Posted on 05 Jan 2018 by L Coulsen


The Defence

Developer: Ultra Ultra
Publisher: Ultra Ultra
Genre: Action, Adventure, Indie, Stealth
Platform: Consoles, PC
Review copy: No
Release date: No data.

The Prosecution

OS: Windows
CPU: Intel Core i3 4340 @3.6 GHz
AMD FX 8350 @4 GHz
VGA: Nvidia GeForce GTX 570
AMD Radeon HD 7870
HDD: 10 GB
DirectX: 11
Controller: Full
Mod Support: No
VR: No
FOV Slider: Yes
FPS Lock: Unknown
OS: Windows
CPU: Intel Core i7 4960X @3.6 GHz
AMD A10 6800k @4.1 GHz
VGA: Nvidia GeForce GTX 780 - 3GB
AMD Radeon HD 7870 2GB
HDD: 10 GB
DirectX: 11
Controller: Full
Mod Support: No
VR: No
FOV Slider: Yes
FPS Lock: Unknown

The Case

Steam Greenlight was not popular, clearly evidenced by the fact it no longer exists. Several games, having gone through the Greenlight process, promised the world, setting themselves up as the killer app to justify its existence. Some of them were even pretty darn good, but nothing ever really hit that “wow” factor that we’ve seen with some Early Access titles. Which brings us to the today’s game, ECHO, from a brand new indie studio called Ultra Ultra. Having made it through the Greenlight process relatively early, it spent a solid chunk of time in development, rather than being shit out for a quick buck. So let’s dive in and see if it was worth the wait shall we?

The Trial

Let’s not beat around the bush here, ECHO is a spectacular game. Beautifully realised, with enormous environments that will just blow you away. But slick, UE4 powered visuals and grand dining halls doth not a good game make. Not on their own at least. Which is fine, because though those may be the most immediately apparent aspects of the game, they are not it’s strongest points. And that’s really saying something, because it’s an absolutely gorgeous game and no mistake.

At its core, ECHO is actually a really simple game. It’s a stealth action, with emphasis on the former but slick enough that the latter is an extremely viable gameplay style should you so choose. You have all the usual tools at your disposal, you can crouch, sprint, make noise and do silent takedowns, all that good stuff. Along with a surprisingly large amount of other actions which is part of where the game really starts to come into its own. You see, unlike most games of its ilk, the AI genuinely, truly does learn from you.

When I say that, I mean it literally, directly learns from your actions. Not some nebulous “it adapts to your playstyle” vague concept. The AI opponents in the game will watch all of the actions you take, and start to mimic them. Which is one of the most genuinely fascinating and most original concepts I have ever come across. Yeah, no shit it’s a gimmick, but dude, it is a damned good one. Ultra Ultra have really embraced it, run with it, and refined it down to a fine art form. Meaning that, in a very real sense, the game is harder based entirely on how you choose to approach it.

See, gameplay takes place in two phases, night and day. During the “day” cycle, your actions are being scrutinised, with the palace itself monitoring what you do. For example, if you shout, open a few doors and sprint, it will log those activities and remember them for the next cycle. Everything you do is stored in, well, think of it like a system cache. It can only store so much data before it has to be purged. But where a PC, or other such device, will simply dump the information and forget about it, the game’s palace will transfer all of that data into the AI enemies.

Gis' a Kiss Lover.

At this point, things shift over to the “night” cycle and all the lights go out. At this point, you can do whatever you want without having to worry about it being turned against you, so it’s a good time to clear out some enemies, because if you get them within about ten seconds before the night cycle is about to end, they won’t respawn during the next day time. Then, during the next day cycle, everything you did the day before, the AI will now be able to do. With the frequency of each action being dictated by how many times you performed it. So don’t worry about firing off a shot or two, because it will take a good four or five before the AI “echoes” do it regularly, and another three or four before they’re any good at it. Still, I don’t advise shooting all that much, but don’t be too worried about it.

