Sunday, May 11, 2008
Ever so often comes a title that deserves praise, but in spite of all it can offer fails to live up to its potential because the reviewer does not get it (instead preferring to work on their daily talk about GTA IV quota). One such title is Japan Studio's (the same studio that brought us LocoRoco and the ridiculously addictive Patapon) latest - echochrome, a gaming that features a deep gameplay and physics over a canvas of simple textureless visuals and geometry.
echochrome's difficulty is often cited as a pitfall, which explains what is wrong about contemporary video gaming journalism. More titles are now willing to hold the player's hands and guide them throughout - something that I view as a disturbing trend. But it does get them 9s and 10s, so maybe people today just can't handle more than people used to. echochrome isn't particularly easy especially the much later and complex levels which were designed to break the player down. Trial and error is part of the game that actually encourages the player to actually plan ahead rather than shooting, or in this case, walking ahead. It can frustrate the player, much like Final Fantasy III's final dungeon can - but we all love the challenge (at least some of us).
As you probably already know, echochrome is inspired by Oscar Reutersvard's art of impossible objects and M.C. Escher's impossible architectural work (though Phil Harrison claimed it was more Rubik's Cube) and is based on the OLE Coordinate System engine developed by Jun Fujiki. Basically you attempt control the movement of a mannequin traversing a series of geometrical planks, to its goal(s). You guide the camera around to change the viewing perspective therefore altering the level to suit the mannequin's need. It can be said to if the player can't see it, then it doesn't exist. For example by hiding a gap with a vertical pillar, the gap ceases to exists. In essence, what may seem like an utterly complex and impassable path can be made passable through manipulating the camera. In gaming terms the closest I can think of is it's like Portal mixed with Lemmings and Crush. Levels are accompanied by a continuous string orchestra that I personally believe to complement the visual style perfectly.
Three game modes are included in the game - Solo, Pair and Others. The simplest of the three is Solo (which happens to be the sole mode included in the US PSN version), where the player's objective to to steer a single mannequin to arrive at it's goals (echos, also known as shadows). In Pair mode, you will have a two pairs of mannequins, one black and the other white. Here you will have to guide the two pair of separate coloured mannequins to meet, creating two grey mannequins. Then you will have to guide both of them to meet each other. It sounds difficult in theory as you can't control the individual mannequins, but is a rather easy mode I reckon. Finally the Others mode have you dodging the others whilst attempting to look for echos. This is by far the most difficult mode and one can see why it was eliminated from the western release. Time limits exists on all modes and you can select the levels and modes individually.
With each new levels come new frustration that at times forces me to switch to something more mundane - like the repeated chores of a certain title where the novelty wore off back in 2003, just to relax myself and quipped - hei I am "still hardcore". The difficulty hurts my brain, but I keep coming back for more. Part of the problem is in relation to the PSP's hardware - like the imprecise analogue pad which needs to be completely overhauled in the next hardware iteration. Also whilst you can't control the rotation sensitivity, you can invert the controls. But once you get through, you will find that your mug bears a satisfied grin that no title can possibly give. Sure, there are no "Achievements Unlocked" message and GamerScores to compare egos with, but it does not matter. You will still come extremely satisfied, and really isn't that enough? The game records the time it takes you to complete each mode and level so at least you will have something to show for all the efforts. Replayability is high as the game offers a Canvas mode that allows users to create custom levels and share them with other echochrome owners.
echochrome has been (wrongly) compared to Tetris, though it falls more along the line of brain teasers titles like Professor Layton. It feels very much like an 'indie' title (yes, I am aware it comes from Japan Studio), and a very sophisticated one at that. Much like other brain teasers like crosswords and Sudoku puzzles, echochrome isn't meant to be played under a sitting, but over many. You will occasionally fail, but have you ever threw away a crossword because it is too difficult? No you attempt at it again. echochrome is an accessible title that deserves great success. Whether or not it does is a different matter altogether and its success greatly hinges on whether Sony can market it well (if at all!) and whether today's modern gamers are receptive of unique games like this. My gut feeling is it won't and that would be a real shame.
echochrome for PSP is now available on the US PSN for a budget friendly US$10 and comes with 56 levels and one game mode (Solo). The PS3 PSN version comes with a completely separate 56 levels. The real meat is however the imported Japan/Asian UMD version where the game comes with two additional game modes and 96 levels. However the forthcoming European version will supposedly arrive with 228 puzzles, so that may be the version to hold out for.