Developer: Ultra Ultra Publisher: Ultra Ultra Platform(s): PS4, PC
What if you were your own worst enemy? This is the question posed by ECHO: the debut game from Copenhagen studio Ultra Ultra, who have crafted a unique stealth action game that starts off meekly before evolving into one of the smartest games of the year.
You wake as En, a futuristic transhuman who is trying to fix her biggest mistake with only an endlessly grumpy AI for company. ECHO opens cold, placing you in a desolate spaceship after a hundred years of sleep and unspools the wider narrative over the course of the game. It doesn’t so much gently introduce you into this dense world of hard sci-fi as it does sledgehammer you over the back of the head with its regular exposition dumps and unexplained terminology. This is sci-fi for sci-fi enthusiasts: it’s very dense and, in truth, a little overwhelming because all information is simply relayed to the player via walking sections rather than giving them anything visual with which to stitch all the pieces together.
But the allure of ECHO doesn’t come from its talk of souls and advanced societies. ECHO has some of the most innovative and intuitive stealth gameplay I’ve seen in some time and -despite the system showing some legs towards the end of the game- is something that should get other developers to sit up and take notice.
En’s quest for redemption brings her to an opulent, deserted palace that quickly turns into a labyrinth filled with more questions than answers. The first hour of the game is a slow, almost off-putting walk with little to liven things up other than Rose Leslie’s solid voicework It seems like a wasted journey, but once En turns the power back on, it unleashes something close to a nightmare. What first appears to be an innocuous tar-like substance turns insidious as it evolves and gradually takes the shape of En, stumbling and shuffling after her through the palace’s decadency. It isn’t long until they fully take shape and become almost exact echoes of En and her actions.
The revelation takes shape when En notices the way they mimic her behaviour – an early point in the game sees her walk in water past the murderous Echoes and remain safe, but once the lights go out, they take to the water like homicidal fish. The palace is unstable, regularly rebooting itself, which cannily acts as a way for ECHO to update its gameplay loop. When the lights are on, the Echoes can learn En’s behaviour for the next “cycle”, but when they’re off, they can’t learn anything. This turns ECHO into a delightfully tactical, often heart-pumping affair where, for once in a video game, you can’t wait for the darkness to come.
Almost anything En can do, the Echoes can do too. It’s a startlingly smart system that shows exceptional AI programming, to have enemies habitually learn from the player. It directly impacts your playstyle: ECHO is a game that you can play (nearly) all of the way through however you like. For instance, as one of the game’s trophies suggest, violence begets violence – go on a shooting spree and the Echoes will follow suit for the next cycle, which will then make it even harder for you. It’s a game of so many choices that will leave you with an itchy but almost reluctant trigger finger; an unusual proposition for a video game but one that Ultra Ultra relish giving to the player time and time again.
It isn’t just the violent ways in which the Echoes learn from En’s actions. Small, seemingly insignificant things, such as jumping down from a platform or sprinting can alter the flow and experience of ECHO – I have never been as unsure of opening a door since the original Resident Evil. When the Echoes can walk through what previously befuddled them, it changes their patrol routes unpredictably, so every opened door is almost like cranking up the difficulty level. The “aggressive education” system also has some quieter moments, such as Echoes playing the piano or eating fruit. It’s almost worth triggering as many of them as you can, just to marvel at the AI doing its thing.
There is some respite from the Echoes and their smarts, thankfully. After each blackout, they effectively reboot and enact the stuff they saw in the last cycle rather than accumulating every “lesson” you teach them. So, if you killed a few of them during one cycle, you can go for a more conservative approach in the next by not shooting any of them and they will holster their guns for the following cycle. It’s an ingenious approach that routinely refreshes the gameplay experience, keeping ECHO relatively fresh throughout its ten hour or so playtime.
En isn’t exactly a defenceless protagonist, but she’s pretty close. Her suit inhibits her, preventing her from doing much without significantly fatigue – the suit is a crutch and a curse. When confronted, the options are scarce, typically becoming a pressure-filled of mental mathematics to figure out the best strategy. I usually opted to push Echoes away and tail it, but with a stealthier approach, En can either sneak past or silently take Echoes down. Her weapons are powered by energy, which can be boosted by pickups around the game’s twisty structures and also increased with stones dotted around. Gunplay is restricted to a few shots, which can temporarily kill Echoes before the next cycle when they are “reborn”. Much like En can’t escape her past, she also can’t escape herself.
The unique hook of Echo’s gameplay is enough to make it an easy recommendation, but Echo is a flawed game overall, much like a rough diamond. The team at Ultra Ultra always seem to be working against the limitations of a small-scale project with assets and textures being somewhat basic; animations don’t feel fully-realised and as if they’re almost missing a frame here and there. En’s movement is choppy and unrefined; going up and down stairs just looks all kinds of off. The characters models (or model, singular) leave a lot to be desired, lacking character or visual flourish to make En truly memorable.
ECHO also suffers from a few performance issues on PS4. Framerate stutters and freezes are frequent and particularly so towards the game’s latter stages – hardly ideal when the the game’s at its most testing. Long loading screens are also to be expected after death, so it might be a good idea to catch up on some emails on your phone while you wait. Weirdly, I also experienced a bug in my playthrough after deaths that seems to be only related to me. Instead of consistently showing the loading symbol, the screen would sometimes cut to absolute darkness for long stretches. Unusual, but not ultimately that big a deal.
However, ECHO’s biggest flaw is that it tries to tell rather than show with its story and tell far too much while it’s at it. While the writing is great and the performances to bring it to life are a credit to the voice actors, there’s just so much to unpack in such a short space of time. It’s good to see a patient approach to character development in a video game with En’s and London’s personalities being fleshed out well, but the world they inhabit is too complex and barely explained for you to be really drawn into it.
There’s talk of transcendence, morality, family, secret societies, wars, and much more before you even really get your feet wet with ECHO. Without some kind of aid to visualise what London and En are talking about during walking narrative segments, it was really difficult for me to get drawn in. Perhaps it says more about me as a consumer than it does Ultra Ultra’s storytelling abilities, but it was hard to connect with ECHO’s heart in a meaningful way.
Still, the main appeal of ECHO lies in its captivating gameplay, which was more than enough to see me past any quibbles I might have had. Ultra Ultra have quietly released one of the most innovative games of 2017 and one that routinely surprises and delights – I can’t wait to see where they go from here.
Review code provided
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Even if its storytelling is a little overbearing and its edges far too rough at points, ECHO's exceptional blend of stealth and progressive AI might help it become a cult classic.
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