Reviewed: July 30, 2005
Released: July 5, 2005
Adventure games are once again on the rise thanks to visionary foreign design firms and companies like The Adventure Company who bring them to North America. Despite the recent proliferation of a genre that nearly became extinct in the 90’s, adventure games still come in two flavors, first-person puzzle-style games like Myst and third-person interactive adventures like Syberia.
ECHO: Secrets of the Lost Cavern falls into the former category but it manages to spin the genre with several unique twists. First, the game takes place in the relatively unexplored prehistoric period, and second, it incorporates a fantastic visual style that blurs the real world with mystical cave drawings that actually come to life to guide our hero on his quest.
ECHO also makes use of phenomenal amounts of research material that was not only used to create a totally believable and authentic world in which to explore, but also nicely integrated into the interface to provide you with background information, clues, or just an educational romp through prehistory times that wouldn’t be out of place in a classroom.
You play as Arok, a young man who lives in a clan located on a high windswept plateau. One day while hunting for food Arok is forced to take refuge in a cave where he discovers oddly familiar paintings on the walls. These trigger long-forgotten memories from an old mentor who instilled in Arok the passion for adventure. Inspired by his fabulous accounts and by the frescos that the man has left on the walls, he decides to go looking for him.
Gameplay is very much like any other traditional first-person adventure with a few noteworthy exceptions. You move around from node to node and can pan the camera around in full 360-degrees at each looking for clues or manipulating the environment when the mouse icon indicates such activity.
Nearly everything you do in ECHO is inspired by cave drawings that spring to life when you click on them. You get things started by locating some colored powder that can be mixed with water and turned to paint. You must then paint a grid to match a certain pattern on an amulet you have in your possession. This triggers a cutscene and advances the story.
You can collect items and combine them to create new items, but in an interesting twist you can actually alter items in your inventory to build new ones. In most areas there is a “construction site”, an area where you can place items and modify them with tools or combine them with other items in your inventory.
The first such location is a flat stone in the first cave. Here you will lay out a piece of bone and by using chipping and sharpening tools you can enhance your basic spear weapon to defeat the mountain lion that has you trapped in the cave.
But before you can construct this device you have to learn about it first. This is done by viewing an animated cave drawing of three men hunting a bison, then actually manipulating that drawing until they kill their prey. This gives you the knowledge to actually attempt to build the spear thrower and opens up new topics in your encyclopedia.
Creating a new device takes a bit of research and often some trial and error. You are given a few chances to “mess up”, but if you do too many actions in the wrong order (i.e. gouge when you should have sharpened) you will have to start the entire process over. The entire construction process is very interactive with you actually taking the tool and using it (clicking) on a certain part of the main object to modify it.
Nearly everything you look at or interact with in the game will open up new topics in the online encyclopedia. This is an invaluable useful source of information that includes hyper-linked references and details on wildlife, lifestyles, weapon construction, and other survival tactics. The guide is broken down into chapters and topics with a menu system that unlocks new topics as you discover them within the game.
The game mixes up a lot of the puzzles so you are building new weapons and tools, or overcoming environmental obstacles. Unfortunately there are a few annoying puzzles that will require a lot of pre-planning and even some notes and map-making on your part, like a lengthy maze that can only be explored by torchlight, but you have limited torches and each one only lasts a few moves. It’s nearly impossible to stumble your way through this maze, so you’ll actually need to figure out the proper path using the clues laid out for you.
The graphics in ECHO are simply stunning starting with the opening menu that is overlaid on a fantastic animated outdoor scene complete with running river. The game opens with a high-quality pre-rendered movie then drops you into one photo-realistic scene after another. The game merges realistic animation over the static backgrounds including real-time lighting effects.
As the name might suggest, much of the game takes place in caves so things can get a bit dark. I had trouble playing this game in anything other than total darkness. Items you can interact with blend almost too well into their backgrounds, making it very hard to find some things, even when you know where to look. With no helpful glints or highlights on these items the game often turned into a pixel-hunt as I swept the darker screens with my mouse waiting for the icon to change.
The entire presentation maintains a consistent and totally authentic look about it. The cave drawings are just incredible, and when they spring to life it reminded me of that scene in Ice Age. Later in the game you will get to draw and animate your own cave drawings to alter your own reality.
Music plays a huge part in ECHO. You will even get to fashion your own instruments and play your own music using the same technique you use to build weapons and tools. The background score is enchanting and features simple, yet authentic tunes you might have actually heard in prehistoric times. There are a lot of wind instruments and drums and natural sounds like birds and chimes created from shells.
Sound effects are simple yet natural and authentic. There is the realistic crackle of fire and the chilling growl of the lion as it chases you back into the cave. Wind howls, water drips, and rocks crumble. There are also some eerie supernatural sounds to keep things a bit unsettling.
I had a few concerns about the dialogue. All of the speech is perfectly acted out with excellent performances from the actors, but the actual words being used are often way too complicated or out of place for the time period. Admittedly, if we were dealing with real cavemen the game would be all grunts and gestures, but Klem frequently uses words that younger games might actually need to look up.
ECHO is a fairly substantial game by adventuring standards. Younger gamers will easily get 12+ hours of enchanting gameplay while older more experience adventure fans can probably complete their quest in 8-10 hours.
The game is hard in a few spots and you’ll likely be tempted to search for a walkthrough, but rest assured that everything you need to know to play and win the game is cleverly integrated right into the game, either as educational cave drawings or part of the built-in encyclopedia.
ECHO: Secrets of the Lost Cavern is a breath of fresh air in what was starting to become a stale and predictable line of adventure games. The premise is totally original and the presentation is flawless, and you can’t help but leave the game knowing more about prehistoric man and the time in which he lived.
When you have a game that can teach kids while entertaining them you have something pretty special. I can highly recommend ECHO to anyone who wants to take part in a fantastic journey back through time. It’s a mystical and enchanting journey you won’t forget anytime soon.