31 Days of Gaming Terror – Day 20: Echo Night

Echo Night
Publisher: From Software
Developer: From Software (Japan)/ Agetec (North America)
Systems Released On: Sony Playstation
Release Date: 08/13/1998 (Japan)/07/31/1999 (North America)

Alexander Lucard:You know, it always amazes me what concepts took forever to make it into video game form. A Super Hero fighting game for example. It amazes me it took that long to get Marvel Super Heroes or even that awful Justice League game. Or maybe the fact we didn’t get a Transformers video game in North America until the 32 bit era. Sure Japan got the horrible “Mystery of Convoy,” but they still got it. It took the Evil Dead franchise until the Dreamcast to become interactive entertainment. So on and so forth. Once of those concepts is simply that of a phantom or ghost ship. Sure we’ve had spooky games since the days of Atari’s Haunted House, but the concept of a ghost SHIP has occurred less times in a video game console than I have fingers on either hand. The best of this amazingly sparse setting is still the first. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…Echo Night

The plot of Echo Night is simple yet elegant. You s the main character Richard Osmond, are awakened by a phone call from the local constable. Your father is dead and you’ve been asked to come to his house. When you arrive, you see that the building has been razed by a fire and you must pick through the charred rubble. Earlier in the day your father had sent you a package in the mail, containing merely a single key? Suicide? Arson? You’re not sure. The key however leads you eventually to a hidden room within the remains where you come across a painting of a spooky ocean liner. Before you know it, you are sucked into the painting, which is revealed to be a gateway to a ship filled with lost souls.

From this point out you have four goals in the game

1) To escape the ship of lost souls somehow
2) To help the good spirits find their way to the afterlife
3) To stay out of the dark where the evil specters who wish you harm dwell
4) To discover what this vessel has to do with your father’s death/disappearance

Echo Night is not a game about cheap scares and gore. It is more akin to the classical ghost stories of the 17th and 18th century, which were the heyday of the Phantom Ship era. Although there are creepy moments and a sinister little girl ghost, the game is more about atmosphere, mood, and originality than any attempt to make you soil yourself in fright.

What I truly love about the game is that while you may be the main character, your attempts to understand what happened to your father are secondary to the 45 stories of the damned souls on board the Orpheus. Each spirit has their own mini story that will be unveiled to you should you attempt to help them. I say attempt, because you don’t HAVE to aid each individual soul in the game to beat the game. You only need to do this if you wish to get the perfect ending. I suggest saving as many as you can, for each story ranges wildly from the last. Some are tragic, some are melancholic, some are even amusing. In the end, the level of story/plot content is as deep as you want it to be. Echo Night ends up being like an anthology of Canterville Ghost like stories in addition to a large overall plot.

Graphically, Echo Night is not a pretty game. Remember that this game came out in the Summer of 1998 in Japan. At first you might think, “Oh, that was eight years ago.” But remember, in 1997, we had Final Fantasy VII, which was visually amazing (and also the only nice thing you’ll ever hear me say about the game). Echo Night is not going to win any video game beauty contests. It look like it should have come out during the first year of the Playstation/Saturn wars, but it came out at the end of the 32 bit wars. This is definitely not a game for the graphics whores, but if you can get buy the fact that it was ugly when it came out, the story really helps to save the game.

There are some quality aspects to the visuals though. The night/day aspects are quite nice and there’s an excellent level of shadow texturing which you really hadn’t seen in many games up until this point. The game may be (really) ugly, but the graphical strengths are where they should matter most in a game that teaches you to be afraid of the dark.

The game plays very much like an adventure game, in that the majority of the gameplay revolves around puzzles to be solved and using items that you find with the environment to trigger effects that allow you to proceed further in the game. But that’s not all there is. Unlike a lot of adventure games, you can die in Echo Night. You can be electrocuted or slain by the angry evil spirits that dwell in the shadows of the ship. The only real defense you have against the villainous undead is to well, run. Run or find light, as the evil ghosts eschew the light. This is where the actual moments of terror come into play, even though the game is not pretty. hearing the giggling of the demon ghost girl as you are trapped in a room with her and the only light switch is directly behind her is a moment of frantic worry. To me, this is how terror games should be. No rocket launchers or M-16 being fired at T-Rex’s or a horde of genetic mutates. It should be one man’s struggle against things the human mind can not hope to comprehend or defeat under conventional methods. But that’s just my preference.

The audio quality of Echo Night is quite nice. The music fits the game perfectly. It’s not spooky or carrying on undercurrent of “Look out! Things are going to get you!” It merely sounds appropriate for a 1913 cruise liner in terms of background sounds. Of course, you’re on a 1913 cruise liner where everyone on board with the sole exception of yourself is living impaired, but that just adds to the creepiness of the game to me. If everything sounds and looks frightening, eventually you will become numb to it as a player. But if you are sitting on a nice relaxing ship with the sun in your face and a nice ocean breeze hitting your skin and mood music is in the foreground of your mind, it makes the going down into the ship where a shadowy being leaps out at you and attempts to sever your connection to the mortal realm all the more eerie and disconcerting. Again, it’s that level of sublimity in plot and mood that allows Echo Night to surpass the visuals of this game.

Echo Night is one of those games that reminds the true connoisseur of monsters and the macabre that gore and cheap scares doth not a good horror or terror game make. Echo Night harks back to the classic style of old ghost stories. And there’s a reason why those things are considered classics instead things like Freddy Meets Jason. The puzzles of the game are easy, and there’s enough interspersion between the adventure style and the survival horror style to keep fans of both happy. The game has a highly original setting with an enjoyable plot that is only enhanced by the first person viewpoint of the game. It may not be the prettiest game out there, but Echo Night was (and still is) one of the most original ghost story video games ever released. It managed to make the greatest hits list over in Japan, but is little known here in the states. Echo Night 2 would eventually be released in Japan only, and was a disappointing haunted house generic romp. The third game, Echo Night Beyond was a fun little game we covered on Day 16, so we shan’t be repeateing it here.

Mark B.: I admit, openly, that I’ve only played Echo Night Beyond. The original game came out before I was really into From Software as a developer, and the second game never came stateside, so by the time I was aware of the developer enough to know that they made good games, Beyond was my only option if I wanted to check out the series. It should be noted, however, that I’m certainly glad I did, and if you have about ten bucks or less, you should too (as you can find the game for around that price, used, at most EB/Gamestop locations).

At its heart, Echo Night Beyond is really a typical adventure game, albeit one presented entirely from the first-person perspective, and one presented entirely in outer space. What makes the game interesting isn’t specifically what it does, but how it does it. The first-person view makes the experience incredibly engaging and helps to make you feel the product more than you might otherwise, but what really makes the experience interesting is the constant need to deal with various ghosts to progress. See, in Echo Night Beyond, most of the folks you meet… aren’t really alive anymore. They might THINK they are, certainly, but almost everyone in the space station is dead, and it falls to you to figure out both WHY they’re dead and what you can do to help them pass on from this life to the next, in order to progress forward yourself.

It’s not that the concept isn’t simple; at this point we’ve seen plenty of games that do something similar in some form or fashion, certainly. Rather, it’s the way in which the game is presented that makes it interesting; Echo Night Beyond, for reasons both easily explained (atmosphere, concept, visual style) and not so (emotional resonance, artistic presentation), is a horror game that everyone who has even a small amount of love for the genre should play at least once, if only because it does horror right.

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