Ultra Ultra's Echo doesn't start off well, as the first hour or so is arduous, slow-moving, even borderline boring, which is pretty surprising, as the game opens and kicks off quite suddenly, in the middle of a conversation in fact. Two characters are interacting and conversing, without any setup or introduction, and that conversation goes straight over our head as a result. They're discussing their upcoming mission, and are referring blatantly to past events, events we know nothing about; this is more than just in medias res.
One of the these characters, En, is a young pilgrim with ashen hair and a strong spirit to boot, and the other is a formless, unnamed machine intelligence. A long journey has finally come to a close at their destination across the stars - a mysterious planet with an extensive subterranean network, which carries the cryptic name "The Palace", presumably built for but not by humans. What secrets are hiding within the bowels of this impressive construct? It took both self-discipline and a good amount of patience for us to find out.
The game's indecipherable and dull opening is sadly symptomatic for the remainder of the experience. There are long sections, for instance, where the player character's already slow-moving speed is reduced by half, so the two characters can exchange their stilted dialogue.
Maybe it would seem inappropriate to delve deeper into the narrative, without even having introduced the rest of the game's various components. The story itself is quite interesting, and contains well-known elements like space travel, life, death, identity, the clash with ghosts of the past - what's here could've easily been lifted from a Stanislaw Lem or Philip K. Dick novel. On paper, it must've looked really good, and even better when one considers that it's Game of Thrones star Rose Leslie who portrays the main character. In reality, however, the finished product is far from a success. The narrative is intrusive, hyperbolic, and so blatant that ended up draining excitement rather than creating it.
Therefore if you choose to ignore the on-the-nose nature of the script, as well as the painful walking segments, then Ultra Ultra's Echo isn't irredeemable. Echo appears, at first glance, as a very average stealth game in third-person, but looks can be deceiving. Or at least a bit. Here, there's no vulgar secretary guards or pale space orcs to kill, no night vision goggles or tranquillizer guns. The game has a single enemy type, but it's one tough nut to crack: yourself.
The palace's many rooms and hallways are rife with aggressive albeit imperfect versions of En, as there's nothing these spiteful doppelgangers would rather do more than twist the neck of our heroine. There's a catch: these clones can only do what En can do. Or rather, their attacks and movement patterns are dependent on the player. The palace power generator will sporadically restart, and with minute-long intervals the level ahead of you will darken, and when the lights return, the echoes have been updated; everything you've done during the power outage will now be used against you.
It's a fantastic idea for a game, and although En isn't exactly helpless, she's no action hero either. She can run, crawl, and stand, and has two different pistols. Ammunition is scarce, though, and these work best in self-defence. She can shove her enemies, but they don't stay down either. The arsenal of weapons isn't huge, and the use of these tools has consequences, so you constantly need to be aware of what you do, and in which order you do them and why. Even something as banal as opening or door or calling down an elevator can end up punishing you when the power comes back on and the mimicking ensues.
Luckily, the copies have the collective memory of a goldfish, and that's why they can only imitate the previous cycle. This creates an experience where past, present, and future are squeezed into a single gut-wrenching moment. What did we do during the last blackout, what are we doing now, and what will we do later? The same can be said for the behaviour of your enemies; what did they do before, what are they doing now, and what will they do in a few moments? The result is a stealth game which puts problem-solving and tactical deliberation ahead of simply stabbing guards in the back. The gun is always the final solution, as when you pull it out of the holster and take down a clone, then you'll be surrounded by gun-obsessed lunatics in a cycle's time.
So yes, it's undoubtedly a cool idea, but the execution isn't without its flaws. The palace's frequent power outages do become annoying; when we say the level is swept into darkness, we truly mean that. Imagine that someone were to unplug your HDMI-cable from your monitor every now and again while you're playing. It doesn't sound too pleasant, does it? Sure, an upcoming blackout will come with a warning beforehand, but it's still incredibly disorientating. This utter darkness is a destructive force for your enjoyment, and it partially destroys immersion and your sense of place.
The monotonous nature of the game's structure also quickly becomes apparent. The challenge most of the time is to get from point A to point B, or gather a particular number of magical glass baubles. Apart from that, it's very difficult to put up a fight once you're properly discovered, and the best solution is often to simply sprint for the target. This is at odds with the intended experience, where you have to make choices with care. Worse still, it seems to us like the game constantly breaks its own rules. We've experienced more than a few times that after the lights came back on, the level was reset. Other times, the positions of the enemies didn't change at all. It makes it very difficult to plan ahead, and it's even worse when one considers that the game was designed with the intention of mindfulness.
There's true innovation to be found in Echo. It's an odd but interesting hybrid of puzzler and stealth game, wrapped in bizarre baroque environments, some cool sounds, and less than ideal voice acting. There's a very special "aha moment" connected to the game's unique echo system that's definitely worth appreciating and celebrating, but for every praiseworthy moment, there's another that pulls you out of the experience. Whatever it may be, whether it's uneven animations, jarring transitions, or head-shakingly horrendous narrative sequences, you get the sense that it just needed a bit more time in development.