Platform: PC, PS4
Developer: Ultra Ultra
Publisher: Ultra Ultra
TL;DR: A true marvel of AI, offering up sumptuous graphics and gameplay unlike anything I’ve played before
Release date: Out now
Family Friendly? Click here to find out if Echo is family friendly
Every day, we adapt to the changing world around us, and the world seemingly returns the favour. So, why is it then that when people sit down and play games, there tends to be a dominant playstyle no matter what we’re playing? Well, you can forget about that when playing Echo, the debut title from Ultra Ultra. The sci-fi thriller grabbed my attention with its launch trailer back in August; a simple premise that pits your main character En against copies of herself. And after playing it, I’ve been totally blown away by Echo, offering a beautiful setting, truly unique gameplay, and an atmosphere that’ll have you wailing in fear.
What Echo promises in its gameplay has been promised by a lot of titles in the past – truly reactive AI, with enemies that take notice to how you play and react accordingly. Well, the clones of En that you’ll be fighting are certainly that reactive; learning from what you do, and copying it. So, if you sneak around and take out these “echoes,” using stealth, they’ll learn to do the same.
The interesting part of the game comes when you see the limitations of the AI. If they don’t see you do something, then they can’t do it, so if you don’t open a door, they can’t open doors. It’s a mechanic that must have taken a while to perfect – and whilst it isn’t “perfect,” it’s a feature that I’ve never seen done so well in a game before.
The AI changes their behaviour every time the temple you’re traversing reboots. The lights go out and you have about 20 seconds in which anything you do can’t be tracked. In the early parts of the game, these blackouts were truly terrifying; as I was still getting to grips with how the game worked, the time was spent in a frantic escape from a few clones, popping out from behind columns or letting themselves through doors – it was absolutely gut-wrenching. But, once you get a handle on how they learn, those blackouts become your few moments of opportunity.
What’s great about this system is that the fear of those 20 seconds quickly transforms into empowerment; horror becomes puzzle-solving. It’s this ingenuity that shows off the pedigree at Ultra Ultra, with ex-developers of IO Interactive’s Hitman part of the team, the breadth of the gameplay shows off the same inventiveness that the like of Hitman and Dishonored have brought us in previous years.
My only concern for Echo’s gameplay is how quickly the objectives become routine. Throughout the game, you’ll do three things; collect two keys to open doors, collect blue orbs to get to the next floor, and making the journey between these two tasks. This is pretty much all you do throughout the whole game, with only one or two plot-sensitive objectives mixing things up. Such a lack of variety would usually be my main focus, but the variables in gameplay surrounding the objectives make up for the paint-by-numbers tasks to the extent that you’ll very quickly stop caring about it.
Seeing as we’ve already bought up Hitman, a game which received ridiculous amounts of praise for its environment, you’ll be happy to hear that Echo continues this trend in sublime fashion. Throughout the game, you’ll be making your way through two main environments. The first is the planet’s exterior, switching from a vast field of snow-covered towers, and then to the trips you’ll make through the looming darkness as you descend to the next floor of the temple within.
But the true beauty of the game is saved for the tower itself, with a grandiose theme running throughout the entire place. And whilst the game does offer some wonderful visuals, the variety is lacking somewhat. What you see in the opening hour of the game does pretty much cover what you’ll see for the rest of your time.
Whilst it’d be easy to dismiss this decision as a lack of variety, Echo uses the recurring environments to the best of its capabilities, with the layout always changing, meaning that all the repetitive decore quickly becomes a labyrinth. It’s nonetheless gorgeous to look at and strangely, never becomes boring.
And among the brilliant gameplay and almost showy-off graphics is a character with a real sense of intrigue. En finds herself waking up after 100 long years and – surprise, surprise – everyone she knew is now dead. What’s great about En is she’s a bit of a dick – just enough to make her believable as a character. Her arrogance is a wonderful offset to her vulnerability when you control her against a never truly dead enemy. And as the game progresses and she begins to change, I could never decide if I actually believed what she said, given what we learn about her throughout the game.
A lot of what makes her a great character is the lore of the game that’s never explicitly detailed. Instead, there are murmurs of the events that made En the person she is and this is another point that would usually be a let-down for a game. But the way in which Echo is able to give the player just enough information means there’s a curiosity to find out more about En’s world. It’s a wonderful starting point for Ultra Ultra to possibly build on – though if the world is never revisited, then what we see in the game is a lot of unfulfilled potential.
It’s rare that we get a game that can be truly be called unique. I doubt that Echo will get the attention it really deserves this year. But I’d implore you to go and play it, there’s only so much we can convey with words – and Echo is a game that you need to play to really understand. Combining the character personality of something like Horizon Zero Dawn, along with the creativity of Hitman and Dishonored; Echo is a game for anyone who wants the best possible challenge to their natural playstyle, but it offers so, so much more than that throughout.
• The challenge of having to adapt your playstyle at different periods of the game is unlike anything I’ve played before
• En’s a complicated and a very interesting protagonist
• The way the game switches from being terrifying to a mental workout is truly satisfying
• Even though the game looks great, the environments are limited
• The story goes on perhaps a couple of hours too long, meaning there are segments that drag somewhat
• The great looking environments are let-down by the strange, plastic action figure character model of En
Echo is rated 16 in the UK and M for Mature in the US. The game contains mild violence, blood, and scary-ass clones.
Disclaimer: This review is based off a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.