Now here’s what you call a sleeper hit. Smart, unique, and stylish, ECHO is the first game from Ultra Ultra, a team comprised of IO Interactive alumni – the creative talent behind Hitman. At a distance ECHO doesn’t seem to offer much beyond its Versailles-esque interiors and a pair of prominent voice actors. Some twenty minutes into the game and it still won’t click for most people. However, when it does, ECHO reveals itself as a delightfully challenging mish-mash of genres poured into a sleek sci-fi mould.
When it comes to telling a story, Ultra Ultra has taken the best possible approach. Instead of forcing players to digest an entire textbook of lore, ECHO goes in the opposite direction. As lead protagonist, En, you awake aboard a vessel with no idea of what’s happening and why. En is the only character you ever see on-screen, though there’s a constant back and forth between her and London, an AI tasked with helping her. It’s only through their interactions that you begin to learn more about what’s going on, as well as ECHO’s spin on various sci-fi tropes. It’s a fantastic, uncluttered story and one that’s sublimely carried through the voice talents of Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones) and Nick Boulton (Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice).
Settling into the game takes some time thanks to a lengthy, plodding intro that sees you delve into a futuristic labyrinth beneath the surface of some bizarre planet or space station. As you crawl through its industrial tangle of guts, you’ll eventually find what En has been searching for: a seemingly endless and exceedingly opulent complex known only as the Palace.
In contrast to the polished marble floors and exquisite finery, there’s a sickly corruption growing slowly within. On top of that, the power continues to cut out intermittently, adding another sinister dimension. Each time they come back on, En starts to notice human-like forms tear free of the corruption, each one styled in her likeness.
This is equally as important to the gameplay as it is the story. As a stealth puzzler, you’re goal is avoid these “Echoes” while making your way to an objective, navigating each area and duping sentries with an increasing number of techniques. It definitely takes some getting used to and those first few rooms had me scratching my head, sighing out of frustration as En’s clones continued to spot and chase me down.
Then ECHO does something clever by letting you in on its little trick. Those regular blackouts that keep occurring? They play a vital role in the game’s flow. After every couple of minutes the lights will switch off, plunging you into darkness for a short period before the game then cuts to black. As the lights come back on, you’ll notice the Echoes getting back to their feet, exhibiting new behaviours with each “cycle”.
Basically, any actions you take – from sprinting and stalking to shooting and hopping ledges – will be fed into the clones’ AI. Similarly, if you don’t use these actions when the lights are on, Echoes won’t be able to replicate (or will unlearn) them during the next cycle. This constant change in behaviour adds a smart dynamic to the game’s stealth mechanics.
For example, one early segment has the Echoes try and approach you only to stop in front of water. You’ll think nothing of it as you brazenly walk through the stream, seeing the lights dim before another blackout. However, as the lights came up, I saw the Echoes begin to stride across the water towards me, having mimicked En’s previous cycle. It’s scary stuff.
When we talk about puzzle games, we’re used to conjuring up images of pressure pads, moving blocks, or solving some kind of mind-bender. However, in ECHO, it’s this premise of manipulating the AI that becomes the puzzle and it works wonderfully.
Although hardly extensive, En has a varied enough selection of abilities that can help her move around and get out of sticky situations. She also carries a pistol that, while noisy, can tear through multiple Echoes if lined up properly. With each shot eating into her limited resources, ECHO forces you to think tactically during each encounter. Going in all guns blazing simply isn’t an option.
As mentioned before, ECHO oozes with style – the same kind of style that permeates the entire first season of Hitman’s recent reboot. It’s utterly majestic even in darkness, despite the golden abyss becoming a tad repetitive at times.
There’s definitely room for ECHO to improve and expand, but it’s a smashing debut nonetheless. Ultra Ultra has performed a deft balancing act here and one that carefully avoids over complicating things, much to the benefit of the player. It’s far and away one of 2017’s best sleeper hits and we can’t wait to see what the studio has coming next.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4 Pro