When Half-Life 2 came out, the new AI being able to actually circle around and break through doors to get to you was the wave of the future. Smart enemies who had the power to hunt you down became more and more present in modern gaming, and while guards in stealth games often still seem dumb or inept, we’ve come a long way. ECHO offers something new, an AI that learns and unlearns through your actions as you play. It seems ULTRA ULTRA set out to create something different and by gosh they’ve done it.
You play as En, a lady raised in an odd future cult that believes in a form of reincarnation known as translation. Basically, when you die you translate your essence into a cube, which can then be taken to a secret location where you’ll be brought back to life. A friend of hers, Foster, has been translated and now she’s trying to bring him back with the help of his old partner who basically dismisses this “religion” as nonsense. He guides you from space as you delve deeper and deeper into a mysterious palace lying below a supposedly abandoned mining planet.
There are some incredibly interesting mechanics at play. The palace is essentially the pinnacle of technology, having the ability to rearrange molecules and create life out of thin air. When En enters, she is copied. As she moves forward, the copies come to life as echoes of herself, learning from her actions. However, the palace is old and a touch run down, so it’s constantly rebooting to keep pace with you. Think of it as a sort of day and night cycle that changes with you. If you sprint past or shoot at echoes during the day, they’ll learn how to do the same. At night though, while the palace reboots quickly, you’re free to act without consequence.
“If you like a challenge then ECHO is definitely for you.”
While most stealth games operate around a set of rules you can abuse, ECHO turns that on its head. Now, you create the rules and you need to find ways to push forward while using the fewest moves from your arsenal possible. After all, an enemy who can’t walk through water or shoot at you is much easier to handle than one who can. It takes some experimenting but you’ll quickly get a feel for when to take a chance and when to wait things out. If you really screw yourself over and paint yourself into a corner, stuck against a horde of intelligent En echoes, you can always load and try again. Progress is also saved level by level, so you can start even further back if necessary. There are also multiple difficulties, so those looking for more of a story-centric experience can still enjoy the ride.
Gameplay itself is… odd. In ECHO, often the smartest move is not to play, and I can’t decide if that’s good game design or not. Typically this was a fun – if harrowing – experience that involved a lot more careful planning and thought than I anticipated. The controls feel alright, but your character feels incredibly weak on even normal difficulty. You do gain some new moves as you carry on, but your starting pistol is sort of like a bad internet connection where it’s almost more frustrating to have two shots instead of none. Some of the design feels a bit forced and not realistic, like not being able to finish off enemies while they’re on the ground, but it’s necessary because it would be too easy otherwise. Enemies also tend to reset when there’s a reboot of course, and it can feel frustrating to spend time clearing out a floor only to have them come back. If you like a challenge then ECHO is definitely for you.
Visually this game is incredibly satisfying. While there is a ton of repetition in textures and asset use, it fits perfectly. At first, the self-sameness was distracting, but it quickly ends up helping to immerse you even more. The immaculate golden halls with endless columns and chairs feel natural once you understand the nature of the environment, and when things do change it’s a very welcome break but not jarring. Even scenes that look totally different blend together and never seem out of place. En and her echoes look good, as do the UI and effects like opening doors or shooting your firearm. Simply put, ECHO is beautiful.
For less than thirty dollars, you get a roughly six to eight-hour experience. For completionists, there is a huge abundance of collectibles that do help towards understanding the story and lore. Even if there wasn’t, ECHO would still be absolutely worth every dollar spent on it. It’s not for everyone though, and basically, anyone who doesn’t like stealth games or a challenge, in general, should probably avoid it. While I greatly enjoyed ECHO, this is not the sort of game most people would play to relax or unwind after a long day. It’s incredibly frustrating to screw up halfway through a level and need to restart just to make sure you don’t teach echoes how to shoot or vault over ledges.
“Beating yourself at your own game feels satisfying, and losing yourself feels fair.”
After completing ECHO, I can’t wait to see what ULTRA ULTRA does next, hopefully refining and then incorporating the system they’ve developed for this learning AI. Beating yourself at your own game feels satisfying, and losing yourself feels fair. Now, if they can just make the protagonist feel more powerful but throw in some enemy variety and more complications to deal with that power level, they’ll be set.
***PS4 code provided by the publisher***
- Fantastic AI
- Interesting mechanics
- Absolutely beautiful assets
- Easy to get lost