A few hours in
Well, I… I did one of those things.
I got Corrin out of the airport, with the help of a woman called Miranda. Then, the lot of us went to a private house to save a woman called Grace. Then, we snuck into a military base, aided by a guy called Syll. Adam was also involved, but we don’t talk about Adam much. Then, we did a whole bunch of other stuff, culminating in… well the end of the game, let’s keep it at that. I did it! I got Corrin to the end of the game, which as far as I can tell does not take place in LAX.
All in all, I’ve probably put four or five hours into completed There Came An Echo. It’s… interesting? Unique, flawed, strange, noticeable. The tech is impressive, the aesthetic is neat, the gameplay is functional, if a little rough around the edges, and the story… but let’s not get ahead of myself.
There Came An Echo’s most prominent selling point is obviously its voice recognition technology. And, as I’ve said once or twice before, I’m fairly impressed with how well the whole thing works. Technical issues on my end aside, command recognition was accurate and direct almost the entire time. I’m particularly impressed with the effectiveness of the custom alias commands: while not all commands work equally well in practice — my ‘all o’ y’all worked alright in the War Room, but it fell apart in the actual field — I’ve called Grace ‘Red’ so many times now I actually have to struggle to remember her ‘real’ name. And what’s the official command for recharging shields again? Is it ‘recharge’? I wouldn’t know. It’s ‘heal’ for me, it will always be ‘heal’ for me, and you cannot convince me otherwise.
There were technical issues on my side, obviously. My headset is a tad hypersensitive, so I suffered from a lot of audio bleed-through. This, in turn, messed up the voice recognition in game sections with lots of noise — say, combat — raising the received audio level to the point where even a light whisper from me prompted a scolding from Val on the importance of being quiet. “You’re a little loud, Sam.” I know I’m a little loud, Val! It’s not as easy as it looks, okay! You try giving tactical commands at exactly the right audio level in the middle of a ten-participant gunfight.
I ended up turning the audio levels way down. No, way down. Like 10% Master Volume way down, and also 15% for music and effects. And even that was still a little loud. It made for some frustrating interactions when the noise from combat messed up my ability to command my dudes — which led to frustration and failure, which led to me getting louderworks, most of the time, but I couldn’t help but feel I was walking on verbal eggshells.
It’s also worth mentioning that my voice isn’t really anything out of the ordinary. The voice recognition technology worked for me, but if your voice has a particular high or low pitch? And I’m also curious how this would work with heavily accented English speakers. But even then, I feel that setting your custom commands ‘well’ should alleviate that. And then setting them again every time you re-launch There Came An Echo, because it seemed to me that the game ate all my custom aliases every time I logged back in. But that may have been a bug.
But segueing back into gameplay territory: mechanically, There Came An Echo is something of a systems-light isometric top-down tactical combat game. Built around the voice control technology as it is, the mechanical range of actions you can engage in is necessarily limited to the dozen or so unique verbs you can reliably mix-and-match with names and command adjectives. Move to this waypoint. Shoot at this target. Use this weapon. Take cover. Recharge shields. Revive this person. Zoom out, zoom in, zoom to. All of which can be done via mouse or Intel™ RealSense™, but come on. Come on.
Accordingly, There Came An Echo’s missions are built around the interactions afforded by those verbs. Moving to places and shooting at dudes. The lore and narrative surrounding each mission may be different, but in the end, this is most of what you’ll be doing in There Came An Echo: telling your guys where to go, which gun to use, and who to shoot. Until everyone in sight is shot. Then, they’ll move on a little bit without your help — or involvement, in any way — babbling among themselves, until the next combat segment hits. And then, again, it’s: Corrin, Alpha 5! Miranda, switch to charge gun! On my mark,
Grace Red, move to Brave 2. Syll, heal. Mark!
Some missions mix up the formula a little. One mission introduces a looping time limit, for instance, forcing you to split up the team and keep reminding everyone to activate overrides. Another mission swaps out Corrin and Grace for two turrets — insert joke about equal personality levels here — and throws in a whole lane-guarding mechanic, complete with voice-activated mines.
Later missions add in a light element of weapon- and accessory-equipping. Each soldier can carry one, then two non-pistol weapons and one, then two accessories into battle. Non-pistol weapons drain shield energy — ‘health’ — for improved effects: AoE-attacks, suppressing rapid fire, powerful slow blasts, and the obligatory sniper rifle. Accessories… mostly just juggle the numbers a little.
