There Came an Echo is billed as a voice-controlled squad-based strategy game, and it delivers on that premise pretty well. You play the part of Sam, someone who's overseeing the squad in combat, using an isometric view that you can control to get a feel for the battlefield. Then, using actual voice commands (i.e.: talking into your microphone), you give your squad commands in real time.
Commands are relatively simple. Among the commands you can give your squad members are: move to a location (predetermined nodes with labels like Delta 6); switch what weapon they're using; focus fire on a specific enemy; retreat; hold your fire; and so on.
You can also tell them instructions to carry out on your mark. For example, I might say, "Miranda, move to Alpha Two on my Mark. Corrin, Grace, move to Alpha Three on my Mark. Mark." And then bam, Miranda, Corrin, and Grace all move to the locations specified and if there are people to attack in range, they'll do so. You can even set up multiple marks to perform in succession. You can also give commands to "everyone" or "everybody", or "everybody but <name>" and they'll do the right thing.
Below is a 3-minute video from a stream I did of the game going through a couple encounters. You can hear me setting up marks, changing weapons, moving my squad to flank targets, recharging their energy, and so on.
When it all works, it's amazing. It feels really natural and actually quite empowering. The level of immersion it provides is pretty awesome. However, that 5% of the time it doesn't work? Frustrating. A couple of the characters' names don't seem to get picked up very well (Syll, and a 5th character you get down the line that I can't say without spoiling the game), so I often find myself repeating the commands in a more stern tone of voice naturally, and that actually makes the voice recognition worse.
It seems to work best with a moderate, almost conversational tone of voice, which when you're panicking because your team won't listen, good luck keeping calm. On the other hand, losing a fight isn't a big deal--the game will go back to the last autosave point, and they're quite frequent. That kind of mitigation certainly alleviated some of the frustration.
Overall, the experience with the voice control tech was quite positive. Having to repeat the occasional command wasn't that big of an immersion breaker, and frankly I was generally too into the game to really notice it unless it got really bad.
For a squad-based strategy game, the strategy was generally rudimentary, but the building blocks were there for something a lot more interesting. I played on the default difficulty (moderate), and there was a difficulty higher, and one lower.
You end up getting a total of four different weapon types to distribute amongst your four squadmates on top of the pistol each of them has, but you only get two of each type, so you can't just stack your favourite weapon and call it a day. The special weapons also take energy (whereas the pistol does not). That same energy is used for your shields, so if it runs out, you're toast.
So choices: use energy to take out enemies faster in hopes of spending less energy overall, or not. The trick here is the game takes a long-haul view of things. You only have a total of 3 bars of energy for most missions, so once it's gone, it's gone. It's not like Halo where it'll recharge if you're out of combat long enough, which frankly I found refreshing. I miss the long game of planning. Do I bring all of my forces? Or do I leave out one of them because she's low on energy. Do I use the special weapons? Or do I stick to pistols?
On the battlefield itself, you generally have a few set locations to move to, meaning you're relatively limited in those decisions. You usually want to keep yourself in cover, and try to flank enemies to get behind their cover. Relatively standard cover-shooter concepts overall.
Despite the relatively simplicity, I found I personally didn't need much more complexity. Given you don't have a lot of time to be handing out instructions verbally as the game progresses in real time, any more complexity might muddy the gameplay.
The music is top notch. Ronald Jenkees and Great Big Circles are the composers and they're absolutely fantastic. Music is matched up with the scenes and levels in a way that puts emphasis on the right things at the right time. During my two playthroughs of the game, I could not stop gushing over it. Seriously, amazing.
I think Bravely Default is the last soundtrack I had this much praise for. But where Bravely Default is high energy, easy to listen to actively and focus entirely on it, There Came an Echo is a lot more ambient, laid back, background. I can easily put the soundtrack on while I'm doing something else and find myself grooving, but I don't know that I'd spend time really getting into the music and forgetting everything else the way I can for some of Bravely Default's tracks. But in the context of There Came an Echo? It fits perfectly.
The story itself is relatively high-minded. Without getting too far into spoiler territory, similar to Sequence, they address some extremely interesting sci-fi concepts like (sorta) cloning, morality, encryption, freedom of information. Things that honestly might not be sci-fi in the next fifty years. Really good stuff there.
The characters, on the other hand, come off as flat. The only character who shows any growth at all is the first of your squad mates. The rest are quite static. Oh, they're entertaining enough--I rather enjoyed some of the banter--but the game is definitely plot-driven rather than character-driven.
It's a bit of a shame, really, because they managed to snag some pretty high-profile voice-actors: Wil Wheaton, Ashly Burch, Laura Bailey, and Yuri Lowenthal, to name a few (Bonus: Tell Corrin to "Shut Up, Wesley!" in-game. Seriously, it's great). But the characters are definitely not the focus of the narrative.
A special shout-out, though, to one of the characters being gay (and Asian, and religious). It comes up in conversation naturally, where one character asks the other if he has any family waiting for him, and he casually mentions his boyfriend. And it's no big deal; the first character just wonders if he misses his boyfriend, and then the conversation moves on. No fuss, no muss, the kind of casual footnote one would expect to come up in conversation. I was quite appreciative of that moment.
The art style fits the game quite well, and while you can tell the game is low-budget by the character animations and the fidelity of the art, it honestly doesn't really detract from the experience in my opinion. They've done a great job understanding their limitations as a studio and still shipping an excellent-looking game.
Was it worth it?
Okay, it's a bit short. About 3 hours of gameplay, and that's including a lot of very heavy story moments, so less actual gameplay. A total of 10 missions. I honestly wished it were about twice as long. I played through the game twice, though, and still had fun on my second playthrough (especially given some of the earlier pieces of the story foreshadow the end and it all makes sense).
But the game was a blast, it didn't overstay its welcome at all. I think it's a successful use of voice control that we haven't really seen before (note: I said "successful"). If you're particularly hardcore about your strategy games, however, you may want to crank up the difficulty to Hard.
Music was great, story was good, gameplay was fun, and the tech is cool. Portal felt like a steal at $20 despite being a 3 hour game. There Came an Echo feels just right at $15.
#IndieDev, #ThereCameAnEcho, #FirstImpression