Here's a fun game to play – see how many times the word 'empty' appears in this review.
Echo isn’t in a rush to get started. It took comfortably over an hour for the mechanics to require me to do anything other than walk in the correct direction and occasionally press a button when instructed, more than another before it would allow me to use the sprint function. It’s a lonely experience – your only meaningful company being an A.I. voice that the player-character, En, converses with through the suit she’s wearing – a suit that is pretty handily sci-fi in the way that it explains away many mechanical limitations. Echo’s not afraid of being empty. That emptiness, if anything, seems to reflect the point.
This is all quite clever, thematically. In her search for a palace wherein she must attempt to bring a former acquaintance known as Foster back from the ‘dead’, En ends up discovering that said palace takes up the entirety of a planet. After a bit of wandering around on the surface, En finds a way into a wholly uninhabited world of reflective extravagance (an early button prompt literally has her calling out to see if somebody, anybody is around). The art design is beautiful but sterile, and the level design is spacious, full of high ceilings and intimidating stretches of floor-tiles that underpin the general emptiness of it all. Ingeniously, this fully justifies heavy asset repetition. Echo sets out, wisely considering its scale, to tell a personal sci-fi tale with a heavy focus on human identity and behaviours, and while the writing itself isn't the sharpest around, the aesthetic trimmings come close to being consistent home-runs.
And so, yes, you will spend upwards of your first hour in Echo wandering around, first on the outside of the palace trying to find a way in, and then inside the palace having as few more mechanics drip-fed to you. It’s kind of boring, lacking the light-touch direction that the better ‘walking simulators’ can pull off, but also beautiful in its emptiness, its unwillingness to use quick thrills that may undermine its thematic bedrock.
A good deal of this is restricted by En's suit. It has limited power (upgradable through exploration), and that power is required for everything from employing En's firearm to jumping down from a balcony. Ability limitations designed to ensure the journey is tense are all explained away by the suit (she is informed right from the outset that the suit won't even allow her to jump if it deems the fall too dangerous). On the plus side, the entire HUD, from how many energy bars remain, the targeting reticle, and even enemy awareness are all cleverly tied to a sort of projected orb around En's suit, effectively keeping the screen itself free of clutter and aiding basic immersion.
For enemy awareness to be a factor, the palace can't remain unoccupied forever, and thus things inside start to get strange. At first En seems to black out, but soon it becomes apparent that the palace, once lit by nothing more than an intruder's torch is restoring – resetting, perhaps – itself. Blackouts become routine, and with them the lights eventually come to life and decorations become more plentiful.
Eventually, black spots line the floor. A couple more blackouts and they become more numerous and begin to take form, until En is confronted with zombie-like clones of herself, and the gameplay mechanics finally start to kick in. The initial impression is of a stealth game. En can crouch and call out, and these clones are numerous, but not smart, and while firearm ammunition is limited, the ability to trick these puppets and choke them from behind isn’t.
This is all tense, in large thanks to how numerous these mysterious, dim-witted foes are. But things eventually get interesting. To directly quote the game itself “they echo your behaviour.” And just like that, Echo’s title is justified as more than just a cool, sci-fi sounding word. The core conceit to set the game apart is thus: your foes learn from you – use your firearm and they will use theirs; cross some water and so can they.
It is here that the stealth game mindset truly becomes compromised, and panic driven survival horror begins to kick in. These blackouts, initially a beacon of progress, now reset the stage, bringing back any clones that may have been neutralised – and with each cycle, they learn from what you did the previous, and unlearn anything you didn’t do. Throw in the twist that after the lights go out there are a few moments before the reset where nothing is learned and you have a genuinely clever system that encourages players to play against themselves and act recklessly in certain, limited windows.
It wasn’t until one of the clones successfully sneaked up behind and strangled the air from En’s lungs that the full effectiveness of this hit home. Echo’s genius is that every action has to be considered. Sometimes, it pays to be stupid. Stop to play a piano and eat some poison fruit and the following round the echoes will do the same.
By the same token, panicked situations become harsher. Find yourself forced to run around and shoot down a few clones and they won't have to cross a room if they see you after the next blackout.
The downside is also tied to the panic and tension that Echo is very good at creating – clearing a room, strategically taking out echoes one by one isn’t an option. As soon as you take one down, you can bet that a blackout won’t be far behind. Furthermore, for much of the game checkpointing is sparse, and saving even more so. Hit the wrong button or suffer a bit of misfortune and Echo will ask you to replay large sections that were a lot more satisfying the first time around. Of all the flaws in Echo's design, this one stings the most, as it feels the most fixable – reducing saving and checkpointing does help enhance tension, but the frustration it also brings makes it feel truly cheap.
That said, Echo does get more manageable with time. Not strictly because the challenge lessens, but because the mechanics properly start to sink in. Slow, careful caution isn’t always the best approach, blackouts turn out to be a great time to use your limited ammo, and it eventually becomes apparent that crouching only meaningfully affects line of sight. Despite how exceptional En is as a ‘resourceful’, apparently she and her clones have terrible hearing – if you’re behind an echo, feel free to jog.
Echo is a tricky one: its strengths and weaknesses are intertwined. As good as it is at creating its mood, it feels more devoid of choice than it should. There is a lack of diversity on the palace, and those crystal orbs that get introduced as a distraction/weapon all feel a bit conspicuous. The core mechanic of echoing behaviour is clever, both in concept and execution, but it screams out to a desire for more options, more creativity. There are very limited pieces to play with here.
This is somewhat understandable. Echo may be the fruits of the labour of former Hitman devs (and this shows in multiple places), but the team is clearly working without the money of a major publisher. As a proof of concept, Echo is mesmerising, and the introduction of save gates earlier on would do a lot to properly balance the tension and frustration problem. Still, it’s hard not to think how a sequel might flesh out the gameplay ideas. Indeed, one might be narratively possible; En is one of many resourcefuls, and given the game’s scope, the story remains smartly personal – and implement greater variety.
As it stands, Echo may not be one of the best games of 2017, but by being one of the most interesting it has achieved something that will appeal more strongly to the right audience.