There’s a moment early on in Echo – it’ll be different for everyone, but you’ll know it when it happens – that sparks a genuine fear. As you guide En, a meticulously groomed, almost too-perfect young woman into the depths of The Palace, you’ll realise that you’re lost.
The Palace is a planet-sized labyrinth, identikit baroque rooms becoming one ornate blur as En descends further and further into its abyss. Symmetrical layouts, mirrored walls, and false doors add to the confusion. Did you take a left or a right earlier? Were those stairs there before? Wait, is there no way back up at all?
Then, in the midst of the claustrophobia – how can everything feel so small when you’re in a hollowed out planet? – an endless stream of evolving, unkillable En clones start hunting you down, learning from their mistakes and becoming exponentially more dangerous. You are, quite literally, your own worst enemy.
The ebb and flow of the game’s mechanics keep you constantly on your toes.
Echo is a masterclass in tension, wrapped up in a high concept yet self-contained sci-fi package. It excels in using an indie budget to its utmost advantage, making the repetition of assets that construct The Palace into a key part of the game and its atmosphere. Similarly, the horde of Ens allows developer Ultra Ultra (a new Danish studio comprised largely of talent from IO Interactive) to have only one character model to worry about, but put it to devastatingly good effect.
Most impressively, the ebb and flow of the game’s mechanics keep you constantly on your toes — no mean feat for a small team of creators. As you explore, The Palace shifts through light and dark phases, the ‘echoes’ of En learning from your actions as it does. The twist is that they only learn during the light phase; The Palace can’t observe you in the dark, allowing you to move more freely.
If you rely heavily on shooting, for instance, your enemies will regenerate with guns of their own when the light returns. You’ll have to rethink your approach every time the lights come back on, but can use this to your advantage – they’ll only learn based on your actions in the last phase, letting you prepare and strategise as you go.
Special note too must be made for the writing and voice acting. Echo‘s story is at once a brilliant example of hard sci-fi, with elements of genetic tampering, consciousness transference, and deep stasis space flight to go alongside the planetary excavations. En (Game of Thrones‘ Rose Leslie) and the never-seen London (Nick Boulton) reveal the secrets of this universe in a way that never feels expository.
There are a few aspects that lack polish – En’s general movement speed frustrates, especially in quieter, expansive sections early on, and the animation is a touch blocky – but given its roots, Echo is a spectacular accomplishment. An isolating, creepy, maddening space horror – in the best possible way.