There Came an Echo
Developer: Iridium Studios
Publisher: Iridium Studios
Release Date: 02/24/2015
There Came an Echo started off as a Kickstarter project. The prospect of voice commands seemed a bit spurious at first, though the fact Wil Wheaton was on board from the start was a point of interest (to say the least). Now the complete game is out. Let’s see how the voice controls (the main selling point) and the rest of the game turned out.
The game opens with Corrin, a cryptographer, being targeted by mercenaries after a supposedly unlockable algorithm he designed called Radial Lock. A silhouetted figure named Val intervenes and convinces him to let her and Sam (you the player) help him navigate an escape route. While it’s hard to say too much about the story without spoiling things, there are enough twists along the way to keep you engaged. The plot is tightly paced (even if some elements seem influenced by The Matrix), though it does kind of go a bit off the rails towards the end. The way the plot integrated you directly into fit perfectly with the whole emphasis on voice commands and didn’t come off as gimmicky or hokey. There’s callbacks to Sequence, like the ringtone heard at the beginning beingthis song. Even if you haven’t played it, you can go straight to this and follow along just fine. The dialogue has pop culture references scattered throughout, and the character interactions are interesting enough that I didn’t mind sitting through longer story scenes between battles.
The overall presentation of the game is polished, both visually and aurally. The interface and character portraits are polished. The character models are animated well (you can even see fingers moving when someone’s typing). The soundtrack is a treat for the ears, with calmer tracks being more ambient and the faster paced ones complementing the more intense contexts they play in. There’s also some big names providing the voice acting, such as the aforementioned Wil Wheaton, Yuri Lowenthal, and Laura Bailey. Even the head of Iridium, Jason Wishnov, voiced Byakuya Togami in the Dangan Ronpa games and also has a role in this game.
There’s four control schemes available: keyboard and mouse, controller, an Intel RealSense device, and of course the voice controls. I initially tried using the earphones that came with my iPhone (hey, they work for Skype/Hangouts and, well, my phone), but I couldn’t get commands to register consistently with them. I switched to a different headset, they worked more consistently. When I got the voice commands to work consistently, things went smoothly (and faster than navigating the radial menu). Carrying out coordinated attacks and movements as satisfying to see when they go off without a hitch. However, sometimes commands won’t register for whatever reason and I’d end up resorting to using the keyboard/mouse controls. I tried giving one of the characters an alternate name when it wouldn’t register me saying his actual name, and that character wouldn’t respond to the alternate name at all despite being called that in-game (eventually his actual name registered).
The game was designed for the voice commands, but the keyboard and mouse or controller setups work decently if you don’t have a decent mic (I don’t have a RealSense device, so I can’t comment on that), albeit a little clunky. Right click brings up the radial menu with commands (which change depending on context). You can move units by selecting them (either with the 1-4 keys or clicking on them) and right clicking on the spot you want them to go to. There’s options for different accents as well, so if the game’s not understanding you there’s that option to toggle to see if it helps (I just left it on American English). You can also replace commands with just about anything – well, within the confines of what the voice recognition software will understand. Just for giggles I put in (or rather put back in since it was there initially but got removed in an update) “all the shawties in da club” for “everyone” and “there’s a party at” for “move to”, and it actually worked. As you can imagine, long commands aren’t practical for real time battles, even if they are amusing.
From a gameplay standpoint, all the characters play the same way, meaning no stats or skills to manage. You can differentiate them somewhat by the weapons and accessories they’re holding, but there’s nothing like one person being better with, say, the sniper rifle or charge gun than anyone else. Speaking of weapons, there’s five different kinds: the pistol, which is the basic weapon and everyone always has equipped; charge gun, which is like a grenade launcher and can hit multiple targets; screw gun, which deals little damage but suppresses enemy fire; sniper rifle, which fires strong single target shots but can’t be fired if the person’s being shot at; and rail gun, which fires the strongest shots but consumes the most energy. Each person can eventually hold two other guns besides the pistol. Every weapon except the pistol runs off of energy, so there’s some weighing of risks versus rewards when it comes to switching to another weapon (especially the rail gun). Overuse of the other weapons can leave your character low on health, and they only get two recharges. If a character falls in battles, another character can revive them, but that also costs energy. You can only move characters to designated spots, and while they’re generally workable, it does take away some tactical flexibility. There were times I wanted to have characters move into cover in a certain spot, but the only nearby spots designated were not in cover. A way to designate spots yourself would’ve helped in that regard, but that might not have been feasible with the current engine and how integrated the voice controls were in its design.
You can adjust the difficulty at any time, so if there’s a mission you’re stuck on you can turn the difficulty down to get through it. Given everything occurs in real time rather than turn based, you do need to be able to get commands out (whether through voice or buttons) at the right time. The game autosaves on certain checkpoints, which were well placed enough that even a defeat didn’t set me back much. Even if it autosaved at a point where victory seemed impossible (like, say, everyone being low on health and had no recharges remaining), each mission was short enough that even with restarting it, getting back to where you left off wasn’t overly onerous. Once you beat the game, there’s not a lot to do other than try to clear the War Room. There are little easter eggs to find (try telling Wesley to shut up), but the story is entirely linear. I actually enjoyed the tower defense mission and wish there was an option to do skirmishes like those in the war room. There is a mission select if you want to replay a certain mission without going through the whole game again or if you missed an achievement the first time around.
A game controlled entirely with voice commands isn’t a new idea. TCAE isn’t even the first in a sci-fi setting; before this game, there was Lifeline on the PS2. However, voice recognition technology has come a long way since 2003, and he developers have been working to patch out as many kinks as possible (there’s always a margin of error with any voice recognition just by its nature). I admit I was initially skeptical when I first heard this would be centered around voice commands (I don’t even use Siri on my iPhone much). I enjoyed Sequence and was hoping for more of that, but I was curious on how Iridium would pull this off. I did enjoy what we got in TCAE, even if it was a big departure genre wise. The pacing of the story did make the most of what time it had, and it didn’t overstay its welcome. But it’d be nice if there was more to do after beating the main game, if only to be able to play around with the voice controls more.
Short Attention Span Summary:
While the idea of a voice controlled game might seem a bit odd or off-putting at first, There Came an Echo actually implements them well. The overall presentation is polished, and the music is is a aural treat. There’s also some well known voice actors, like Wil Wheaton and Laura Bailey. However, it doesn’t have much replay value after beating the main game. While you can play through the game even if you don’t have a decent headset or mic, the button controls felt a bit clunky. All in all, though, it was an enjoyable experience while it lasted.