I thought I was going to enjoy Echo, but in the end I bounced off it hard. I wish that was just a bad pun about sound waves, but no, that's what happened. Echo starts off well with shiny graphics and a lot of attitude—even the main menu is slick and suitably sci-fi, with a giant eye that follows your cursor. The intro cinematic is captivating, complete with great voice acting and dialogue that feels natural, never overblown.
But after being enraptured by the first five minutes, I spent the next hour of Echo walking across snowy catwalks while the backstory was hashed out in dialogue. That wouldn't have been a problem if I wasn’t keenly aware that it involved none of the mechanics I was here for. That first hour, it turned out, set the tone for the rest of the game. Echo is beautiful but frequently refuses to get out of its own way.
It's got a great hook. In Echo, enemies choose behavior patterns that mimic the behavior of the player. Levels are divided into discrete 'cycles', which I won't explain in detail to avoid spoiling the story elements that warrant them. Put simply, enemies can mimic any action taken by the player during the previous cycle but are incapable of performing any actions the player avoided in that cycle. It sounds complex and alluring—and it could have been—but in my experience just became a weird game of tug-of-war with the AI.
I could kill an enemy by shooting it, by sneaking up and putting it in a choke-hold, and sometimes by smashing it in the face with a glass ball. If I got into a tight spot, pursued without any sort of obstacle between us, the only option was to take a shot with my gun. As you’d expect the gun is loud, which attracts more enemies, which forced me to shoot more of them.
When I managed to make it out of that situation without dying and into the next cycle, my pursuers learned to shoot back, rather than their typical MO of running straight ahead and face-grabbing me to death. Getting shot is difficult to avoid, but I'd cornered myself. They'd figured out how to shoot, for now, and Echo didn't let me wait out the situation for an entire cycle to rob the attackers of their newfound skill.
Instead of a fluid give-and-take where enemies being able to shoot meant I was encouraged to use a different method of sneaking, I was stuck continuing to duck behind the same walls, no matter how ineffective a method that was for preventing a bullet in my face. It just encouraged me to never use the gun, because doing so could halt my progress in the next cycle. (It's also worth mentioning that Echo has no manual saving, forcing you to complete each section in one go to reach the next checkpoint.)
Echo's level design leans heavily on quantity of enemies over quality—sheer numbers rather than thoughtful placement. The other issue is an imbalance between fight and flight actions. As you'd expect from a game with stealth, you have multiple ways to move around the level, multiple ways to distract enemies, and several different options for movement. What it lacks is multiple ways to hide.
The only way to be unseen in Echo is to be behind something. (There are plenty of somethings in Echo: half-walls, doors, pedestals, and staircases, but every level is built from those same pieces.) It could benefit from a way of hiding that isn't just a big piece of level furniture that blocks line of sight. I even wished for a box to climb in, a haystack to leap into, or some other hidey-hole no matter how trite or borrowed. But there are no dedicated hiding spots, no ability to cloak or disguise yourself, no flashbang grenades, nothing but ducking behind the same marble walls.
I had numerous ways to move about and kill enemies, which those enemies then echoed by mimicking me in the following cycle, but I had no way to adapt to the changing situation with changing stealth. I just kept ducking behind banisters.
Echo feels like it's missing what makes stealth enjoyable. In their finest moments, stealth games are puzzles that demand solving. They teach you how to use and combine a character's skills until you can demonstrate your mastery. They torment you until you have that moment of epiphany, realizing how the game wants you to proceed.
Echo attempts to lead players through the steps of that dance but I found it stomping on my toes with the grace of a pre-teen. It's often best to ignore everything it places in front of you and just run past to the next checkpoint.
It feels unfair to gloss over Echo's admirable atmosphere: beautiful environments, fantastic voice acting and sound design, and a genuinely impressive and integrated HUD. But that's all layered on a half-baked system. Echo's cycles could have made a fantastic stealth game, but it forgets the most important trick: making sneaking fun.