Games frequently teach us that we need to grow, progress, and learn to use new abilities to fulfill that power fantasy, but what if that all got turned around? What if your enemies learned along with you, and the safest way to proceed was actually doing as little as possible? Echo tries to tackle this very conundrum, giving the player increasing abilities while also promoting a “less is more” play style that creates an interesting ebb and flow to each moment in the game.
Waking up on a ship somewhere in space, main character En begins to talk to her ship’s AI system. She’s been in stasis for over 100 years, and much of Echo’s opening is slowly walking along pathways while these two talk and provide some sense of backstory and world building. En is seeking a mysterious planet that has the power to restore the life of her dead friend, whom she allegedly has stored in a cube strapped to her back. The exterior of the planet is a facade of white cubes, while the interior is a mix of dingy maintenance passageways and pristine gold and white marble rooms.
Echo’s start is a slow burn, and though it could have been cut shorter, feelings of tension and pseudo-horror build for what’s about to come. The gilded palace starts off dark, with only shoulder mounted lights to guide En through the maze of passageways, the reflection glinting off of the perfectly polished marble and gold flourishes. It’s a serene kind of horror, and though everything looks well kept, it’s not the kind of place I would be eager to explore on my own in real life.
Turning the power back on reveals a different kind of horror. Some kind of glitch has the palace creating horrifying black blobs. The lights cycle on and off, and after each power surge, the lights come back to show that they’ve grown. They have arms, then legs, then they are crawling towards me, and suddenly they are standing. Then, the realization dawns on me; these figures are recreations of En.
Finally the real gameplay can begin. Throughout the game, En is granted a number of different abilities–both in movement and combat–that allow her to move through the reflective marble halls and take on the threat of her own eerie clones. It’s relatively easy to line up a group of stumbling figures and take them out with her gun, or to simply hold X and sprint away from danger when it comes too near. And then the lights go out. When they come back on, the echoes are sprinting towards me and firing their own weapons with a marked precision.
The power cycle is the core of Echo’s gameplay loop. While the lights are on, the palace is recording any move that En makes. Vault over a low barrier? Recorded. Hold X to run? Recorded. Even opening doors? Yup, that gets recorded too. When the lights shut off, there is a brief period that the palace remains blind to En’s actions, but when they come back on again, the echoes have been rebooted and updated with any action that En took during the previous light cycle. Now they can open doors, vault barriers, and run.
It’s kind of terrifying knowing that any action I took could soon be used against you. Even something as simple as walking through water, which the echoes can’t do by default, change the way I needed to think about how I play. I could shoot one, dash across the water, and quickly open the door to get where I need to go, but on the next power cycle, the echoes will be able to shoot, run, go in water, and open doors, which could spell disaster for getting back. It’s about minimalism and strategic forward thought. How can I achieve my goal using as few abilities as possible, or what abilities would you be okay with the echoes knowing on the next power cycle? I was constantly conscious that regardless of what I could do, this wasn’t a power fantasy. Stealth, combat, or fleeing, the enemy was always learning from every move I made.
Echo isn’t a horror game, but some excellent sound design helps to maintain the feeling of dread that the opening sets up. The low bass sounds quickly punctuate the audio with every power cycle. I wasn’t just seeing the lights go out. I was hearing it. I was feeling it. The audio does a great job at highlighting these moments as ones of importance, all while creating what seems to be an endless echo of its own through the infinite marble halls. The voice acting by En and London (her ship’s AI) are also well done, bringing life to a narrative in a relatively lifeless place.
While the palace is visually stunning at first, Echo does fall into a pattern of repetition. Some rooms and hallways feel impossible to navigate because everything looks the same, and the pristine polished look rarely ever changes. Part of that does feed into the themes of Echo, but a lack of variance did hurt the experience in the long run for me. Feelings of sameness are compounded by the enemies always being echoes of En. Sure, certain circumstances will have them changing their actions based on the room layout and how I navigate the area, but Echo eventually starts to feel repetitive, especially when hit with punishing checkpoints and saves that can quickly wipe 15 minutes of progress with a stupid mistake.
Conceptually fascinating and visually stunning, Echo runs out of steam the longer it overstays its welcome, beginning to feel like an echo of itself before long. A slow start, punitive checkpoints, and analogous environments lead further encounters to feel like running the same old gauntlet, which is disappointing, given the potential of this novel concept. The unique strategic gameplay of enemies learning from you reverberated throughout, but so did everything else. I really enjoyed Echo, but like a song played on repeat, I could only suffer so much repetition before it began to lose me.
Echo review code provided by publisher. Version 1.00 reviewed on a standard PS4. For more information on review scores, please read our Review Policy.