Reviewed: September 7, 2004
Released: July 27, 2004
ĒI see dead peopleÖĒ
Those words, made chillingly famous in The Sixth Sense, kept haunting me throughout my adventures in Echo Night: Beyond, the latest survival horror adventure from Agetec. Rich in story and atmosphere and choked full of sinister special effects, this cinematic adventure makes its bid to compete with the likes of Silent Hill and Siren and does a pretty darn good job.
The year is 2044 and you are Richard Osmond, traveling with your fiancťe, Claudia to the moon for some lunar nuptials. As you approach the moon there is some trouble, a crash, and everything goes dark. You awaken in the wrecked hull of the shuttle, alone, with only a message scrawled on the back of the seat in front of you. Itís off to find your wife-to-be.
Echo Night: Beyond could be classified as an FPS although there is no shooting. Itís more of a first-person adventure game made even more haunting by the fact that you are in a spacesuit, which has a very limiting effect on both your movement and your visibility. Your peripheral vision is quite limited and it takes you a good three seconds to make a complete 180-degree turn. Imagine what nasty things can creep in behind you in three seconds.
Another interesting element is the EKG that monitors Richardís heart rate. Similar to the concept used in Fear Effect if you get too scared and your EKG hits 300bpm your heart either stops or blows through your chest. Either way, you are reloading your last saved game. Since there is no health meter or physical damage in Echo Night fear is your only real enemy, but there is plenty of stuff to make you afraid and a lot of it is the same stuff that will make you, the player, just as jumpy.
When a light pops, a ceiling crumbles, or there is some other startling noise, your EKG will spike then slowly settle down over time. Itís a great concept and Iím just waiting for some hardware manufacturer to come up with a real EKG monitor that gamers can plug into their PS2 USB port and stick on their chest for real-time gamer feedback.
Cheap scare tactics arenít the only thing to keep you on the edge of your seat. The moon base is inhabited by lots of scary ghosts, some benign and some rather angry. You learn quite early to be very cautious of the strange gray fog that is seeping through the lunar base. Apparently this fog has a direct correlation to the aggressiveness of the ghosts, so you will often have to figure out how to clear an area of the fog before proceeding.
As with any adventure game there are plenty of puzzles. These include a variety of fetch quests as well as extensive use of video monitors. The moon base has some of the best video surveillance in the galaxy and you will find security stations that allow you to select various cameras then pan and zoom around to locate clues and see potential hazards before you stumble into a fatal situation.
None of the puzzles are particularly brain-smoking hard. Their solution is either readily available or can be figured out with a bit of exploration or trial and error with your inventory. One early puzzle requires you to set the date on a computer so you can align the solar reflectors to restore power to the base. The date can be learned by using a security camera to view a digital display in an area of the base you cannot get to otherwise. Many of the puzzles revolve around you venting the evil fog out of the base to get past hostile ghosts.
There is a really intriguing story at work in Echo Night: Beyond and you are fed bits and pieces throughout the adventure in the form of books, logs, and conversations with the former inhabitants of the base. The game even branches off to give you four unique endings, even though seeing all the endings doesnít require you to completely replay the game four times.
Oddly enough, some of the scarier moments in the game were not the moments the designers probably intended to be scary. I was mostly freaked out during my cautious exploration. The hollow sound of my breathing and the metallic clank of my boots on the floor are really unsettling. Sure, I yelled a few times, but those few ďshock momentsĒ are nothing compared to the continuous tension and uneasiness of just wandering around.
The controls were surprisingly good, but then again, this is a slow plodding game so you donít need the fast precise control normally associated with an FPS title. There are three presets to choose from so everyone should find something usable. Interacting with the environment requires you to center the camera on the desired object and press the action button. Simple.
I continually surprise myself by being surprised at how good the cutscenes in games have become. CGI has reached the point where you can no longer tell if itís real or rendered, and the opening movie of Echo Night: Beyond started just such a controversy when several of the staff gathered around the TV. Obviously, the designers didnít launch a mission to the moon to film this amazing opening sequence, but youíd swear they did. If NASA ever wanted to fake a lunar mission, I can point them in the right direction.
Once in the game you are really restricted to the aforementioned spacesuit first-person view with the occasional out-of-body third-person view for frequent cutscenes that also use the game engine. The helmet view adds an element of realism and claustrophobic terror as you clank around the base hunting for your fiancťe.
The level design is interesting and believable. Arguably, Iíve never been on a lunar shuttle or a moon base but I have no reason to believe they wouldnít look like the levels in Echo Night. There are nice subtle touches like believable living quarters, and functional sections of the base that serve useful purposes. Everything is there for a reason, not just to serve the game design.
Special effects are nicely done and suitably creepy. The fog effect is outstanding and it lingers around the floor and slowly changes in thickness. Ghosts are slightly transparent and easily missed if you donít know where to look. There is also a superb use of cinematic camera angles and flashback effects to flesh out the story.
There is some really beautiful music during the opening movie that reaches epic quality. It quickly fades away once the game begins so you are left with only the heavy breathing and the hypnotic clankÖclankÖclank of Richardís footsteps. These rhythmic sounds will lull you into an unsuspecting state so when that ghost materializes from the fog and your heart rate starts making your sub-woofer thump itís very scary.
The voice acting, both Richardís self-narration and most of the people you encounter in the game, is borderline average in quality. There is no mistaking that this was a Japanese title that suffered a bit in the localization process, but Iíve come to expect that from these kind of games.
The entire sound presentation is ready to support your Dolby Pro Logic II setup and if you have one prepare to be surrounded in terror. The game makes great use of 3D space to place all sorts of subtle sounds in a discrete 5-channel mix. Great job!
A single pass through Echo Night: Beyond will take the average gamer 8-10 hours. The game and the puzzles are linear. Locked doors keep you from needless wandering, and the story and gameplay leads you through the entire game. Even though there is plenty to do, youíll often feel like you are simply along for the ride.
As previously mentioned, there are four endings, but these can all be explored with relative ease by saving at the appropriate place then playing from that point and doing what is necessary to trigger the alternate endings. Itís worth the effort just to see them but it will only add about another 30 minutes to the game.
The puzzles are a bit formulaic and the ghosts arenít as scary as they could be. Fatal Frame still holds that honor. But if you are looking for a good scare with a sci-fi twist then Echo Night: Beyond fits the bill. Itís not the best adventure game ever made and itís certainly not the scariest, but it does create a sinister, lonely, and very claustrophobic environment and weaves and interesting tale. Itís definitely a ride worth taking, but probably better suited as a weekend rental.