That makes it sound a lot more complicated than it really is. Well, I’m sure it is quite complex from a programming perspective, because there are a dizzying number of actions that can be tracked. Literally everything you do is managed individually, whilst certain actions will begin to pair up with others, making for some really fascinating behaviour patterns that make experimenting with the AI something you can easily become completely absorbed in. I mean, you could teach them to shout whilst sprinting then teach them to close doors, but not open them. So they will sometimes chase you to an open door, then shut it in their own face.

Early in the game, before the echoes are fully formed, they start out slow, lumbering and frail. So you can teach them to jump over ledges, then attract their attention in the next day cycle and watch them shamble over, flop over the edge and die when they hit the floor. You can even teach them to eat fruit that will poison them and, it seems, make them move more slowly. Or teach them to play the piano, pick up keys, trigger collectibles…I’m sure you get the point. But it really cannot be understated just how fascinating it can be just playing around to see how you can directly impact the behaviour of the echoes.

Having said all of that, this is not an easy game. It really challenges you to limit yourself as much as possible. You might think it’s a good idea to sneak up and do a stealth takedown, choke out the AI, so that you have an easy time of it. But just think for a second, what you are actually doing is teaching them to skulk around, sneak up behind you, and choke you out. And no, you are not immune to the stealth takedown, if they grab you, you are dead. So the game actually gets harder the more you do, strongly encouraging you to hone your skills to the point where you do, well, pretty much nothing. And believe me when I tell you, that can be incredibly tense, but damn is it rewarding!

I Don't Want Any Double Glazing Damnit!

Thankfully, there are some (often quite lengthy) interim moments of exposition that are a very welcome change of pace between the more intense moments. Forced walking sections that, rather than breaking the flow, become something to look forward to. The first hour of the game is effectively one long, interactive exposition dump, which really should immediately kill the game, but the two leads give such engaging performances and everything is just so damned beautiful, that almost everyone will find themselves being sucked into the unfolding universe. Nicholas Boulton, who also added his vocal talents to Hellblade, is on top form and knocks it right out of the fucking park.

Which is good, because there’s a hell of a lot of dialogue here, with a lot of terms thrown around without any real sense of context. Yet, somehow, even that is okay. We may not know what, exactly, En and London are talking about, and the two actors may not even know, but the writers, and more importantly, the characters know what it all means. The things that are important will make sense, when they need to, whilst the parts that don’t, it quickly becomes apparent that they are immaterial to the immediate narrative. They are part of a larger universe, with a long, rich history that is not relevant to the events within the game, so these tidbits serve the narrative as window dressing…and hopefully hints that there will be further games in the same setting.

There are also several extras, unlockable after finishing the main story. Each of the game’s chapters has a section where you have to collect an increasingly large number of orbs. Each time, you only need about a third of them to progress to the next area, but if you stick around to get all of them, you can unlock one of six easter eggs. Ranging from a really cool red suit for En, to “warpaint” (make-up) and a big head mode. If you couple that with the bodymass option, which will make the echoes really chunky, really thin or both (depending on what you choose) it makes them look like characters from Cyanide and Happiness, and it’s hilarious. A much needed change of pace after how intense the game is. They don’t interfere with progress either, so you can have them on even when you’re working on unlocking the next.

Speaking of which, those orb collecting sections are the game’s one real flaw. Because ECHO uses a check-point system, deaths will reset your progress to…you know how check-points work. They’re pretty well paced for the most part, typically being placed at the beginning/end of a given area. This is fine in most places, because your goal is just to move past and reach the next hall, corridor or whatever. But during the orb collecting, you’re in one big arena and don’t get another until you activate and, more importantly, enter the elevator in the middle. When you have to collect dozens of them, that’s a lot of progress to be lost if you mess up or get ganked.

Sod This, I'm Offski.

