Stealth games (and the notorious “stealth section” in other titles, ugh) are mostly based on patterns and how the player overcomes them. Learning the patrol paths, knowing if and when to throw down a distraction, syncing movement to stay out of sight – mastering each means you’ll be able to make your way through, or get you close enough to make a panicked rush towards the exit. Even when a new mechanic is layered on top, you adapt to the new pattern and carry on. Simple. So, what happens when the game mimics the tactics you have been using and decides to use them against you? What do you do when that safe spot you’ve been relying on is gone? Most importantly, what if the game decides to do this when you’re only partway through the level?
That is the heart of the gameplay in ECHO, the sci-fi stealth title from new studio Ultra Ultra.
The story revolves around En, whose goal is to bring someone close to her back from the dead, and an ageing AI named London who constantly questions her every move and intention. Their journey takes them to The Palace, a forgotten installation that is rumoured to contain a way to help En achieve her goal, but when the Palace awakens from its centuries-long slumber – and actively tries to halt their progress – it pushes both characters to question the boundaries of faith and reality.
If you’re the sort that wants to jump straight into the action, the philosophically-charged narrative will make the start feel like a slow burn. It doesn’t help that movement is slowed during the dialogue-heavy moments, especially between levels. However, those wishing to embrace the world building will be met with an intriguing story that is carried well by its voice cast of Rose Leslie and Nick Boulton. While there’s plenty of interpretation to be made, it actively made me want to learn more about the mythical Garden and seek out the hidden collectables (which we’ll go further into later.)
Of course, the star attraction of ECHO is the way The Palace watches the players actions, allowing the echoes – copies of En – that patrol the levels to mimic her actions following a reboot of the world. So, for example, if En starts opening doors, sliding over low walls, or starts firing her gun, the echoes will do the same after reboot, making it easier for them to hunt you down in the next cycle. Oh, and there’s the added bonus of every echo respawning at the start of a reboot. All these elements, along with En’s capabilities, are introduced in a visceral manner thanks to the narrative, but that still didn’t make my first experience of a blackout with echoes around me any less terrifying.
Thankfully, En can do whatever she wants during the blackout phase without fear of being mimicked once the lights return, although only having a small light to see (still active) enemies means it’s not the brief respite you might sorely need. It all adds up to a very clever extension of stealth mechanics, to the point I was constantly considering which moves to use. On top of this, the limited resources at En’s disposal played into account, restricting how many times a distraction can be thrown, or how many shots she can make, or even how far she can fall.
It creates the illusion of an AI constantly trying to outsmart and oppress the player, but it didn’t take long to realise that, in truth, it was simply variations on similar gameplay patterns I had played before. What makes ECHO different to other stealth games is that I was actively trying to think three moves ahead like a game of chess, instead of re-treading the path of least resistance. It forces you to evaluate every move before you execute, so when I did finally outsmart the omnipresent opponent there was a feeling a smug satisfaction.
It’s unfortunate then that repetition does set in over time, with the end-of-chapter levels usually being larger areas with increased numbers of echoes. While the occasional inclusion of save points does help, the checkpoints can otherwise feel punishing when entering a level for the first time. The thing is, I never once felt the game was being overly unfair or needlessly frustrating – I just needed to find a new approach. No, the most frustrating part of ECHO was the moments of degraded performance due to dropped frame rates during busy scenes, and full-on freezes when either entering a new area or displaying a tutorial pop-up. Experiencing it for the first time had me fearing my PS4 had bit the dust, but once I realised the game would eventually resume it became incredibly annoying.
It’s a shame because ECHO is a beautifully presented title. The art direction throughout the Palace may lack variation, but it’s a delight to look at the gold-infused extravagance adorning the walls. It sets the tone of the mythical location and only further adds to the mystery of its intended purpose. Even when the blackouts begin, I wanted to survey the area to take in the beauty. It helps that the minimalistic UI ensured my eyes were always on the action whilst keeping me informed about objectives and resources.
However, in my opinion, the crowning jewel of ECHO is the audio design. Every sound has a purpose to inform the player, be it that a power sun is nearby to add resources, or that an enemy is closing in, or that a blackout is imminent. In later stages of the game, the audio even created a feeling of oppression in the face of increased hostility. Complimented by a delicate reactive soundtrack, the end result is an emotive soundscape that is probably one of the best I’ve come across in recent memory.
And so, we come to the question of longevity. It took me around 7 hours to complete the game, but there are reasons to return. Collecting all the hidden items throughout each chapter reveal more backstory about En’s faith, meaning replayability will depend on how much you enjoyed the narrative. Otherwise, harder modes become available (increasing the hardiness of echoes) after the first playthrough. Ultimately, I’m not sure I’ll return to ECHO, but it’s a sci-fi experience I feel richer for experiencing. It will certainly enjoy a cult classic status thanks to its art direction, but its interesting twist on stealth gameplay loses mystique and charm well before the end. Regardless, what Ultra Ultra have accomplished with their first release is highly impressive for a small team and a hopeful sign of things to come from the fledgeling studio.
- Fantastic art design both in is visuals and audio.
- An enjoyable narrative told through some enjoyable voice acting.
- Its “reboot” mimic mechanic brings an interesting twist to stealth games…
- … but it loses its mystique as the game progresses.
- The heavy narrative during a slow start might put some players off.
- The performance issues on PS4 with frame rates and freezes are annoying.
The Short Version:
While its twist on stealth mechanics eventually loses steam, Ultra Ultra’s debut title is visually stunning and a delight to listen to. If you’re after a sci-fi experience to dive into, ECHO is one not to miss.
Platform: PS4 (Tested), PC
Developer: Ultra Ultra
Publisher: Ultra Ultra