycho mixing beautiful ideas with on-edge dissonance and cacophony. Visually, the infinite Palace is not the most varied of locales, but it also does not need to be, and every other visual is executed as intended.
Given how slick the puzzle design and overall concept is, ECHO is very close to a must-play, only a lack of concessions to those with less tactical minds keeping it from being for everybody. Still, ECHO is the kind of game that gamers crave—a creative, new IP; a surprising spin on well-liked mechanics; and a lower price point. Additionally, the title is streamlined, beautiful, and heavy on the science-fiction, the sort of production that used to thrive in video games but has fallen somewhat to today’s action-packed, RPG-element-fuelled mainstream. Although certain issues keep the game from true greatness, ECHO virtues far outshine its flaws in creating a memorable experience.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4.