To offset this, there are archways scattered about each area that reveal all of the orbs in the area when you look through them, and take a snapshot of your game when you step through. It doesn’t remember everything, like echoes will respawn and doors will be closed, but it allows you to continue from there if something goes wrong, with all of your orbs still collected. So Ultra Ultra clearly knew that check-points were not the best way to approach things, which leaves me wondering why they didn’t just drop them all together, in favour of having archways in most sections to allow players to save whenever they want. They also don’t make it clear that this is even what’s happening, so it was clearly an addition made late on in development. It’s an irritation, but hardly game breaking, though it does add some very unwelcome frustration to an already very tense experience.

The sound design is absolutely spectacular. The balance is spot on, with dialogue always being clear and never, ever drowned out by anything. Incidental sounds are amazing, with a lot of odd whispers of wind and heavy clanging of metal depending on the environment of the time. But the music, dear Gods the music! I adore the music. There aren’t any specific tracks I could point out, because it’s not really structured in a way that lends itself to individual compositions. Rather, everything is designed to flow from one piece straight into another, with layers being added and peeled away as things change, such as increased baselines when echoes are close and more willowy string movements in moments of calm. I love it, I frikkin’ love the music. It cannot be applauded enough.

Okay, first things last. Our protagonist, En, has come to this enormous, moon sized “palace” in the arse end of space, with a tesseract that she believes holds her friend’s soul. We are not told precisely what happened to Foster, only that he died helping her to free herself from her Grandfather, A man who had been training several people, known as Resourcefulls, specifically for the purpose of infiltrating the palace, though to what end is never revealed. En wasn’t too keen on this idea of being a tool for someone else, so she booked it, which was when Foster popped his clogs. But not before he ensured that London, his ship’s AI and seemingly only friend, would accept En as his new captain.

This leads to a great deal of friction throughout the whole game, with much of the interactions between the two leads being some incredibly entertaining banter. With a grudging respect organically developing throughout their adventure, even though London is never fully convinced that their task can even be achieved. There are hints that he is only going along with things because of his programming, because he has to, but there are enough moments of resistance that support the belief that he has grown beyond his initial condition to develop a sense of autonomy. It’s quite subtle, and is in no way the focus of the story, but it does help underscore the narrative’s greater themes of self actualisation.

I'll Just Leave This Here.

Although En’s goal is and always remains the revival of Foster, as she makes her way deeper into the palace, she begins working through all of her resentment towards her upbringing and comes to terms with the fact she was never really the nicest of people. She quite bluntly states that she spent most of her life using people, including Foster, solely for her own ends. Sometimes simply because she could. This is something that is never directly addressed, with no big “eureka” moment as she suddenly becomes the perfect person, but we do see her shift afterwards, beginning to ask London for help, rather than commanding it.

Subtle, organic moments like this are littered throughout ECHO‘s eight or so hours, both in the writing and environment. There is just so much subtext layered on top of itself that I’d be here for days dissecting it all. But really, you should go an experience it all for yourself, because it’s a very personal story, putting me in mind of the works of Team Ico, of all people. Not so much the story itself, but the way it is presented. There’s a firm, clear narrative to lead us from one point to another, but a lot of the minutiae is very broadly painted, deliberately left open to interpretation. Ultra Ultra don’t really want to tell us a story, they are presenting us with a series of events and leaving us to draw our own meaning from them.

Yeah, you could say it’s pretentious and yeah, you’re probably right. But so what? Films, books and what have you have been doing this kind of thing for decades. Earlier still, the oral traditions of peoples like the Native Americans lent themselves to fables and parables that were intended to teach people about the world as well as themselves. ECHO is just a modern day rendition of this kind of storytelling, and it is long past overdue in mainstream gaming. There’s a lot of it out there already, and some of it is really damned good, but video games are still a developing medium, with narrative based games still very much in their infancy. So there’s still a barrier for some people who aren’t quite ready to take these things seriously yet.

But don’t forget, Blade Runner was absolutely panned when it first released as well. It took decades for people to really start to see just how much of a landmark it was. Hell, I’ve long maintained that it’s the most important film ever made, influencing people who’ve never even seen it without them even realising, by proxy of how much it has influenced other people. I’m not saying that ECHO is the video game equivalent, but it could be. It’s a very firm step in that direction, and is a game that will be looked back on in years to come as a landmark moment in gaming history.

The Verdict

Right, I went off on a bit of a self-indulgent tangent at the end there, but there were things that needed to be said. Now let’s peel it back and close this off. ECHO is a great game on pretty much every level. There is nothing that it does wrong, with many things that it truly excels at. Taken purely as a stealth game, it’s competent and different enough to stand out from the crowd, whilst the philosophical undertones are there to be explored and appreciated if you want to dig deeper.

Case Review

  • AI: Experimenting to see exactly what they will do offers engagement for many, many hours to come.

  • Environments: Being a UE4 title, the visuals are gorgeous, but also expertly designed with immense character and absolutely enormous scales.

  • Extras: Big heads and tiny bodies is hilarious.

  • Music: I love the music, I love the music, IlovethemusicIlovethemusicIlovethemusic!

  • Engagement: To get the most out of the game you really have to make at least a small effort to experiment with the AI.

  • Length: Eight hours is hardly a short amount of time, but if you’re not going for the easter eggs, it’s not a huge amount either.

  • Check-points: Frankly, they really should have just scrapped them. They’re not terrible, but they really don’t work in some places.

4.5 Score: 4.5/5
One of the finest moments in video game history, ECHO is a game that will only grow more important with time.


  • Settings: Everything you would expect from a UE4 game. Nothing especially stands out, but there's nothing missing either.
  • Audio: The standard fair, but given how good the sound balance is, there's no real impetus to change any of them anyway.
  • Controls: Full customisation, though a few options have multiple functions. There's a clear influence of streamlining the game to work with console controllers, but there's a small enough pool of necessary actions that it isn't a problem.


4.5 Score: 4.5/5

I remember being very sceptical about ECHO‘s adaptive AI when it was first announced. I thought “how can the AI truly learn and adapt to your actions, it must just be a few on/off switches” and I wasn’t entirely wrong. Yes, the AI only learns certain actions from you – running, eating grapes, jumping over barriers, shooting opening doors, etc. But – and this is important – that doesn’t make it any less of an exciting prospect. The limit on the actions the AI can learn is actually a genius stroke of design rather than a disappointing limitation; because there’s only a handful of things the AI can copy you find yourself thinking very carefully whenever you take those actions. Do I want to open a door? Shoot my gun? Jump over this banister for a shortcut? Or would I rather save those actions for when I desperately need them?

My answer to those questions was “no”. And within five minutes of being exposed to the AI I’d trained them to commit suicide by leaping off a high ledge and spent the next ten minutes laughing at them for having less intelligence than a trained Seal. A couple of hours later though and I soon discovered that those willy-nilly actions had come back to bite me in the arse, I was getting shot, caught, and generally overwhelmed by the AI now parroting my own tactics back at me. It didn’t take very long for me to realise that playing ECHO almost requires meditation on your actions and their possible consequences, and at the very least it requires a constant mindfulness of them. Thankfully, said awareness doesn’t harm the enjoyment of those with short attention spans because every now and then the lights will go out and the clones will drop to the floor and forget everything they just learned, essentially wiping the slate clean and swinging the balance back and forth between you and the AI at regular intervals – how long the balance will stay in your favour is up to you and how much you teach your enemies.

The philosophical nature of the setting and story will be like catnip for anyone who loves that aspect of transhumanism but personally I got a little worn down by the environment, which is very lovely but also very same-y throughout the game. I also found the enemies to be a little boring, because they were just a representation of the consequences of my own actions I felt like they weren’t unique enough to suffer through for more than a few hours. That said, more variety may have damaged the balance and concept. What we got is undeniably a good game and very interesting concept but it may not be for everyone: a certain amount of introspection and philosophical thought is needed to really get the most out of it and you don’t necessarily need to play it to the end to enjoy that.

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