Reviewed: October 30, 2003
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
I first saw Alter Echo at the 2001 E3 show and even back then it showed amazing promise. Now two years and plenty of design changes later THQ unleashes one of the most original action games of the year. Combining shape shifting, multi-form combat tactics, and some of the most fantastic sci-fi inspired levels we’ve seen this year, Alter Echo is a fun and futuristic romp that is a total blast for as long as it lasts.
The story revolves around a race of psychically gifted people called “Shapers” that are able to manipulate a substance called multiplast. Multiplast is one of those universal substances that can be used to create anything from weapons to spaceships. One of the leading multiplast researchers, Paavo, has created a new powerful version of multiplast called echoplast.
You start the game as Nevin, a young shaper traveling to the research planet with two companions. When you arrive you find that Paavo has gone mad with power and is planning to use the echoplast for some nefarious scheme. It’s up to you to save the planet, perhaps the entire galaxy.
Once you land on the planet you find yourself decked out in a battle suit made of echoplast and make the acquaintance of a disembodied voice who calls himself Echo. It turns out the echoplast has become sentient and has given you the battle suit (created from its own “flesh”) so you can aid this new life form in freeing itself from the evil clutches of Paavo.
The battle suit allows you to morph into three very unique forms, each with a distinct function including combat and movement abilities. These are upgraded over time but the basics include a Gun form for ranged combat and reduced speed, a Sword form for melee combat, moderate movement and protective armor, and a Stealth form that turns you into a four-legged gecko-type creature allowing you to stick to certain walls and turn invisible.
The game seamlessly integrates a very nice tutorial into the story in such as way that you really don’t realize you are learning how to play. Before you know it you are shape shifting and kicking evil alien butt with the best of them. One oddity is that Echo gives you all the powers in the beginning to learn about them but then takes them away until later in the game when it deems you need them.
Combat is varied but highly revolved around an elaborate combo system that counts your hits and kills in any given combo attack. The numbers can rack up pretty fast for some impressive scores. The moves are quite fluid and just as stylish as anything you can pull of in other action fighters like Otogi. Later in the game you can actually start to mix-up combos between the various forms for some wildly entertaining and huge combos. One of my favorites it to whack an enemy with my stealth tongue and toss them in the air then switch to Gun form and juggle them with my gun the finish them off with my sword when they eventually fall back to the ground.
Combos that span two or even three forms are challenging and look extremely cool. The longer and more complex the combo the more plasm you can earn to use at the upgrade nodes scattered about the game. Here you can upgrade your attacks, weapons, health bar, and battle suit powers. The more you enhance your attacks the bigger the combo and the more plasm you will earn. It’s a huge never-ending circle.
One of the more interesting aspects of Alter Echo is the element of time for puzzles and combat. Alter Echo uses something called “synching” for the majority of its puzzles. Time dilation is basically the combat version of synching. Synching involves finding a synch node and guiding an energy chain through a maze, or enemy icons if you’re using time dilation. You have to time your directional input with the onscreen guide. If you move in the wrong direction or get off on your timing you fail the puzzle. There is no penalty for failing; you just have to try it again, but in combat, a mistake could prove fatal. Some early puzzles can be incredibly frustrating but by the end of the game you should get through them without too much difficulty.
Level design is fairly straightforward and even though there are numerous levels they are all rather short and linear. The entire game can be finished in 5-8 hours which is a shame because just about the time you are getting good at the combat system and start ripping off huge combos the game is over.
Alter Echo has a very unique look about it. There is a purposeful over-saturation of colors, motion blurs, and other psychedelic effects that create a wild and futuristic ambience. Levels are designed with smooth terrain models and nicely detailed textures although there is a disturbing lack of variety. Most of the game looks much like the first level.
Character animation both in normal movement and combat is amazingly fluid and the combos all blend together in seamless fashion creating a fluidic movement that almost approaches a level of dance. There are even subtle nuances like the kickback animation when you fire the gun or the reptilian movement of the stealth mode. The enemy models and animations are equally as creative and quite fun to watch although I was slightly annoyed that there are only about a dozen original enemies to fight in the entire game.
The Xbox version is noticeably faster than the PS2 version in framerate and the details are more crisp and the colors slightly more vibrant. I can only imagine how good this game would have looking in progressive scan, but I will have to continue to imagine since there is no HDTV support provided with this title.
The sounds in Alter Echo mirror the visuals in quality and originality. There are excellent sound effects for the various attack modes and the enemies all cry out when they attack. There is some excellent voice acting with unique personalities for the entire primary cast. The haunting voice of Echo borders on the disturbing and is a sharp contrast to the weak-sounding Nevin.
The soundtrack includes plenty of futuristic themes and melodies that slip into the background and increase in tempo based on the combat or intensity of the action. Everything in the game blends seamlessly with the cutscenes for a great overall presentation.
Make no mistake about it; Alter Echo is short. Even if you take your time you aren’t going to get more than ten hours out of this game which is a shame because it’s a total blast to play and I could have kept going for another ten hours if I hadn’t run out of levels and bad guys.
I can wholeheartedly recommend this game as a rental and if you plan on playing it through two or three times then go ahead and purchase it. You can probably have a lot of fun exploring the various combos and moves you didn’t try the last time you played.
It’s rare than a 3D action game can set itself this far apart from the rest of the competition. Alter Echo looks fantastic and has some truly inventive and original gameplay, which only makes it that much more disappointing when the ride is over just a bit too quickly. I’d encourage anyone looking for a futuristic combo-driven combat game to check this title out. It’s easily worth a rental and if you have the recreational cash I’d even consider making it a permanent addition to your game library.