echochrome

Platform(s): PSP, PlayStation 3
Genre: Puzzle
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: SCE Japan Studio

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PSP Review - 'echochrome'

by Erik "NekoIncardine" Ottosen on June 2, 2008 @ 4:29 a.m. PDT

echochrome is a puzzle game featuring 56 exclusive levels on each platform, with each unique level designed specifically to match that platform’s characteristics. Gamers are challenged to play within five simple laws of perspective that govern how one advances through each stage.

Genre: Puzzle
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: SCE Studios Japan
Release Date: May 1, 2008

Let me just get this out of the way right now. echochrome is like no game I've ever seen before. echochrome is not for everyone. echochrome must be seen to be believed. echochrome is a really good game for stoners. echochrome will screw with your perceptions and ideas of how reality works. Yet, for all this, echochrome is an art piece. It's certainly not for everyone, but it's worth checking out by anyone. If you've already enjoyed the PlayStation 3 version, the PSP version is still worth acquiring.

For those who have not yet witnessed demonstrations of echochrome, the most central layer of the game is as basic as it gets: A character resembling an artist's marionette walks around. (You can stop him or speed him up.). Black figures stand around the levels, and when the marionette runs into all of the black figures, you'll have cleared the stage. You have to help the marionette get around, since he will not walk off cliffs or the like.

However, things quickly start to get strange here; most games of this sort would have you dropping items onto the stage to help. In echochrome you are only given the game's physics and the angle of the camera to control things. Yes, this title is a glorified physics demo, but the physics aren't based on Euclidean geometry or any reality a normal human brain would find intuitive. Instead, you get the five rules of perceptive reality, which will quickly explain the M.C. Escher inspirations of the game, even though certain things remain consistent with our normal understanding of the laws of physics.

Perspective Traveling means that if you make it look like two blocks are connected, then they are connected. Perspective Landing means that if something looks like it is below you, it is below you, no matter how unintuitive this might otherwise be. Perspective Existence means that if it looks like there is a path, then there is one. (More intuitively, if you can't see the gap in the path, then there isn't one.) Perspective Absence is similar, except applying to holes, springboards and obstructions; if you hide them from view, your marionette will not be affected by them. Perspective Jumping is the inverse of Perspective Landing in that if something looks like it is above you ... well, you can guess at this point.

Once you have explored the entire reality of these laws through the tutorial, it's time to start figuring out the actual gameplay. All 56 levels are unique to the PSP version of the game, and they range from fairly simplistic to exceptionally brain-racking, all while working in very small, condensed spaces when compared to the larger-scale puzzles that define the PlayStation 3 version. The basic principles remain the same, but as the environments grow increasingly complex — all without introducing any new concepts that aren't in the tutorial — the difficulty produces a startling range, without ever really becoming especially nerve-racking. Sheer luck and fortuitous mistakes will guide you as much as actual logic, much like how trying to "walk through" real Escher paintings tends to work out for most people.

Fifty-six levels will last you several hours, but just in case that isn't enough, then there's the option of getting the other set of levels (at least, for PS3 owners). You can enjoy the levels in random order in the Freeform mode, or race for the fastest time in the Atelier mode on the levels you've selected (as few as one level to as many as eight). Canvas mode offers you every tool that the official levels possess, allow you to roll your own distinct challenges in the physics of echochrome, and save them separately for potential Internet distribution.

To download a selection of levels and challenges made by other players, go to the Portfolio level selection in the Atelier mode, pick a blank level, and tap Receive. Selections are updated every week, and many people have gotten very creative with this. If you somehow manage to run through this and want more, it's also interesting to note that the Japanese release had two additional modes and puzzle sets and was a full UMD release. The Japanese version also costs ¥4,000 (about $38), and the additional modes were considered a bit of a weak spot.

Part of what makes echochrome's Escher style work without it proving too confusing is that it keeps its presentation very simple. There are exactly three colors in the entire game: black, white and grey, which is only used in a couple of instances on the menu screens. The marionette is defined solely by cel-shading. Actually, essentially everything is defined by cel-shading, with only the edges of any objects showing on the screen. Just give the screenshots a look. The title actually takes advantage of this by using the disappearance of edges to indicate successful use of Perspective Traveling. It also tends to produce the most Escher-like results, given that what goes on doesn't match what you would expect to occur, but it is usually a perfect match for the image on the screen. The game is about as minimalist as it gets in graphics, and it works perfectly because of that. The graphics are good enough that it's hard to tell, when comparing the PSP and PS3 versions, which platform the game was made for first.

The sound is similarly simplistic. The light footsteps of your character, the light whoosh of a drop, and "boing" of a spring are about all you will hear, aside from a feminine voice that gives you a few surprisingly naturally spoken cues. The utter lack of variety works out advantageously here, as the voice clips are of sufficient quality to blend naturally into the title's soundscape, which is defined by its music. The soundtrack is very, very simple in nature and is often as simple as the sound of one violin; the music is very contemplative and classically inspired, without directly following any familiar form or style.

echochrome, unfortunately, does have a few flaws, all centered on the game's rather inconsistent following of its own rule set. Gaps or bumps in the map more than one space wide can't be crossed by obscuring them, as if to say your perception just isn't good enough for that large of a gap. Worse still, the camera refuses to let itself be put within a certain distance of a level position, which might break many puzzles open but seems critical to solving many more. On top of that, certain perception lines simply refuse to accept that you're seeing it one way, as the game absolutely insists that the reality is quite another. This is particularly true if you attempt to look at the problem from below, which one would think should provide for perfect solutions in many cases. The end result is that there are at least a few cases where you're forced to look at the problem from a very specific angle to solve it, rather than the many more obvious-looking solutions. This gets rather annoying in very short order.

echochrome is a very unusual creation, seemingly meant to explore an idea more than to be a perfect game. It takes its premise to an imperfect but logical conclusion, producing something meant to be explored more as art than as a game. There is no shortage of people who will love the game for that premise, and its innovation is real and not easily imitated. Among typical gamers, though, the primary audience is going to consist of those who like something very strange to look at while hopped up on psychotropic drugs, or want to try and understand the minds of those who are hopped up. This is not to say that echochrome is bad, uninteresting or anything of the sort — only that it is very, very different from what usually suits most puzzle gamers' sensibilities. Give the free demo a go, and grab it if you liked the PS3 version because the puzzles for each system are completely different in many subtle but intriguing aspects. Even if echochrome doesn't turn out a commercial success, it shows that there is a lot more creativity in Sony than some may think.

Score: 8.5/10


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