In theory, a system like this would allow for some interesting gameplay choices. In practice, you can only assign each gun one, then two times, and each accessory once. So if you were thinking about outfitting the whole team with snipers and screws — reasoning, correctly, that the sniper rifle is way powerful and that the screw gun can easily pin down enemies for the kill — tough luck! Someone is carrying those rail guns and charge guns into battle!
My biggest issue with There Came An Echo’s combat gameplay is that I never really felt in control. Even ignoring the audio level issues that made control difficult in hectic situations, it’s still not a game that allows for a lot of finesse. Units can only be moved to and fro waypoints, they won’t shoot on the move, and they’ll happily ignore your order if they think it takes them too close to the enemy. Which, I mean, makes sense from a narrative perspective, but still. And in large enemy groups with one or two special weapons along the identi-mooks, thinking up clever theories is often easier than actually carrying them out. I greatly enjoyed setting up clever flanking and attack plans, seeing enemies lying in wait and working out how to deal with them… but when the shots start flying, any semblance of strategy goes overboard in favour of yelling at everyone to focus-fire on the most immediate target and hoping they’ll actually hit.
For my complaining, though, I felt — playing on Difficult as I did — that most of There Came An Echo’s missions were reasonably balanced. I only had to re-do one or two missions outright, and both of those were on account of mechanical fuckery. But neither did I ever feel like my victory was a cakewalk. More than once, my feelings of ‘I don’t think I can handle another group of enemies’ coincided with the mission ending.
And maybe as befitting such a systems-light game, there aren’t actually many missions to There Came An Echo! A dozen or so in total, I think. I don’t actually know what I think about this: I feel the game’s breakneck pace in introducing new weapons and accessories could maybe have been spaced out a little better. “Hey, these are accessories!” One mission later: “Here, more accessories to choose from!” One mission later: “Here’s more still! Also, you have more guns now!” It’s almost as if There Came An Echo was afraid of outstaying its welcome, gameplay-wise.
Aesthetically, There Came An Echo both looks and sounds neat. The tiny character avatars in particular are really well-done, moving and emoting with convincing body language. Not as impressive a piece of technology as voice recognition, but still worth noticing. And obviously, the much-touted celebrity voice-overs provide a high level of quality to the spoken dialogues. Say what you will about getting pricey high-listers, but at least they know how to voice act.
The environments are pretty too. I don’t really know what to say about that.
So There Came An Echo is technologically impressive, aesthetically neat, and mechanically functional, if bare-bones. Hey, that’s almost exactly what I said at the start of this page! Which, I suppose, leads us inexorably to the fourth one…
There Came An Echo’s story is the dumbest shit I’ve been exposed to in a while. Months, maybe. Maybe more.
Please note that I very specifically use the word ‘dumb’ here. I’m not saying There Came An Echo’s story is poorly written: it features many well-developed characters, doing things in line with their motivations and messing up in line with their flaws. Neither am I saying the story isn’t interesting, on some level, because it certainly kept me playing to the end. But there were several moments, during the game’s many cutscenes, where I had to pause the action to giggle to myself. “This is just the dumbest shit.”
The story starts at the merely wildly incoherent. From humble beginnings in getting Corrin out of his office — running from the unopposed men in black and their mysterious lightning weapons that can’t stop a single car from fleeing — we are rapidly introduced to a whole mess of characters, settings, locations, concepts, and themes. The supposedly uncrackable ‘Radial Lock’ is brought up as the reason why Mystery Villain is interested in Corrin, but it’s never clear why. Miranda is introduced, first as a villain, then suddenly as an ally, as is Adam, a side character the game can never seem to remember is either vitally important to the narrative or comic effect. Then, suddenly, we’re off to rescue Grace, because she knows… something? But she’s out for nonspecific revenge, and thus, so are we. So we’re off to a military base…
In one mission, we meet Syll, a skilled mystery hacker with a British accent who helps us out. Then, one mission later, he reveals that he’s actually an American named Ky. The game treats this as some big reveal, but… dude, I’ve only known you for ten minutes. If you weren’t going to keep that phony name for longer than it takes me to eat a Big Mac — no pickles — why even bring it up in the first place? And, weirdly, even though everyone starts calling him Ky after that, the game’s default alias command is still Syll. It’s displayed in large floating letters every time he’s in a mission, too.
