In Echo Generation you get pretty much as the game’s title suggests; a throwback era-based game that's setting is echoed through the lens of a developer who not only clearly grew up in it, but also absorbed -- and absorbs still -- its celebrated hallmarks, tropes and underlying aesthetic. With this in mind, and utilising a stunning depth-of-field-powered 3D voxel art presentation, Echo Generation gets away with dropping in the most random of random pop-culture references and gameplay hooks. Bosses range from creepy come-to-life animatronic dolls to a school hallway girl-monster who looks like a mutated spider, among many creative geek-referenced others.
Nods to The X-Files, Tremors, Indiana Jones and more litter the game’s unusual character encounter sheet, while settings range from inside a crashed alien spaceship to a government-controlled research facility, and everything else in between. All of this also takes place amidst an inordinate amount of back and forthing in the sleepy Canadian burb, Maple Town.
"The kids have no idea what happened to their old man, and mum won’t say a thing about it outside of getting upset...”
Tell me if you’ve heard or seen this one before: A couple of kids live with their mum in a small town. For five years their dad has been gone, but mum (mom) still sets a place for him at the table, and the family car he used to fix sits unused in the driveway. The kids have no idea what happened to their old man, and mum won’t say a thing about it outside of getting upset. He worked for the local science mob, FST, but beyond that anything else about him is a mystery. They have friends, and they’re all working on making an alien-themed movie out in the cornfields just outside of town. They all also have a treehouse clubhouse.
One of their neighbours is a tinkering dad who happens to be smarter than anyone at FST, despite the fact he sciences inside of his garage. Meanwhile, the local school principal, also a neighbour, is an odd man dressed in a drab suit with thick glasses. He’s incredibly reclusive. His house, which the kids are able to sneak into, is fastidiously clean and sports a creepy doll collection. He has a locked basement.
Outside on the neighbourhood lightpoles and strewn about the place are Missing Child posters for one of the local boys who hasn’t been seen in quite some time. And finally, amidst the town’s thick air of not everything being right, or normal, the local repair shop, Billy’s Garage, appears to be the scene of a crime only our young heroes discover, and can then investigate.
Honestly, packed into this era-centric trope-laden love letter to the 90s is a cute and ever-rewarding videogame. In between those setup beats mentioned in the lengthy elevator pitch above, is all the OTT fan-service you could ask for -- giant mutant rats, jive-talkin’ martial artist racoons, insectoid aliens, mechs, a wendigo-werewolf hybrid *thing*... the list honestly goes on, and powering all of these encounters is a turn-based RPG lite setup that is instantly familiar and fairly fun to use, if just a little tedious after a while.
See, the thing is, most of Echo Generation’s delivery of its gameplay beats: combat, exploration, fetch-quests and lite puzzle-solving, is a bit all over the shop. Pacing takes a massive knock as a result and the game’s lack of a few key needs hampers what could have been a baseline 9/10 game, all day. These include basics like a town map updated with finds and key bits of information, the inability to fast travel to points which could have been contextually handled with bikes, or four-wheelers or *something*. And a better immediate understanding of how its standalone economy and combat economy both work.
"The game’s progression outside of combat and bosses is structured around finding items for the town’s many lazy denizens...”
There’s even an oddity early on where a bus pass you need to find to advance can be revealed to you, as far as its location goes. But nothing else in the game of the same note offers the same option, you just have to almost stumble upon it. It’s weird, because the bulk of the game’s progression outside of combat and bosses is structured around finding items for the town’s many lazy denizens. And in addition to all of this, is the idea that some of these items require cash to procure, but you won’t know that, nor that that would even be a thing, up until that point. Prior to this the money you find is revealed to be able to be spent on health and buff items via the game’s limited ‘stores’. Then, in service of this poorly weighted system is that cash can either be found out in the world (not randomly), or earnt from combat success. The latter point here being one part of the game’s glaring two-part main flaw -- grinding.
You’ll need to grind in order to proceed. It’s just a fact of Echo Generation and its combat makeup. Each character has three key stats they can level up: Strength, Health and Skill Points. You can only choose to level up one at a time whenever you ding up, which makes how you go about this fairly simple option, a bit of a pain. This is because the game’s health items are time-limited from shops, and finite in the world. So management of them requires finesse. Moreover, failing any one of your skill attacks that use up your Skill Points can mean the difference between success and defeat. The margins for error in most encounters, which are heavily gated or gating, are super-small and tight. This isn’t the sort of game where revisiting an area after you’re much stronger means you wail on lower-level enemies, because respawning baddies are also finite, so management of your level-farming is also a frustrating requirement.
But you will need to farm, and this is a problem.
It’s a problem because the game bottlenecks progression behind specific bosses, and depending on your management of items and how you’ve spent your XP, you’re more often than not going to find yourself a level or two behind being able to get past. This maintains throughout the first, at least, one-third of the game, which might not sound like much, but this is also a very linear game without fast travel that forces you to backtrack over and over. In part, because sleeping in your bed refills all of your party stats, so running home after each encounter is encouraged as you massage those health items in your inventory, and also because the enemies you can farm are in disparate areas of the game.
In this way, much of Echo Generation’s charm and delivery of Easter Eggs and commentary and fan-service is simply halted. Replaced instead with a heady reminder that too many games from its set era forced similar grinding on their players, though here it doesn’t feel like this mechanic is deliberate, but rather a basic developer issue in terms of balancing the game’s systems and its overall encounter and progression pacing.
"This is also problematic because the pets are the only interchangeable members of your party, but only active party members level up...”
All of that being said, however, combat is fun and engaging, as you find comic books in the world to unlock each party character’s unique abilities and engage in real-time actions for turn-based choices, not at all dissimilar to the same system found in the likes of Paper Mario or the more recent South Park games. The party you gather is your sister and then five different ‘pets’. This is also problematic because the pets are the only interchangeable members of your party, but only active party members level up, and while each unique character will be utilised in some capacity throughout the journey, there’s a good chance you’ll wind up picking a favourite and sticking with it, and that will most likely be one of the earlier recruits who will have leveled alongside you most.
If the game’s pacing, its toolsets and some of the missed opportunities mentioned throughout this review were in place, the score here would be much higher. Even with rose-tinted glasses on as someone who grew up in the 80s and 90s, I can’t bring myself to overlook Echo Generation’s glaring pitfalls, which is a shame because it nails nostalgia and reference and feels. It’s just a slog to pull those things out of it, and then some. Still, I see a bright future for this studio and the potential for this as a series moving forward, because there’s a lot to build on here. It also begins life on the right voxel foot as a Game Pass offering, so those pitfalls immediately just become the grind they are with very little money handed over on your part.
A great concept with the right amount of heart, that simply loses its way too often in so much broken form.
What we liked
Absolutely stunning art style and presentation
The pop culture references throughout are thick and fast
Pretty dark, story-wise
Imaginative bosses and levels
What we didn't like
Too much grinding
The lack of a map is a detriment
No fast travel only adds more frustration to the game's grinding
Some puzzles make no sense in how the solution is presented (call the book store!)
The game's economy is poorly tied to the finite enemies in the world