Who Has Control?
A handful of titles have integrated voice recognition into their control schematic, games such as Binary Domain, Project Spark, Ryse: Son of Rome, and a smattering of other Kinect-compatible titles. However, in all instances the voice input is either poorly constructed or an optional novelty that is trounced by more responsive button controls. There Came an Echo effectively challenges the norm by providing a voice recognition system that is not only stunningly accurate, but changes the tone of the game, quite literally.
Yet beyond this impressive control scheme, the rest of the game yields a plethora of contradictions. The story is convoluted with themes of morality, dogma, and the value of life—idealistic concepts that are condensed into a very brief adventure. The gameplay, on the other hand, has the potential to extend the experience and offer a wide range of control to the player, but that potential is withheld by the game’s design to essentially guide your hand too firmly from start to finish.
The story envelops the tropes of near-future science fiction, with obvious influences from The Matrix, both directly and indirectly. The opening scene introduces us to Corrin (voiced by Wil Wheaton), a jaded cryptographer who stumbled into the creation of an unbreakable algorithm called Radial Lock. Mindlessly working at his office desk, he suddenly receives a call from a mysterious woman name Val (voiced by Ashly Burch), with a warning that people are coming for him. You play as Sam, the other omnipresent being alongside Val looking down from above. Where Val provides social depth and emotional support, your role is that of a vocal tactician, commanding Corrin and other characters met soon afterwards like chess pieces.
The plot contorts that of The Matrix, injecting its own ideology on the perversion of mankind’s true existence and the ramifications of genetic engineering. The scenes in between the game’s ten brief missions are loaded with philosophical and subtextual lectures paired with the banter of characters thrust into a partnership yet each with a personal vendetta. The script is rife with prophetic plot twists, though compounded too quickly to induce an emotional response from the player. It’s as if the content of a full-length feature has been crammed into a one-act play.
This is partly due to the missions themselves being paced too quickly. The game opts for a real-time approach over a turn-based system. On one hand, not having the luxury to pause the action and issue commands raises the intensity of each engagement, as you calmly but quickly issue your characters to recharge shields, switch weapons, focus on specific enemies, and move to predetermined locations on the map. On the other hand, the isometric display can only contain a specific amount of the map, making instances where the team gets separated a strategic hindrance in real-time. It doesn’t help that the camera shifts around during conversations, and seems to enjoy zooming in on the characters during these scenes without returning to your advantageous zoomed out view afterwards.
The game also takes away a measure of your freedom by only allowing you to move to designated locations, marked using the NATO phonetic alphabet (i.e. Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, and Foxtrot). These movement points are for tactical purposes only, stripping away the potential to search rooms and interact with the environment outside the scripted story. User created checkpoints could have allowed the player to create their own strategy, possibly providing alternate methods of achieving the mission’s goal. There are also no tangible rewards for your success. Enemies cannot be looted, no experience or currency is acquired, and weapon and accessory slots on the party loadout screen are unlocked simply by progressing through the story.
Despite the shortcomings of the story and gameplay, the voice recognition in There Came and Echo is absolutely stunning. Your vocal navigation can begin directly at the title screen, testing out the responsiveness by audibly scanning through all the options screens. I sifted through my collection of American and European accents in an attempt to stump the system, but apart from some egregiously drawling dialects, the game has accurately accepted my commands. In the heat of battle, as long as you remain calm, speak clearly, and don’t shout, you’ll have your squad obeying every command. Something as complex as, “On Mark 1 Miranda move to Echo 13 and focus on [enemy] 6” is followed by a compliance from the character. The game offers you traditional controls, opening a radial menu to input commands, but they are far more time consuming. Voice controls are easily the input of choice, and worth a try by even the most devout mutes in the gaming community.
The environments are mostly sterile in design, but that is more a stylistic choice based on the technology-centric backdrop. Structures and character models lack fine detailing, but are colored in a crisp pattern of metallic blues, green, and reds. The interface is very clean, with the important markers on each board easy to discern for quick voice commands. The weapons fire animations can at times be frenetic, making you lose sight of who’s attacking who, but a handy list of recent voice commands is displayed in the top right of the screen as a reference.
The musical collaboration of Ronald Jenkees and Jimmy Hinson (aka Big Giant Circles) is a match made in science fiction heaven. Basking in the bliss of the piano and synthesized orchestration at the title screen in quiet reverence for minutes on end should be expected. The melodies, both subtle and pronounced, effectively deliver the tone of the game that the script pushes too quickly to appreciate. The voice acting from Wheaton, Burch, and the rest of the cast is also well delivered.
Almost two years now since its successful funding through Kickstarter, it’s clear from the game’s design, the celebration video of the entire development team after you complete the game, and my personal communications with game director Jason Wishnov on some of the bugs I discovered during the review process (which were quickly fixed), There Came an Echo is a heartfelt endeavor from a small yet dedicated group. The voice recognition controls are probably the best any video game as incorporated, and certainly recommended over traditional controls. However, the overly abridged story paired with limited gameplay can’t help but mark this venture as a work still in process. I will hope for an initial success, one that can provide the tight-knit team at Iridium Studios the fuel to continually improve this unique adventure. Best of luck to you.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.5 Graphics
Though lacking fine details, the visuals accurately paint a picture of our not-too-distant future. The animations are smooth, yet a little frenetic during the heat of combat. 4.5 Control
Near flawless voice controls are the distinctive feature, which trumps traditional controls in spades. 4.4 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Gorgeous original compositions that capture the essence of the story and the authenticity of technology-centric future. 2.7 Play Value
A story full of high concepts yet too brief to embrace them, and gameplay that needs a larger injection of features and player freedom bring down the game’s value. 3.8 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best