Played a stealth game recently? I’m talking anything from Thief to Assassin’s Creed here, really – but if it is a recent one, chances are it’s more like the latter than the former. If you have, you might have been in this situation: you’re sneaking around, and suddenly out of nowhere you’re spotted, so you reflexively kill the enemy who saw you and run for cover from the rest. Kind of dumb, right? What’s the point in stealth if you can just fight your way out of any problem? Well, rejoice, true-stealth fans, because ECHO – the debut title from Danish developers Ultra Ultra – does not fuck with that at all.
In ECHO you play as En, a girl on the hunt for something called the ‘Palace’. En does not know quite what the Palace is, nor does her begrudging AI companion, London. Her reasons for seeking it are left equally vague, as ECHO tells its story at a very measured pace, with much of the exposition being left to the player to infer from dialogue between the game’s only characters.
The game opens on En awakening from a hundred year sleep, her spaceship having arrived in the vicinity of a planet which is covered on every square inch in identical, regular white structures. Landing, she and London soon discover that the structures permeate all the way to the core, and it soon becomes apparent that this is the Palace she sought.
However, in trespassing on the structure, En activates the planet’s hibernating systems, and the entire place comes alive, creating strange humanoid creatures who are reflexively hostile to the protagonist. En must navigate the labyrinthine halls and rooms of the Palace’s dense underground layers whilst avoiding death at the hands of the creatures, who begin to take on a familiar guise: each is a perfect physical clone of En herself.
This is a game which quite insistently discourages violent confrontation with your foes. For the most part, your best tool is the suit’s ability to track the location of the clones so that you know where not to be.
ECHO is (as I suggested) first and foremost a stealth game – specifically, a stealth game stripped down to the barest of bones. You won’t find any of Dishonored’s supernatural abilities or Deus Ex’s augmentations here: En starts the game with more or less all the tools she’s going to get, and has to make do with the innate facilities of her suit for survival. To this end, she has a kind of extended spatial awareness field that tracks the status and distance of enemies in a sphere around her, indicated by the colour and size of their markers on the field respectively.
She also has a rudimentary handgun which can destroy as many creatures as a single bullet will hit (the ammunition penetrates as many targets as you line up), though you’ll find yourself using this extremely sparingly as it draws upon the suit’s limited internal battery, not to mention its considerable reload time. Oh, also all the enemies respawn once every few minutes: this is a game which quite insistently discourages violent confrontation with your foes. For the most part, your best tool is the suit’s ability to track the location of the clones so that you know where not to be.
The mechanics are sparse enough to pick up very easily and consistent enough to make this game’s second genre more of a puzzle than anything else. The enemies in the game are able to adapt to some of your abilities under certain circumstances, as the Palace is attentive to your behaviour. Hide a lot, and enemies will gradually know where to look for you; try and sprint past them, and they’ll run faster to compensate. You have to think through your actions carefully and weigh the logic and consequences of your choices before you make them – sounds like a puzzle to me.
That’s the gameplay in a nutshell, but really I’ve not omitted much. It’s very straightforward, and if there’s anything to be disappointed by here its the simplicity of the gameplay given a concept which could have afforded much greater complexity. There’s a whole lot of waiting to do while enemies patrol their given routes, not to mention the time it takes to get your bearings in each new area and in some ways, it feels like only the bits of a stealth game before the fun starts. However, fans of the genre might well appreciate a game that takes it all back to what it’s essentially supposed to be about: outwitting foes that outnumber you and want you dead.
Personally, though, I felt the game’s real flair was in its visual design. The palace itself is beautiful, like the interior of a 19th-century French chateau pulled through an Escher drawing. Opulent marble staircases wind in and out of each other; mezzanines stack upon mezzanines with balconies yawning out into unfathomable drops; glimmering ponds weave their way around Grecian columns in rooms that stretch out beyond vision in all directions. The aesthetic is consistent but always experimenting with itself, taking the beauty of its architectural inspiration and pushing its frontiers in ways that only a video game can.
The palace itself is beautiful, like the interior of a 19th-century French chateau pulled through an Escher drawing.
Additionally, the game’s two characters are voiced wonderfully, starring Game of Thrones’ own Rose Leslie as a precocious, slightly cocky En and voice acting veteran Nick Boulton as the sardonic AI London. Their back and forth is riddled with wit and barbs, but there’s real heart in it that brings the characters to life and makes you that much more engaged with the story being told.
And quite a story it is, too. I was rooting for En while I was playing, even if I wasn’t quite sure what it is she was trying to accomplish in the Palace. The mystery of the setting is rich, brought out by its eccentric and undeniably gorgeous design, and the further En goes into the Palace, the more there seems to be to learn.
If you’ve the stomach for the more unforgiving conventions of stealth games, you’ll find a lot to love here. ECHO is in many ways the quintessential stealth game, giving you the bare minimum tools to get by and leaving the rest to your own intuition and experience against an AI that learns how you like to do things. If you don’t, ECHO might not be the game for you. That said, there’s nothing wrong with knowing your audience, and Ultra Ultra certainly know theirs. For those who’ve cut their teeth on stealth-action titles like Assassin’s Creed (or the games I mentioned earlier) and are looking for something that will really punish mistakes, ECHO is the game you’re after. Just bear in mind that the game is after you, too.
This copy of ECHO was provided by developers Ultra Ultra. Contributor James McCoull doesn’t know what to put in this bit cause the PS4 won’t tell him how much of it he played.