In the new stealth video game Echo I'm surrounded by copies of myself, menacingly filling the hallway. There's a door at my back, but I don't want to open it. I raise my gun, but I know better than to shoot.
I think, If only the lights would go off. The enemies close in. There are so many ways out of this situation, but if I take any of them, Echo will use it against me later.
Echo is an excellent, harrowing game by Ultra Ultra, a small studio staffed with several ex-Hitman developers. It's on PC, with PS4 coming later.
You play as En, a young woman investigating a space station known as a Palace, hoping to bring someone close to her back from the dead. The game has a lot of sci-fi exposition, and maybe a cult that En's grandfather started, but it's all a bit confusing. The opening hour is slow, with a lot of talking and walking through dark, empty spaces, and it's easy to zone out.
But once the shit hits the fan, it hits hard.
The Palace is populated by beings En calls Echoes. They are copies of her who form from some black muck in the beginning of the game. As En moves through the Palace, picking up keys or orbs to unlock doors, the Echoes start learning. The Palace moves on a light-dark cycle; when it's light, anything En does is recorded by the station.
Vault over a low wall, for instance, and you'll leave a brief, blurry ghost behind you that means the Palace has logged your actions. After you've performed a few actions, the Palace goes dark, and then reboots. On this round, the Echoes can do anything you did during the last light cycle until another reboot wipes the slate.
Between the light and the reboot is a brief period of darkness. The Echoes won't learn from you in these phases, but they can still kill you.
It sounds confusing, but Echo introduces the concept slowly, and it becomes second nature after a few rounds. That doesn't make it easy, though. Most games give you abilities to overcome obstacles, but in Echo, your abilities are the obstacle.
Every action you perform makes the next round harder. If you run through shallow water to grab that key, you won't be able to keep Echoes at bay as easily in the next round. You can use elevators to sneak around groups of Echoes, but the next round will find them going up and down mindlessly.
They will crouch if you crouch, open and close doors, and hurl projectiles at you. Shooting them will only teach them to use a gun.
Echoes can be distracted with tasks that don't benefit them, like eating from bowls of fruit around the level, which replenish En's health but not theirs. They can activate the game's many collectibles, sparing you a trip.
Sometimes it's funny, but mostly it's terrifying. The first time I peeked around a corner to see an Echo stealthily crouch-walking toward me held a horrifying mirror to my own actions. It's a mind-bending twist on the usual stealth AI, where predictability is key. You know what the Echoes will do on the next round because you taught it to them, but you can't entirely plan for how they will do it.
The HUD tracks enemy placement and if they have spotted you with blue, yellow or red blurs. It can also send out a pulse to locate enemies. It takes a little getting used to, but it's great.
Echo uses the hallmarks of good stealth play against you. Creativity and improvisation are usually the sole possession of the player, weapons against the patterns and limits of the AI. But when anything you do can be done to you in turn, thinking like a stealth player becomes a liability.
In-the-moment calculations have immediate rewards and future risks. In one level, I tried to avoid opening doors as much as possible so I could close off the Echoes in next round, but this meant taking circuitous routes through the Palace's rooms and having to vault barriers instead, which led to a round of Echoes vaulting up behind me.
I ate fruit I didn't need to slow Echoes down, only to find them loitering near my cover spots next time, munching away. The AI isn't that smart, but there are a lot of them, and when they can do the kinds of things usually only a player can do, they can be unstoppable.
Stealth takedowns in Echo are a *terrible* idea. I don't think an NPC has ever done this to me in a game. pic.twitter.com/JHNyysIuHh
— Riley MacLeod (@rcmacleod) September 20, 2017
The brief dark periods before the reboots have been precious and freeing. I race through the dark, giddy with the freedom to do things I take for granted in other games.
I open doors and fire my gun willy-nilly, sprinting for a more advantageous spot in the giant room. Echoes respawn with every cycle, so even killing them is a temporary solution with a dangerous return. I haven't found a way to "game" Echo; the levels are designed such that there's no action you can avoid teaching the Echoes forever.
Every capitulation, every fired gun or stealth chokehold, is a moment of triumph followed by regret. You plan. Your plan fails and you react. You start planning around your reaction. You react to the consequences of your plan.
To make things even more complicated, the actions En can take are limited by an energy meter, which is refilled via white orbs scattered around the Palace. Its capacity can be increased via another set of collectables (there are a lot of collectables), allowing you to perform more actions or jump from greater heights.
Vaulting costs energy; hurling a distraction costs energy; pushing an Echo away from you costs energy. Weighing these practical concerns alongside the Echoes' cycle of learning and unlearning makes every moment tense and tactical.
These Echoes can't get me yet, but that won't last long.
Echo looks like a stealth game, but it isn't quite. It has the chest-high walls and cover you'd expect from stealth, but there are huge open areas and clumped enemy placement that make a total stealth strategy unviable.
Remaining unseen mostly keeps enemies from mobbing you, a good tactic since two interactions with them will kill you. There's no obvious stealth path through the Palace's cavernous, gleaming rooms, lit by glittering chandeliers or candles on tables. You evaluate an area with the eyes of a stealth, action and strategy player in equal measure.
It's stressful, and it's terrifying, but it's exhilarating.
I'm not done with Echo yet, at the end of its third chapter after four hours, and I've been told the game is roughly six hours long.
The story has grown on me, and I've come to relish the slow moments that frustrated me in the beginning because they're a chance to catch my breath and appreciate the Palace free of danger.
Echo is unlike anything I've ever played. I can't wait to be done with it, but I also never want it to end.