Review: ECHOPLEX (Steam)

ECHOPLEX is a 3D abstract platformer just to my liking. It spent nearly one year in Early Access, before being relaunched as a vastly improved project. If only more Steam titles would follow this example. The fact that it manages to remain original in spite of obvious inspiration from several video games, is truly commendable. As the Steam debut of Output Games, I really couldn’t ask much more from them. Sadly, most surreal games lack in what I would prefer as far as sheer narrative length is concerned. At least there’s an incentive for replaying and it still feels like running through a continuous loop. Just as it was envisioned by the developers all along.

There isn’t much to spoil and I’ll summarize it as a journey of self-discovery along a series of mandatory experiments which conclude quite suddenly. The “Chell” of our story is a male protagonist which only gets named during the credits roll. He’s simply referred to as “The Engineer” and if the aforementioned name rings any bells, than you’ll be pleased to know that there are several other connections to the Portal series. ECHOPLEX’s obligatory evil corporation is Clonochem and you might consider it a cross between Aperture Science and Abstrego Industries, since it deals not only in portals but also in temporal manipulation. A match made in heaven. Or hell, depending on your own perception. Bending time to the point of creating aberrations in continuity itself. It’s no surprise that the masked subjects participating in Clonochem’s experiments, are administered a magenta substance named “ContinuumX1”.

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That color is prevalent across most levels in the game. It’s part of a drugged hallucination, I presume. Yet ECHOPLEX is less about illusions and more about fast-paced platform jumping. Or parkour, if you’re already familiar to the video game formula inaugurated by the Mirror’s Edge series. The first person perspective is still an excellent choice for the breakneck pace within this title. You don’t really have a choice but to run while keeping a close eye on your surroundings. Clones (referred to as “Echoes”) are literally following in your footsteps, while you’ll also be hunted by hovering drones in the late-game stages. The purposely cryptic story is being delivered in “short bursts” as flashbacks between ECHOPLEX’s levels. Naturally, the larger picture only becomes somewhat clear by its bitter end. It wasn’t as predictable as I expected, so that’s another point in favor to this project.

A classic case of a 3D Unity-powered title, ECHOPLEX represents nothing but “smooth sailing” across the board. Stable frame rate, perfect 4K scaling and no interruptions in sight. All glitches witnessed in-game, have been carefully planned. Getting too close to your Echoes or near the time limit that resets the level itself, the image will begin breaking through a pixelated filter. Are you the final glitch in the Matrix? Only one way to find out. The progression is straightforward and symbolism along with chromatic elements, all play their well-defined roles in ECHOPLEX. Cyan, Magenta and Yellow are predominant, along with the classic contrast between Black and White. You may recognize them as the “CMYK color model” which is second in popularity only to the RGB color set. Your printers will surely agree. This small detail further consolidates my theory about the experiments happening inside the subject’s head through a very convincing illusion. Or is it a simulation?

The sounds are perhaps just as weird as the visuals and I’m perfectly fine with that. Since the cutscenes are FMV (full motion video), actors had to lend more than just their voices in ECHOPLEX. Overall, it’s an adequate performance in which gestures replace speech more often than not. So I can’t really judge the voice acting either way. The soundtrack never stood out either, but it certainly didn’t interfere with the gameplay and I could simply focus on figuring out the correct routes through those digital mazes.

Medically-induced hallucinations or computer-assisted simulations? Hard to tell and this ambiguity is part of the charm, I assure you. As I mentioned above the levels resemble mazes which are meant to test out both your patience and quick reflexes. Fortunately, you aren’t supposed to stumble upon the solutions, since by pressing “Tab” you can enter the Premonition mode which allows a thorough exploration of the stage layouts, while the action is paused. It will still require the good ol’ “trial & error” formula of reaching the exit in a timely manner and before the drones can terminate you in a single laser shot. Echoes are used in very creative ways and they shouldn’t be viewed as mere obstacles. From ECHOPLEX’s total of 27 levels, at least half of them involve planned routes which have to take into consideration, the paths taken by Echoes (up to three individual clones, on some stages).

It won’t be a breeze to find those exits, because they must also be unlocked through “puzzle pieces” that shall fit into a hovering cube at the end of each level. Gathering all the keys requires exploration and passing though color coded gates (which in turn lock/unlock same colored doors). As complex a maze, as one can ever hope for. Echoes act as “keys” as well, since they can be programmed to wait within the parameters of a gate, sufficiently long enough until the protagonist can pass through the now unlocked door. I make it sound more complicated than it actually is. Once you get the hang of a stage’s layout, the entire maze can be completed in no more than a minute of perfectly-timed maneuvers. Mirror’s Edge was just as rewarding once you managed to perform those stunts flawlessly. ECHOPLEX applied remarkable gameplay mechanics unto an original story of its own along a minimalist style. The result fits the adage of “Less is more”.

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My only gripe is that it ends far sooner than I hoped it would. Indeed, it still took me nearly four hours, but I’m certain that a perfect speedrun can be accomplished in half of that time frame. “Time Trial” is the final gameplay mode which gets unlocked after you’ve completed ECHOPLEX’s storyline. It can’t fill the void left by the expectation of newer mazes, but it further adds challenge without a doubt. A sequel is in order. Please make it happen, Output Games.

All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.


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