Learning new abilities is something that players takes advantage of nowadays; progression as reward and reward through progression. It is a fundamental aspect of modern gaming, one that makes us feel safe and confident in our ability to learn new skills. But what if learning something new was a potentially dangerous and even frightening proposition?
ECHO is a stealth puzzle game in its simplest form. Developed and published by Ultra Ultra, a collective that includes ex-IO Interactive staff, the DNA of the Hitman series courses through this indie endeavour, particularly in the use of mechanics designed around manipulating AI.
The story sees protagonist En travel to a remote outpost in search of a lost structure. There she wishes to bring a friend back from the dead - a friend who is seemingly stored in a strange cube. A tense and atmospheric opening introduces us to an opulent, planet-sized palace. The adversarial banter between En and her ship AI, London, fleshes out a vague backstory. As the power begins to come back on, a strange black substance begins to take a humanoid shape. It soon becomes clear that these things are exact copies of En and periodic blackouts make them closer to the real thing in form and function.
ECHO’s unique hook is that the enemies trying to kill you throughout the game get gradually better at it because you're getting better yourself. Starting as shambling zombies, they quickly evolve to match your pace. As the player’s skill set improves, so to do your doppelgangers'. Learn to sneak and they’ll crouch and creep around too; get to grips with a firearm, and sure enough, bullets start flying your way. Each ‘reset’, they rise with a new ability, a new tactic, a new method of dispatch that mirrors your own. It’s with a sense of rising dread that you learn to maneuver the halls of the gilded palace.
Shortly after the clones begin to become a real threat, you come across a large number of them, sectioned off by water. They don’t seem to be able to cross it and there's a brief respite as you sprint through the wet stuff to grab a door key. Cue blackout, reset and suddenly your enemies aren't so afraid of water. It’s an intensely disturbing sequence that perfectly highlights the game's sense of escalating threat.
You can’t stop your own progression, of course. Moving forward requires earning the abilities that your copies will inevitably use against you. But that’s the existential question Ultra Ultra poses: traditionally progression means the end for your enemies, but what if the enemy is your own evolving playstyle?
With the difficulty ramping alongside your own learning curve, it becomes necessary to use your tools and abilities strategically. Sneaking is essential given the sheer number of foes. A threat sensor and audio flourishes keep you alert and scattered cover keeps you hidden.
Your sidearm is powerful, able to disperse close quarters attacks and drop a group of enemies when lined up correctly. Alongside your weapon, a hefty shove and head smashing crystal ball can help prevent or escape a messy clone pile-on. However, all of your abilities are bound to an energy meter, which can be upgraded, but starts off small. Some situations will have you dashing between energy-refilling pylons and taking pot shots at rushing clones, hoping to get to your goal before the next reset.
Outside of playing hide and seek with yourself, the main stretch of the game can at times drag. Getting from waypoint to waypoint becomes samey, especially considering the setting rarely changes. Initially stunning with its ivory and gold architecture, the castle quickly becomes small variations on the same theme. However, despite pacing issues, the game never outstays its welcome. It’s relatively short and designed to be replayed in order to get the most out of its AI sandbox.
The story is intriguing, with a rich universe hinted at in the cryptic dialogue between En and London. But the de-emphasis of plot leaves you free to ponder the situation itself. Much like the Hitman series revels in its artificiality, ECHO subverts the usual virtual killing grounds by making enemies a reflection of the player. Every time the screen goes black, your clones rise from the dead, better equipped to kill you. Why should you be the only one that gets a retry?
A stealth game built on a philosophical concept: fight an army of yourself that respawns better, faster, and stronger based on your own expanding growth. ECHO boasts a rich and well-designed sci-fi world that isn’t bogged down by plot or exposition. There isn’t much to do beyond the core sneaking, and the midpoint drags, but this is a genuinely unique and intense title that deserves to be experienced.