Games time forgot: Alter Echo

I have to admit that I didn’t even know this game (suggested to me by Ugly Phil) existed until a few weeks ago. It’s pretty recent, yeah, but my complete ignorance toward it leads me to believe it’s been more or less forgotten by the march of time.

Alter Echo is not a pretty game, nor is it innovative, well written, nor particularly well designed. It is, however, kinda damn clever in its approach to the action genre. I give it points for that.

Imagine a game where you can run, jump, swordfight, shoot guns, and go stealthy — but never at the same time. Where you’re forced to decide between swordplay or stealth or guns with the touch of a button, and where you can string together enormous combos by switching back and forth between a Sword form, a Gun form, and a Stealth form. Take that game mechanic, add forty thousand unskippable cut scenes, and you’ve got Alter Echo.

Story:

The distant future. The human race has evolved to the point where they can use psychic energy, in conjunction with an intelligent, ubiquitous substance known as “plast,” to create whatever they want. Those who can best control the plast are known as “Shapers” — those whose minds are so in tune with the plast that it almost becomes an extension of their body.

A renegade Shaper named Paavo finds a new, more powerful form of plast (known as “echoplast”) on a different planet and goes mad with power. The protagonist, Nevin, is sent in with some other soldiers to bring him back. As one would expect, however, Paavo destroys Nevin’s ship and kills the entire crew save Nevin himself, who is saved by the echoplast itself. The echoplast, an evidently sentient being, gives Nevin a morphing plast suit and promises to help him take down Paavo before he destroys the entire human race.

Gameplay:

Alter Echo isn’t really a great game, as such. It’s decent, don’t get me wrong, but the level design, graphics, and unskippable story all really just serve as underwhelming window dressing to the real star of the show: the echoplast suit.

The suit has three modes, which the player can switch between at any given time: sword, gun, and stealth.

While wearing the sword suit, Nevin looks more or less normal — or, at least, as normal as a guy wearing a symbiotic alien suit made of living plastic can look. While in this form, Nevin is reasonably fast and can pull off some kinky combos with his sword.

The gun suit essentially turns Nevin into a bipedal tank. He can efficiently take down enemies from afar with his arm cannon, but he’s slow as hell and can’t jump for crap.

The third and final mode, stealth, allows Nevin to climb walls at predetermined locations, pounce onto enemies, and go invisible for short periods of time.

The player learns to use these abilities within the first hour of the game; after that, Alter Echo throws varying combinations of long-range enemies, indestructible turrents, and pouncing baddies at the player, who is then forced to master each of the three suit modes. The different suits add a layer of strategy that give the game its wallop. Initially, the player can defeat pretty much any group of enemies using only one suit type, but as the game progresses and the enemies get harder, more numerous, and in some cases invulnerable to certain suit attacks, the player has to learn to instantly switch between the three modes — even in the middle of a combo.

In Alter Echo, I frequently slashed a guy a few times with a sword, knocked him into the air, switched modes, shot him a few times, switched modes again, and pounced on his immobile body once he landed. After you’re totally used to the different suits, you’ll be able to wade into a group of a dozen enemies and destroy each of them in a totally different way.

The suit changing mechanic isn’t particularly flashy or original, I’ll admit, but it provides for an interesting take on the third-person action genre. Most action titles give you many of the same attacks and abilities Alter Echo does, but Echo never lets you use all of them at the same time. In other games, the player becomes an unstoppable ubermensch who can eventually kill armies of baddies without thinking; in Alter Echo, the player can kill the same amounts of enemies, but is constantly required to actively think within every conflict through judicious use of suit-switching.

Also, there’s a neat sort of timing/hacking minigame the player has to complete anytime you throw a switch or activate a special attack. You can check it out in the above video, about 30 sseconds in.

Why you’re probably not playing it:

How does one even market a game like Alter Echo? One inevitably sounds like a marketing drone when trying to describe its interesting aspects: “Strategic, fast-paced action with real-time suit changing!” Wait, I can shoot and slash at people and stuff, but I have to switch between suits to do it? Why couldn’t you just map a gun and a sword to different buttons? Laaaame.

Thirdly, Alter Echo has the some of the blandest, ugliest cover art I’ve ever seen. Honestly, imagine seeing this at your local Blockbuster. Would you think, “Hey, that looks like an underrated, ugly, but somewhat clever action game,” or would you glance at it once, assume it to be bargain bin crap, and move on? Either way, I wouldn’t blame you.

Alter Echo also received mixed ratings, and with good reason. The suit mechanic is clever, but pretty much everything else is sort of meh; the story is told in many long, unskippable cut scenes, the actual game is pretty short, and the graphics —  the odd color scheme, ubiquitous neon glow, and simplistic textures — remind me of Advent Rising‘s look (a game which, while one of my personal favorites, spectacularly failed to impress anyone, visually or otherwise.

All this in mind, should you get it? Considering how generally cheap the damned thing is, I’d say yes. It’s only 100 Goozex points, and it rarely goes for more than seven dollars on eBay (less than the cost of a Blockbuster game rental). Generally, though, you’re not really doing yourself a disservice if you don’t pick it up. Alter Echo is at times a clever and enjoyable game, but it’s nothing spectacular, and the suit mechanic is really the only interesting thing about it — should you see Alter Echo sitting alone and unloved in a K-Mart bargain bin for an incredibly reasonable price, do yourself (and the developers) a favor and pick it up. Otherwise, you can live without it.

Anthony Burch