Echo review code provided by publisher
All too often the balance of intelligence and just sheer dumb luck in stealth games can seem unfairly weighted towards the player. Whether you’re sneaking past a guard who conveniently has their back to you, or watching with expectant glee as a foe stumbles less than dexterously into a trap you’ve laid previously, few would argue that despite the disadvantage in numbers, it’s usually the player who has ability to ultimately control the outcome of every situation. With a team made up of alumni from Hitman studio IO Interactive, the concept of stealth is one which is well known to ECHO developer Ultra Ultra and it’s with this in mind that they’ve brought something new and fresh to the genre; an enemy that learns and mimics the way you play.
A stealth game that learns and adapts to how you play
Set in a far-flung future, players take third-person perspective control of En, a privileged yet skilled thief, who together with an enigmatic narrator must plumb the depths of a mysterious planet in search of her long missing mentor. Much more entertaining than the distinctly lacklustre writing that makes a poor attempt at world building and an even worse attempt at crafting likeable or convincing characters (a shame given the voice talents of Game of Thrones Rose Leslie), the structure which lurks beneath the surface of the planet, referred to as the Palace, is where ECHO arguably does its best work.
Once players get past the dreadfully slow opening act, a tedious tutorial sequence that is painfully stretched out over 20-30 minutes of narrative exposition and slow walking around the Palace structure (the ability to run isn’t available at this point), ECHO reveals to players the secret sauce that separates it from other stealth efforts, and as it turns out, that revelation turns out to be nothing other than The Palace itself.
In ECHO, the Palace is depicted very much as a sentient machine; a thing that records every action you take and every movement that you make. Where things get even more interesting, is that the Palace reboots itself every little while that in turn triggers a blackout. When the blackout ends and the lights flicker back to life, the enemies in the vicinity update their behaviour patterns based on your actions before the blackout and then use them against you, resulting in a pretty interesting game dynamic to say the least.
For example, a failed attempt to sneak past some enemies that results in you having to open fire on them will come back to bite you in the rear end later, because after the next blackout cycle, those same foes will now be carrying guns and immediately shoot you on sight as a result. Likewise, each blackout cycle not only results in your adversaries mimicking your behaviour, but it also makes them more intelligent and capable too; foes that previously couldn’t walk through water can now do so for instance, while enemies that found the act of opening doors challenging will be flinging them open like there’s no tomorrow.
The flipside to this unique dynamic, is that your enemies (known as Echoes), also unlearn actions from the cycle before too; so, if in one cycle you went guns blazing, but then didn’t in the one after, the AI will unlearn its use of guns and revert back to their firearm-less state. Additionally, when everything has been plunged into darkness in between cycles, the player can act with impunity as the denizens of the Palace are rendered non-aggressive which neatly provides a small window of time to perform actions without fear of reprisal or having them copied by the Echoes. It’s rare to have a game that reacts as tacitly to player agency quite like this.
Nestled alongside the blackout system is a more traditional and far less ambitious energy mechanic that deals with the skills and abilities at the player’s disposal. Every ‘big’ action, whether it’s a leap from a ledge to the floor below, a stealthy takedown of an enemy or the firing of a gun uses one power cell’s worth of energy, and so must be rationed accordingly. Though you can always recharge your energy cells at one-use power stations dotted around the map, or, wait to regenerate up to a maximum of a single cell (with the ability to expand your maximum number of power cells through collectibles), the latter happens very slowly and as such, ECHO demands that players are frugal with their energy cell use in order to be successful.
Exacerbating this is also the fact that, after each blackout cycle, the enemies don’t just get smarter, they also resurrect too; meaning that in areas where you have to travel back and forth, you need to be careful about saving sufficient cell energy to make the trip both ways. As such, rather than the freeform stealth sandboxes of something like Hitman or Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, ECHO’s levels and areas feel much more like tightly-knit puzzles, which if you’ve played fellow indie stealth effort Volume, will seem all the more familiar as you progress through the game.
Ultimately though, the power cell system does come with one rather large drawback; because all of En’s significant actions cost energy to be performed, she doesn’t feel as satisfying to control, nor as dynamic as some of her peers in the genre owing to the artificial cap that prevents what she can and can’t do. More often than not, this results in En being killed because she has run out of energy to shoot, takedown or stun her foes (again, this goes back to the need for restrained energy cell use) and as such, she’s certainly no Sam Fisher or Solid Snake even if, arguably, she’s the star of a more conceptually interesting effort.
Significant mention must also be made of ECHO’s visual calibre too, as Ultra Ultra has leveraged Unreal Engine 4 to render the Palace in a truly sumptuous form. All shiny marble corridors, glass walls and lavishly ornate décor, ECHO simply looks absolutely beautiful and though the finery of its subterranean environments suffer a little from repetition, Ultra Ultra have nonetheless succeeded in creating one of the most visually appealing stealth titles on PS4.
Because we can’t always have nice things, the cosmic system of checks and balances has ensured a slow initial pace, wholly unengaging story and restrictive character abilities all conspire to render ECHO a little less essential than it should otherwise be.
All the same, there’s no denying the sheer ingenuity behind Ultra UItra’s inaugural PS4 title, as the challenge of having to contend with an enemy that replicates your strategies is a wholly fresh one and lends ECHO a real appeal beyond what its genre contemporaries can currently offer.