Tuesday, August 30, 2005

ECHO: Secrets of the Lost Cavern Review

ECHO: Secrets of the Lost Cavern PC, developed by Kheops Studio and published by The Adventure Company.
The Good: Original setting, some good graphics, high-quality music
The Not So Good: Frustrating gameplay with some bizarre and nonsense puzzles, tremendously short
What say you? An average puzzle-heavy point-and-click adventure: 5/8

Adventure games, where have you gone? There was a time in PC gaming where the most successful games were adventures, where you walk in the shoes of the main character and follow a story line wrought with exciting exploits. These have given way to adventure games where you shoot people indiscriminately (called "first person shooters") and have replaced puzzles requiring thought with mindless violence and reflex action. ECHO: Secrets of the Lost Caverns tries to resurrect the adventure genre with an original storyline and improved gameplay.

The graphics in ECHO are a combination of computer-rendered cutscenes and 3-D backgrounds that you click on. This is a very old-school way of presenting the game, relied on by software produced before computers could handle full-on 3-D environments. The quality of the backgrounds is very high and appropriately detailed, but it still feels like you are interacting with a slide show and not a complete world. Thankfully, the game is first person, so you won’t see any 3-D people on 2-D surfaces, which always looks bad. The music in ECHO is very well done, and one of the highlights of the game. The background music is appropriately orchestral for the game, and adds to the mood well. The sound effects are less well done (medium-rare?), and are basic and few and far between while you interact with the environment.

ECHO does have an original setting, and I give much credit for that. Most adventure games deal with someone dying and you trying to solve the mystery, but ECHO is set in prehistoric times, and you play Arok, who stumbles across a cave from his past during a routine hunting trip. I’m glad to see some variety in storylines from other games. However, the actual gameplay is where ECHO stumbles some. Most of the gameplay involves searching around every square inch of each screen (which pans a full 360; this just adds to the fun/frustration) for small objects the game wants you to pick up. Some of these objects or clickable areas are very small and difficult to find; you can spend minutes finding a stick in the dark, which for obvious reasons is not very enjoyable. The game is very puzzle-driven, as most of the time you will be sorting, moving, or combining various elements found in the game’s world. You are not left totally in the dark in figuring out how to proceed in the puzzles, as a documentary database lists historically accurate methods of completing various tasks that enable themselves when appropriate. For example, assembly instructions for a spear will tell you which specific objects you need to collect in order to create said spear. While some of these tasks make perfect sense (building a fire, drawing a painting), the methods of completing these puzzles are not always readily apparent, which can result in confusing and wearisome gameplay. A lot of the time, most of the actions in the game will be locked until you retrieve all the needed objects and place them in the right order. If you click on the appropriate area, you will not be told what object you need to get to complete the puzzle, so getting stuck is a common problem. It would be nice if the game helped you along, offering advice such as “pick up some brown pigment” or “animate the painting.” All of the realistic puzzles go out the window when you start to encounter the fantasy elements in the game, and as a result, some of the solutions make no sense at all. Of course, I could just be stupid for not knowing how to reassemble broken tablets or to make slingshots to shoot down stalactites (duh!). I guess I’m just tired of playing adventure games with annoying puzzles that need not be so convoluted.

ECHO is a very short adventure game that harkens back to the days of point-and-click. The story just serves as a transition between puzzle elements, and the puzzles range from the easy to the infuriating. At least some of the solutions make sense, but we still have some answers that only the developers and a select few will successfully complete. Problem is, outside of the unique location, there isn’t much that ECHO improves upon that older adventure games haven’t already done. Credit is due for the music and distinctive locality, but overall, ECHO will probably only appeal to adventure gamers who need a quick fix of clicking some puzzles.