I can respect anyone who tries something new. Innovation is a risk, iteration is risk managed. For example, game control schemes haven’t drastically changed in the last couple of decades. Aside from some rather abortive attempts at motion controls, if you’re playing a game, you’re doing it with a mouse and keyboard or a gamepad. There Came an Echo by Iridium Studios is, conversely, a science-fiction strategy game in which you can exclusively use your voice to command units. It’s pleasantly surprising how well this works, but it’s a shame the game doesn’t develop much beyond this proof of concept.

Hunted by a powerful mercenary army and drawn into a web of conspiracy, the main cast consists of Corrin (Wil Wheaton) a cryptographer, Miranda (Laura Bailey) an amoral mercenary, Grace (Cassandra Morris) a vengeful teenager, and Syll (Jason Wishnov) a highly trained soldier with a dark past. In the spirit of the first Starcraft, you play from a narratively first person perspective as the mysterious tactician, Sam. Joined by the equally enigmatic Val (Ashley Burch) you both survey the battlefield from high above, offer advice, and direct your unconventional team of four in battle.

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Around any particular map will stand glowing nodes emblazoned with military phonetic names and numbers. To direct the team to a certain node, the player might say “All Units to Alpha 1,” or “Everybody to Alpha 1.” You can also call out particular units and directions like “Corrin to Bravo 3” or “Miranda to Foxtrot 4.” You can even assign custom names for your units and commands for them to follow. Instead of saying “Corrin to Charlie 4” I could go “Westley get your ass to Charlie 4.”

You can technically control the team manually with the mouse and keyboard, but you have to do it with a clumsy radial menu. The voice control interface works excellently, so there’s not much reason to play the other way anyway. Make sure you don’t have any other recording sources plugged in though. I had a USB webcam that, as far as I could tell, was competing with my dedicated microphone. It wasn’t until after I unplugged the webcam that the game started working properly. In fact, it’s frankly astounding how well the voice controls work: I could tell units to switch weapons, move or fire on my mark, split up, or take cover and recharge their shields, and they understood me perfectly.

Weapon ammo and shields draw from the same energy source, and specialized weapons (machine guns, sniper rifles, grenade launchers) use more of that energy. Consequently, the player has to balance survivability with damage output and proper unit positioning. All of this happens in real time, and as you can imagine, can be quite frantic. If you’re not careful you can get your entire group killed very quickly.

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Anyone who plays strategy games knows that directing units from on high can be a little empathetically disconnecting. In Warcraft 3, do you get all choked up when your sixth group of orcs gets massacred by the enemy player’s towers? Nope! Send in the seventh group! Like in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, your units have a name, a face and a background in There Came an Echo, and consequently you care about them a little more.

Sadly those backgrounds are only relevant from narrative perspective, no one unit possesses any statistical or functional advantage over the other. Corrin the every-geek can – from the word ‘go’ – fire a sniper rifle just as well as Miranda the experienced soldier, and Grace, a waif teen, is just as durable as the barrel chested Syll. The player acquires upgrades and perks for weapons and shields at arbitrary points as the game progresses, but not because a particular character skillfully progressed. Upgrades are like accessories, you can tack them onto anyone.

Ostensibly this upgrade agnosticism is to encourage experimentation and variation when tackling the game’s rather creative missions. One mission has your team sneaking into an enemy base, disabling its alarms and defenses, and taking out a high value target before escaping enemy reinforcements. Another involves evacuating the team’s safe-house within a set time limit, directing two powerful turrets to fire down five lanes of attack, and sniping powerful targets before they reach the base. The only problem is the missions are either too short or too insubstantial. More than a few times I’d really get into navigating my team through the mission, repositioning and flanking groups of enemies, going: “Alright! Maybe in this next room I’ll try- Oh it’s over. Oh.”

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Besides starting another playthrough, there’s only one other way to experience more of the game: After completing There Came an Echo you can go to the ‘War Room,’ a training simulation where you can practice using different weapons and strategies. There isn’t much point to this mode beyond earning achievements however, and the same can be said for replaying the story.

As far as complaints go, ‘I wish there were more of it’ isn’t a bad one to have, but the game’s insubstantiality results in the narrative having less room to breathe. There Came an Echo tries to tell too grandiose a story in too short a time, and wraps things up in a way that’s wholly unsatisfying. The cast’s characterization is skin deep, and their interpersonal relationships are similarly shallow. Furthermore, the game rashly assumes the player is way more attached to certain characters than it has given you any reason to be. Twists, betrayals and deaths were greeted, by me at least, with a shrug rather than any great emotion.

Aesthetically the game is marvelous. Indeed, for what’s ostensibly a low budget, independent game, the game’s demonstrative robustness brings with it a certain expectation of prestige. You’re in a magnificent, believable, familiar world, but energy weapons and shields set the game just a few minutes into the future. The game’s cast does a respectable job bringing their characters to life. Wheaton in particular convincingly plays the everyman; out of his depth but possessing a hidden well of strength and drive.

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Worthy of particular praise, however, is There Came an Echo’s soundtrack. Composed by Jimmy Hinson and Ronald Jenkees, it’s thematically similar to Michael McCann’s work on Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but also harkens back to electronic groups like Tangerine Dream and Vangelis (perhaps with a bit harder edge.) Cool, ethereal tracks and driving synth beats punctuate mysterious set-pieces and pitched battles quite well. It’s a soundtrack worth listening to even when not playing the game.

I just wish that slick presentation could alone make up for the game’s shortcomings. The recently released The Order: 1886 got quite a bit of rather undeserved stick for being too short, and really, this is about the same length. In both cases the real problem isn’t that they’re too short, it’s that both games could’ve been more substantive. There Came an Echo is a game with innovative mechanics, and the beginnings of an interesting story, but in both regards, I wish there were more of it.

 

Review: There Came an Echo
Pros
  • Voice controls work very well
  • Great voice over cast
  • Excellent score
Cons
  • Missions can be insubstantial
  • Plot is inconsistent and obtuse
8Superior