Often when covering a game on this column, I can paint a clear line to why a project failed to be a huge success or how some shortcoming undercut it from fulfilling its vision. Ultra Ultra’s ECHO is an exception to that rule, which perhaps is fitting, as ECHO is exceptional in virtually every regard. Despite being made by only eight developers mostly striking out on their own from IO Interactive, ECHO rivals most games of the last two generations in terms of polish, artistry, replay value, and sheer dedication to a singular vision.
A tale of guilt and resurrection, ECHO follows En as she plunges into the depths of an infinite palace full of impossible technology and gorgeous Art Nouveau architecture. Your only companion is your shipboard AI, London, who isn’t desperately keen on En after past recklessness resulted in the death of a mutual friend. The hope is that a box containing your friend’s essence can be resurrected with the technology aboard the palace, but the price of redemption is one of many unknowns.
Rather than mercenaries or aliens, the palace uses its life-giving properties to create an army of clones of yourself, learning from your own behavior, tracking every new action. This is ECHO’s core hook, and it’s deceptively simple in its brilliance. Rather than retaining each of your individual actions permanently, the palace cycles after a set number of actions — everything from crossing water and crouching to firing your gun. When you’ve changed your approach enough, it resets, shutting off the lights while it reboots. During this brief window, you’re free to act without consequence. Even if enemies are giving chase, the reboot resets their state to calm. If you kill an enemy in the dark, they stay dead for the next cycle, creating brief windows of opportunity.
However, you aren’t limited to standard stealth tactics. It’s possible to fool the palace’s clone guardians into giving themselves away and distracting themselves. There’s an achievement for getting four clones to all perform instruments like a big band swing group. It’s possible to cut them off from certain routes at just the right time so that they can’t follow. You can go so far as to make them eat fruit idly, teaching their AI laziness. It’s a wonderfully flexible system that immediately responds to your play style perfectly, demanding adaptation where most stealth games reward repetitious approaches.
The core objectives to each chapter are often rather simple to negotiate. Collect so many items or locate the necessary key to progress. There are also side objectives in the vein of Metroidvanias that let you boost your energy meter. Despite ECHO’s linear nature, you’re free to revisit any level via the chapter select, with collectible progress carrying over. For those interested in ECHO’s gothic science fiction lore, you can discover tuning forks that, if most are activated, unlock additional secrets to the world. While it is a strange and at times mercurial world with far greater scope than one game can do justice, it fascinates with every little detail.
Whenever you’re not being hounded by your doppelgangers, ECHO sees you navigate H.R. Giger-esque tubes between the opulent civilian sectors of the palace. Her suit features a built-in HUD like in Dead Space while looking like it was sewn with the hide of a Xenomorph. The geometry of the world defies reason, with your continually diving deeper yet never hitting bottom, drowning in a sea of marble, gold, and pearl. You’ll cross structures with gaping voids of darkness beyond and monolithic halls vast enough to host giants.
The lighting haunts with a ghostly aura, an unnerving companion and threat in equal measure as you feel the oppressive glare of the palace on your back. As the lights go out and your suit flashlight triggers, the dim blue hue and limited field of view leave you wandering about like the star of a found-footage movie. It’s never quite a horror game, rather dipping into gothic romance as you learn more about En’s past in her world amid interstellar dystopia. Game of Thrones’ Rose Leslie gets you earnestly invested in her quest. Her lonely dialogue with London, voiced by Dragon Age II’s Nicholas Boulton, drips with atmosphere and implication, letting you chew on every line as more twisted halls present themselves.
Cohesive design is something many games struggle with. Often, disparate parts dangle inconsistently, yet ECHO never has this problem. It’s a precision-made feast for the eyes, the mind, and even the ears. It can’t be overstated how refreshingly unconventional the sound design is in ECHO. There’s a positively chromatic build-up to it all, like every sound is hesitating, lurking on the periphery, only to be pierced by the sound of a gunshot. The alert music is a techno-infused rush, sending you frantically darting about as your radar turns crimson in alarm. None of these aspects get in the way of each other; nothing conflicts. It’s a digital symphony that constantly throws new wrinkles your way aesthetically and in new actions you can perform.
Most remarkably, it’s never sluggish in pacing. It’s possible to clear the game in a single sitting, though I highly recommend taking your time, at least for your first playthrough. Save but for a few story moments, the level design is remarkably open-ended, offering exquisite puzzle boxes to piece apart.
I know it may seem like I’m overselling it, but if you ask me, ECHO should’ve been the next Hellblade. It’s the very definition of a “AAA-indie” as coined by Ninja Theory. The reusable assets like a single in-game character model streamline production significantly, allowing for a greater emphasis on level design and gameplay, much like in Monolith’s F.E.A.R. A cast of two actors allowed them to budget quality talent. The maze-like levels and side objectives add replay value, effectively doubling as challenge maps like in an Arkham game.
Rather than cutting corners or otherwise compromising their vision, Ultra Ultra turned every restriction into a strength, guiding ECHO into the game it became. There’s no gratuitous trend-chasing. It’s incredibly refreshing and all the more saddening that Ultra Ultra didn’t last to make a second game. Despite this, like so many one-offs before it, ECHO stands on its own merits as a remarkable gem. I hope more studios continue in Ultra Ultra’s stead and bring more amazing projects like ECHO to life.