Enemy AI in video games has been pretty stale over the past few console generations. In most games, enemies walk in the same patterns, do the same things, and act the same way with very little variation. ECHO attempts to remedy this problem with a pretty revolutionary solution: AI that learns from you, the player. While this is ECHO's main draw, at the end of the day, the game ends up falling into many of the same traps it is attempting to expunge from video games. It does a lot right and manages to do many new and impressive things, but its shortcomings are hard to look past, making it a difficult game to recommend.
In ECHO, you play as En. She is the perfect human specimen, created using genetic modifications and representing the pinnacle of the species. However, she is leaving her old life behind to bring her friend back from death. Along with her AI ally, London, she ventures into the heart of an unmapped planet/computer/giant palace in an attempt to resurrect her late companion.
This surface level synopsis really doesn't do the story much justice, however. ECHO's story was a genuine delight to uncover. While the game uses many familiar science fiction tropes, it adds so many original ideas I was quickly drawn in, and it helps that En and London's dialogue was always sharp and that the voice actors did a tremendous job inhabiting these two characters. By the end of the game, ECHO's story was the sole force driving me to reach the end, which is a true testament to how well written and developed it is throughout.
One thing that could have used a bit more touching up was the game's setting. I mentioned earlier that the game takes place in a giant palace-like area. This idea is intriguing and novel at the beginning, but because 90% of the game takes place in this area, it would have been nice for the game to mix it up a bit. Instead, almost every area looks the same. There are only so many times that you can reuse the same assets before it starts to feel overplayed and trite.
However, most people won't be drawn to the story or setting of ECHO, but to the promise of a better, more meaningful enemy AI system. In ECHO, you must navigate your way through rooms filled with echoes, which are exact copies of your character En. They don't just look like you, they act like you too. The palace is a kind of giant computer that records all of your actions during a light period. After you teach the computer new moves, the environment goes dark, and for the next minute or so, you can do whatever you want without having to worry about the enemies learning from you. Then, the environment resets and the lights come back on, and now all the enemies can do any action that you performed during the previous round. This happens over and over, and each time the echoes can only do what you taught them in the most recent light cycle.
In most games, your abilities would normally by your assets, but in ECHO, they become your greatest vices. It's an exciting prospect, and when it works, which is most of the time, it feels magical. I found myself attempting to strategically keep close to objects like elevators and doors so that if I got myself into a pickle, I could escape using one of these means and the echoes wouldn't be able to follow me during that round. However, it was only ever a last resort, which definitely made the game more challenging. Unfortunately, there are a few other things that hold back this system and prevent it from truly being revolutionary.
This system's biggest fault is the fact that you don't have very many moves in your toolkit to begin with. Most of the things you teach the echoes feel unavoidable. For example, I can't imagine how difficult it would be to get through a light round without vaulting over something, crouching, or doing a stealth takedown, let alone an entire level. Therefore it felt like I had no choice but to teach the echoes things like these every round. Part of the draw to ECHO is supposed to be choosing what I will and won't teach the echoes, but at the end of the day, it felt more like me trying desperately not to use my gun or open any doors until absolutely necessary. Sure, this definitely adds a layer of difficulty to the game, but it doesn't feel like the most inventive way of using this new system. ECHO could have been a completely new take on puzzle games, but it ends up being a third-person stealth game with a slight twist instead. It's pretty good at being a stealth game, as this aspect can be pretty tense and rewarding, but it still feels like there was a missed opportunity with the AI system.
However, a lack of mission objective variety also holds ECHO back from being a truly special stealth game. In almost every level, your objective is either to find a couple of keys to open a door or collect X amount of orbs to unlock an elevator. After completing these same tasks over a dozen times, you start to wonder why you're still even playing. This wouldn't even be that big of a problem if there was variety in the environments, but like I said earlier, you play in the same style of level every time. The location of elevators, staircases, and doors might be shuffled around, but it's still basically the same level.
ECHO isn't a technically sound game, either. Constant frame rate drops and screen freezes heavily impacted my experience with the game. Enemies sometimes glitch out, twitching in place when I knew that they were trying to walk forward. You could have the greatest stealth plan in the world, but when an enemy is stuck staring in the only viable direction for you to go, it is incredibly frustrating.
ECHO had a chance to be something we've never seen before, and in many ways, it succeeded. I believe AI that learns from your actions may one day be an entire sub-genre of games, and ECHO is a fantastic first step in the right direction for this type of game. However, in trying to do one thing very differently, the game was forced to make concessions in many other areas, which ultimately cost the overall experience dearly. ECHO's AI learning system is definitely worth the try for any fans of third-person stealth games or games with a bite of challenge. However, if you don't find yourself drawn to games like this, then I have to say that ECHO probably isn't for you.
ECHO tries to reinvent the wheel with its new take on enemy AI. While the game ultimately succeeds in doing so, the end result is having a fancy new wheel on an otherwise mundane sedan. The rest of the game simply doesn't do the enemy AI system the justice it deserves.
- Tense Stealth Elements
- Smart AI Twist
- Original Sci-Fi Story
- Environments Not Diverse
- Technical Hiccups
- Overly Frusturating
- Lack of Objective Variety