Genre: 3D Platforming
Developer: Outrage Games
Release Date: August 19, 2003
It seems nearly every month some hotshot game developer comes along and claims that their new game will “revolutionize”, “reinvent”, or “reshape” the respective genre of said game. In my experience, the only games that have actually transcended conventions haven’t even fit in a pre-established genre, at least not in the traditional sense of the format. Need I recall the depressing and disappointing Haven: Call of the King, which was touted as the first 3D platform game that would reinvent the 3D platforming genre? Or how about Enter the Matrix, which was hyped up to the point of absurdity and promised to revolutionize the entire videogame industry. And don’t even get me started on the new Tomb Raider game. Why do I associate THQ’s Alter Echo in this run-down of rundown productions? One reason, its developers made some pretty ballsy claims about Alter Echo prior to its release that, like so many promises before, went unfulfilled.
I will say that Alter Echo isn’t a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, and I’ll also concede that it features a couple truly innovative gameplay aspects, but Alter Echo doesn’t reshape the 3D platforming genre any more than Starsky & Hutch will reinvent the driving genre. Inaccurate, misleading claims aside, Alter Echo is a pretty decent, albeit short-lived (at six hours), game.
The story in Alter Echo revolves around a strange and miraculous substance known as “plast.” Plast can be “reshaped” into any form by a special group of psychically endowed people known as shapers. You’ll play the part of Nevin, a seemingly wet-behind-the-ears shaper who sets out to travel to the plast-rich planet of Protos to seek out and destroy a legendary shaper turned diabolical madman named Paavo. Upon arrival you learn that Paavo has, through unexplained measures, transformed the entire planet into a sentient being that is not only aware of its own existence but also bent on ridding itself of the evil Paavo. Thus the planet is your ally, but since Paavo can shape Protos to do his bidding, it (the planet) is also your enemy. Much button-pressing ensues.
Nevin’s claim to fame is a shape-shifting polysuit made of echoplast (sentient plast). In its default form Nevin is able to move around, jump and use a plast sword. As you progress you’ll learn new forms that can easily adapt to your changing surroundings. Switching between forms is as simple as hitting the R1 or L1 trigger button. The first form Nevin will learn is a mech-like structure that allows him to fire a huge mounted automatic gun to kill enemies from afar, though this form is very slow and cumbersome. You can also morph into a stealth-like creature that walks on all fours. The stealth form allows you to turn invisible for short bursts, navigate special nodes and pounce on top of enemies and floating platforms.
The majority of game play in Alter Echo revolves around dispatching hordes of enemies while stringing together impressive-looking combos. Your combo meter will continue to increase as long as you keep pummeling baddies without hesitation, if you don’t inflict damage for more than a few seconds the combo meter will start over. Stringing together different attacks in creative ways will increase your combo meter exponentially. The square, triangle, and circle buttons are all used for different types of attack in default form, though you can sometimes continue combos by working transformations into the equation. You’ll also earn plasm by defeating opponents, which can later be used to upgrade your polysuit or personal statistics.
Aside from the nifty morphing ability Nevin possesses, the other innovation in Alter Echo comes in the form of Time Dilation. Whenever you are surrounded by enemies you can click the R3 button and you’ll be transported to a 2D grid where enemies are represented by icons. By navigating the grid and moving your cursor through enemy icons you’ll effectively do damage to the enemy the icon represents, usually killing them with one hit. This is somewhat challenging at first because you can only move your cursor at a specific time as shown by a meter at the bottom of the screen. The more moves you make the faster the button pressing rhythm becomes. When you complete the grid-based gameplay you’ll be transported back to the actual game and get a front row seat as Nevin cinematically slices his foes. This mini-game also pops up in certain areas of Alter Echo where the surrounding plast must be reshaped in order to progress, though the dynamics in these areas are quite straightforward and simplistic.
The biggest downfall to Alter Echo is its level design. Basically you’ll move from one room to the next in the utmost linear fashion possible, kill bad guys, rinse, and repeat. Occasionally you’ll come across a particularly big area to conduct your business in, but there will still only be one way in and one way out. As simplistic as the structure of Alter Echo’s levels are, and considering the host of possibilities that three distinct forms lends itself to, it’s a bit surprising that the game is so short.
Visually, Alter Echo looks decent, if a little washed out and repetitive. Your surroundings are almost always this purple and yellow motif that looks nice for the first couple hours but then begins to bore. Nevin’s various forms are animated quite well and switching between them is quick and easy, transitions between combo moves are smooth though tend to repeat too often. Sometimes the frame rate will stutter a bit in hectic areas, but it is hardly noticeable most of the time. The sound in Alter Echo is great, featuring original musical scores that run the gamut of electronic, techo, and rock. Voice acting is solid throughout, but the actual dialogue can sometimes seem forced or just out of place.
Overall, Alter Echo is a fun little game that doesn’t manage to deliver on the developer’s promises but does prove to be an entertaining diversion for a half-dozen or so hours. The combat is the best aspect of the game, racking up huge combos and delivering death via the innovative Time Dilation system is big fun. But no matter how you cut it it’s hard to justify a full-on purchase for Alter Echo – its straightforward level design, repetitive scenery, and lack of replay value is a major disappointment.