ECHO: Secrets of the Lost Cavern
Publisher: The Adventure Company
Developer: Kheops Studios
Release Date: July 6, 2005
Buy 'ECHO: Secrets of the Lost Cavern': PC
There is, in my opinion, a shortage of good adventure games on the market. The genre has had some highly successful titles, a few with recognizable names – Myst, Syberia, and the Tentacle games. For many reasons, however, adventure games have never seen the success of most other genres. They are not packed with action, they don't test our reflexes, and they are less than active. What they do, at least those that succeed, are tell great stories and (horror of horrors) make us think. ECHO: Secrets of the Lost Cavern, is an entry into a sparse genre, and offers both a good solid story and fun, inventive puzzles.
In ECHO, you play Arok, a young boy living in prehistoric times. Arok is not your run-of-the-mill hunter/gatherer; he aspires to something more than his next meal and a warm fire. He wants something greater, and we are quickly introduced to Klem, a wise and talented painter. Arok desperately wants to learn from Klem, and so he sets off in search of him, and thus our story begins.
ECHO is a beautifully constructed experience; it is clear from the detailed environments, clever puzzles, and easy interface that the game was well thought-out and designed. Its playability is extremely high; the interface is quick to learn with intuitive, easy controls, and clear instructions intertwined into the start of the story. The first few puzzles do a great job of both introducing you to the story and teaching you how to play the game. The interface is clear and uncomplicated, allowing the player to focus on what is important – the story and the puzzles.
Visually, the world of ECHO is stunning. The game is beautifully rendered in the way that, to date, only adventure games can be. Much like its predecessors, ECHO is organized into a series of "rooms" or spaces; some you merely move through, and some present puzzles that must be solved before moving forward. Because of the lack of freedom in movement, the game can be crafted with special attention to detail, and Kheops has clearly given ECHO extra attention. Each vignette is rendered in gorgeous detail; the art of the game is downright stunning at times, and always satisfying.
The only flaw in the craftsmanship of the game is in a few of the animations. Cut scenes are well done, but major animations while "in game" (for example, a cave lion chasing Arok into a cave) are choppy and badly integrated into an otherwise seamless environment. I was reminded of the old Star Wars movies and the fuzzy squares surrounding the ships and other vehicles. These animations are of lower resolution, and badly overlaid onto the rendered background. Luckily, there are few of these through the game, so they don't detract much from the overall experience.
In addition to the graphics, the sound quality of ECHO is high. It has great environmental sound, adding to the detail and "completeness" of each scene, and background sounds are well chosen to match the surroundings. Likewise, the background music is quite good, consisting of a nice combination of orchestral pieces mixed with tribal themes, effectively blending the two together into something quite appropriate. The result is a soundtrack that is well suited to the story and environment and at times can be quite stirring and inspiring.
The only weakness to the audio portion of the game is the voice acting. All of the acting is fair to good, if not a bit clichéd and contrived. The dialog itself is acceptable; it is the way it is presented through each of the characters that falls short. After a few sentences, it became tiring listening to Klem, and I was happy to quickly scan the subtitles and click through the rest of his speech.
Another weakness of the game was the synchronization between the voice acting and the animation of the characters themselves. For a game that has been built with such attention to detail, the poor lip syncing was clear evidence of cutting corners. It seems as if there are two animations for character speech – mouth open and mouth shut, and the programmers merely set the mouths to open at times they thought most appropriate. I'm not expecting perfect synchronization; that would require serious resources and time that Kheops may not have to devote to any one project.
In the age of Half-Life 2 and other such titles, however, the bar has been set and companies need to do what they can to meet it. This detail actually did detract from the game. In an adventure game such as ECHO, we don't have real opportunities for combat, action, or even tests of our reflexes or fast-paced fun. What we do get is the story and the setting. The story is presented through its characters, and I believe that special attention must be given to ensure that we can connect with the characters and relate to them. When I feel as if I'm watching a fancy sock puppet speaking, I lose that sense of involvement, and the game is weakened. Clearly, this aspect of the game was a disappointment, because this is the longest paragraph in the whole article.
These are the only true flaws of the game, and otherwise ECHO is a good time. The story is very good, and the puzzles – the best part of the game – are fun and cleverly woven into the plot. From one puzzle to the next, we are led through the story of Arok's search, and each puzzle is presented to us in a natural way that flows well with the story. They are quite challenging, but the game provides many hints and clues as to how to solve them, both through visual cues and narration. My particular favorite was a puzzle that presented me with a wall covered with handprints. I knew that to progress, I had to climb the wall covered in handprints. All I had to do was figure out how the different prints related to one another and select those that would highlight my path to the top of the wall. This is only one example of many puzzles that are perfectly integrated into the setting and the story of ECHO.
Intertwined into the puzzles, ECHO also incorporates a great deal of educational material. I think I learned quite a bit just playing through this game, including multiple ways to start a fire without matches! The game includes a document section, where players can read background information on the various aspects of the story. Most of the information is real fact, not backstory created by the writers. Being set in prehistoric times, there is a lot of information I did not know (history and anthropology are not my strongest subjects). I found that by reading through the micro-encyclopedia, many clues and even a partial solution to many of the puzzles were revealed. As much as I enjoyed this game as a player, I can see a real use for this title in an educational setting (hopefully this does not turn away interested players).
I'm a fairly experienced gamer, which means that I am, naturally, somewhat jaded. I've played enough MMOs to understand the basic nature of most human beings, I expect the worst in most situations, and find myself more comfortable in the dark, gritty, and pessimistic settings of most games. ECHO is refreshingly optimistic, and is a lot of fun nonetheless. Adventure game fans would do well to give this game a try, and parents with gamer children should definitely grab a copy.
Overall, ECHO: Secrets of the Lost Cavern is a solid entry to the adventure genre. The puzzles are thought-provoking and the story, if not the most refined, is at least interesting. It is beautifully crafted, with only a few noticeable issues. If there were one real flaw to the game, it would be its length – it's too short! It was over somewhat abruptly, and I found myself wanting more. I wish there were more entries like ECHO to the world of gaming, and I wish more titles such as this got the attention they deserve, but that's just me.
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