But it’s only once you get to the Tower that shit really starts getting ridiculous. Highlights include: eugenic breeding programs, Neural Reconstruction technology, sudden but inevitable betrayals, people returning from the dead except ‘they’re just echoes’, people that may or may not be AIs, and a stupefying focus on ‘getting the codes’ that hopes against hope to justify Corrin’s presence in the story. And that’s still not the worst of it! I won’t spoil the final super plot twist for you: if you decide to play There Came An Echo for yourself, you deserve the endless fit of laughter for making it that far.
While There Came An Echo’s story certainly has the elements of an interesting tale, it doesn’t manage to tie them together in a non-dumb way. Everything is so rushed, that’s the primary problem: characters and motivations are introduced in one scene and then changed or countermanded in the next, with maybe ten minutes of gameplay in-between. The aforementioned Syll-to-Ky is a good example. Other plot threads, like Grace’s sister and the knowledge she supposedly has, take more of a Jaws approach to things, occasionally poking their fin above the water to remind everyone of their presence before submerging again just as the skeptic mayor checks in. And in the dozen missions, the gang goes through maybe three McGuffins in rapid pace, codes and killers and living-dead wives, never stopping to take a breather and attempt to establish something like an emotional climax before moving on to the next thread.
That the game occasionally throws time-skipping visual glitches at you — weird multi-colour haze, suddenly something else is happening — made me laugh out loud more than anything else. Game, you’re already rushing me through this half-assembled haunted house at thrice the normal speed! Do you really want to draw more attention to the slapdash nature of your plots?
And throughout all of this, the one thing that I really wanted to see explained was never even brought up cursorily:
Why aren’t I Val? Why do I need to be this hollow Sam persona, when there’s already a perfectly serviceable enigmatic know-it-all character that directly interacts with everyone in the story? Almost nobody ever directly interacts with Sam, not even Val, so why are they even here? They’re never not near Val, and Val is never not near the action, so why isn’t Val enough?
I can’t think of any good narrative or mechanical reasons for this. Is it supposed to allow for audience immersion? Because I know conventional wisdom is that you want a blank slate character for this, but there needs to be at least a character. Sam is not a character. Sam is nothing: a name for the NPCs to command the player character around, nothing more. They fill no narrative role, there is no mechanical reason for them to be a separate entity from Val, they’re never used in any significant plot twist. Even at the very end, when Val… well, when a thing happens, Sam is still only the outside observer. Always the outside observer. Why do they exist?
Maybe Sam’s raison d’être is explained in some depth in the very last cutscene. I wouldn’t know: I was too busy laughing, giggling, watching the final set of nonsense play out as my ultimate victory was stolen from me and attributed to my nemesis instead. Can you imagine? Hardest fight in the game, complicated by two bullshit gotcha’s that basically necessitated restarting to get past, and then the game tells me ‘no, even though you ‘won’, it’s actually they who have won this, for all of you’. Which I guess goes to show you how true it is: you can fight like a Krogan, and run like a leopard…
Wait, There Came An Echo is actually a direct sequel to Sequence? Huh. I mean, looking at this video of the final boss of that game, I can definitely see and hear the parallels. Ky, Naia, Mir… the same voice actors, too. I guess that’s the reason Syll goes by a fake name initially? I’m glad I sat through the credits, then, because I would never have picked up on this otherwise — and I once reviewed Sequence for BSoA, too.
There Came An Echo is a strange melting pot of cool technology, neat aesthetic, mildly interesting gameplay, and laughter-inducing nonsense story. If I’d liked it less than I did, a good way to be mean to it would be to call it a very impressive tech demo in search of an actual game. I did like it, though, so instead I’ll say that hope that Iridium Studios managed to parlay their cool voice recognition into a follow-up game that has more mechanical depth and maybe a more sensical story. And yes, that is more or less the same thing. But listen: tone matters, okay.
There Came An Echo can be purchased for 15 bucks on the official site, netting you a DRM-version and likely also a Steam key. It’s a little pricey, as games like these often are, but for There Came An Echo, I can definitely see how the innovation and the production values need that kind of asking price. You can probably divine by now that I have no straightforward recommendation — when have I ever? — but if you enjoy cool tech and yelling at your PC, maybe try this out. At the very least, you’ll get some solid laughs out of it.
Jarenth wishes he’d have remembered to bind the sound of him giggling to specific game commands, beat the game *by* laughing at it. Let him know how well this works for you on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam.