Developed by Ultra Ultra Published by Ultra Ultra Reviewed on PlayStation 4 (Also available on Steam and GoG)
ECHO is the game you get when enough of the internet complains about dumb AI in video games. Almost purely to satiate those voices, ECHO introduces the concept of AI enemies learning from your actions as you play, and teaches you to play in a very calculated and restrained manner; after all, you don’t want to teach the AI too much! You play as En, a genetically modified clone of your grandfather, exploring a long-lost planet full of treasure.
As far as the visuals are presented, ECHO is presented with all the luminosity and high-detail rendering that makes the Palace feel very real…and very empty. All the human-style characters in the world feel very out of place; from their high contrast black space suits and the “untouched” nature of the palace. All of this gives the impression that nothing should be within the halls of the Palace.
As you plod your feet across the tiles, to sliding over tables, to scrambling in a fit of panic, the audio feels very intentionally reverberant: the tall ceilings and stale air naturally echo and refocus sound. Often times, an unseen enemy would be given away by audio cues well before the radar would reveal them. Sounds like these are examples of audio design assisting visual aids. In the same manner, visual aids and vibration functions serve to assist audio cues, aiding those with disabilities as well. As you explore, the music will ratchet up to a slow and constant white noise, only changing from the eerie tones and constant pace only when you get spotted or the lights are about to shut down, and then hiccuping and stuttering when the lights are about to turn back on.
Gameplay in ECHO revolves around the AI learning and unlearning your actions in cycles, marked by the lights turning on, as you explore the Palace deep within the planet. As you progress, the AI does as well, learning to leap from heights, crouching around tall objects, and shooting – but only when the lights are on does the enemy learn. Actions taken during the blackouts don’t teach the AI, allowing you to let out impulsive actions that otherwise would teach your enemies. Careful play often involves not using your abilities to keep the AI less intelligent in the next cycle. Due to this adaptation style, the difficulty of a section may be entirely of your own doing.
ECHO‘s use of story is often to cleverly segue to the next event happening or to pass time in an elevator. En and the computer voice that speaks from the ship often bicker and quip over the goings-on inside the Palace or reveal more of the backstory. Revelations on how the AI enemies are learning from En’s movements in the light feel naturally pondered upon as the two think upon strange things they notice.
Overall, ECHO seeks to take a single concept, high functioning enemies, and refines it to a point. Whether intentional or not, these enemies are frightening: going from stumbling husks to dodging and dashing melee fighters or relentless snipers in the realm of a few decisive actions. From a brand-new indie studio Ultra Ultra, ECHO reverberates feelings of Hitman or Metal Gear Solid games, especially how it rewards thoughtful execution and punish impulsive actions.