Echoplex Early Access Preview
Over the last 10 years, the bar of quality for puzzle games has been set almost unreasonably high. Entries like Braid, Portal, Echochrome, Fez, Monument Valley and The Witness became icons of the genre, primarily because so many of their contemporaries attempt to imitate them with varying results. This is where Echoplex comes in.
The inaugural title from studio Output Games is a first-person puzzle platformer, and its inspirations are clear from moment one. Much like Portal, your nameless, amnesic character awakes on a gurney in a glass chamber, and an eerie, high-pitched, disembodied voice instructs you to put on a mask before stepping into a gateway at one end of the chamber that looks like an airport metal detector. This gateway leads you to a series of ‘simulations’; puzzles solved by hitting colored switches to open corresponding doors, eventually leading you to a fragment of your lost memory.
After the first few simulations, Echoplex introduces the concept of an ‘echo’, a ghost that appears shortly after you enter a simulation, shadowing your every move. If you get too close to your echo – or, if it gets too close to you, as it effectively chases you through the map – the simulation resets. This ‘echo’ effect is Echoplex’s primary conceit; the title itself refers to a type of tape delay that musicians used in the 1960’s to create a ghostly loop of a musical sequence. On paper, it’s an interesting concept for a puzzle game. Many of the simulations require you to manipulate one or more of your echoes in order to solve them, and the danger posed by any close proximity to them means you can’t stay in one spot for too long.
In practice, however, constantly fleeing your past self often distracts from enjoying the actual puzzles. Many of the simulations are brief and wouldn’t be very complex if given a minute to assess them, but doing so while eluding your echo, while also manipulating your echo in the specific ways the simulation requires, means that a lot of them got solved through rapid-fire trial and error. My grasp on the puzzles’ design logic felt loose at best because I was solving them in a frenzied panic.
In some cases, I solved simulations without using all the switches/doors within and couldn’t tell if the developers intended puzzles to have multiple solutions or if I’d lucked my way into cheating the puzzle after 30 minutes of guesswork. While the initial puzzles in Portal, for example, were designed to be didactic, giving you a baseline understanding of the interplay between mechanics, Echoplex only managed to teach me one thing: never stop running away from your echo. That’s not to say the game is an unenjoyable experience overall: solving puzzles offers a reprieve from the game’s manic state, a sense of relief from solving puzzles that you don’t often get out of the genre. That said, a little more time with each puzzle before my echoes got involved would have done the experience better justice.
I’m the type of gamer that can be compelled to push through frustrating mechanics if the world or narrative is intriguing, and in this aspect Echoplex definitely succeeds. The story is a Sci-Fi mystery told through memory fragments that are revealed out of chronological order. The memories play out as live-action videos, a la Quantum Break, which sets it apart.
“Ultimately Echoplex feels and plays like a combination of creative ideas that don’t quite mesh well together yet.”
I also commend Output for telling parts of the narrative through the game’s extremely minimalist aesthetic: the simulations are made up of block colors, ranging from muted grays and whites to pastel teals, yellows, and reds, and even your character is faceless, a colorless humanoid figure with no distinguishing marks. The sound design also uses minimalism to create a creepy atmosphere, which makes it all the more harrowing when you hear footsteps of your echo trailing behind you. This sterility gives the impression that whoever runs the facility you’re trapped in cares about utility and functionality over beautification, a philosophy that may be shared by Output Games themselves.
Ultimately Echoplex feels and plays like a combination of creative ideas that don’t quite mesh well together yet. The ‘echoes’ definitely add a sense of urgency that a lot of modern puzzle games don’t have, but sometimes the need to best your doppelgänger undermines the enjoyment of the puzzles themselves. With some refinement, the game could have a place among the genre’s best titles, but as it is now, it’s more of a well-crafted imitator.
*** PC key provided by the publisher ***