Echoplex - Mind Bending Puzzles
Echoplex, from Output Games, might just become my latest gaming addiction. It’s got a simple enough premise to it. You’re a test subject in a high tech facility and must traverse your way through bizarre and mind bending puzzles in order to complete each sequence. Stop me if you’ve heard this before - Portal, The Stanley Parable, and my personal favorite Antichamber are all clear influences here. A lot of the basic formula of the first, with the grinning satire of the second mixed in with the bizarre of the last.
Gameplay revolves around a simple enough idea - you run into an area that requires you to hit switches, cross barriers, and ultimately reach the end. You aren’t really alone though. After a certain amount of time, an “Echo” of yourself will play out your actions exactly in a delay. You can use these echoes to unlock a switch you just hit to open another door to another portal and then criss cross back again to lock that echo out to…
Just being chased by my Echo. No big deal.
And so you can see how complicated these puzzles can get. A lot like Anitchamber, there’s very little hand holding. Prompts are given just before you start a new type of puzzle with some vague hint as to what to do next but it’s all going to be based on your skill as a player, maybe some luck, and using these echoes you produce to properly sequence your way through the next challenge.
I was caught up in it. The first couple of levels play themselves pretty simple enough but as you descend further into game, the more complex these concepts get and break hard into careful planning and execution. At times I would be wandering through a puzzle, dodging my echoes left and right only to see that I had to lead them in a conga line down a series of gates that would unlock a door that was on the opposite wall, requiring me to figure 8 my way between the chasing echoes to get back to the door before my own apparitions would close it again.
It’s a tough game too. The echoes aren’t violent, but they will reset your level if you bump into them. So you need to be precise not just on the run to the puzzle mechanics, but then you have to remember what steps you took so that you don’t accidentally jump the ravine and slam straight into your echo. Some of the puzzles can be really obtuse too. On more than one occasion it did not occur to me exactly what to do until I had already completed it. Upon reflection, and watching back some of my game footage, it was clear what I had to do, but that certainly didn’t help as I was running frantically from the echoes I had spawned.
These little prompts are helpful, if just a little vague.
Output Games is headed by a diverse team and their talents are on display here. Punctuated between the puzzle sequences are bizarre live action shots that play out a fever dream of different visions. One has an arm cut through a time portal with a phone number on it, another shows men eating lunch in between puzzles and another showcases a mysterious woman looking straight at the camera. Tyrone Janes Van Vuuren, the creative director, has a background in film making and it shows clearly here. They’re tight, smartly directed, and give just enough to want to see the next one after each puzzle. Live action doesn’t always mesh well when you put it into a video game, but it is used well here. There’s a kind of Assassin’s Creed quality to their insight, and the puzzle only deepens with each new vision.
These scenes are well acted and directed.
Sound direction is just as compelling. As your echoes enter the room, there’s a chilling static effect as time loops back on itself. It’s downright terrifying, and hearing your echo stomp behind you becomes tense when you want to solve the puzzle and avoid bumping into your past self. Music is sparse here, mainly used to accentuate the bizarre Clonochem commercials that interject your live action memories, but they have a lot of deep bass and unsettling high end sounds that leave a lot of room to your imagination.
There are minor complaints. The game just left early access this week and while the overall package is polished enough - there are a number of things that can be reworked and retooled. The games simple color palette lends itself well to the design, but as someone who can get dizzy from moving quickly through spaces I found myself getting a bit nauseous in puzzles that required moving from each color in rapid succession. There is a simple climbing mechanic used to hop up onto ledges just out of reach - it’s integral to puzzle designs - but occasionally the game wouldn’t hook up that I was trying to ascend that platform and I’d fail at the puzzle and it wasn’t always clear why one ledge could be climbed while another could not.
I'm still not sure if I'm looking in a mirror, or at an Echo.
And just as an aside, I played through the first couple of puzzles on 3 different set-ups: Mouse and Keyboard, an Xbox 360 Controller, and the Steam Controller. The Steam and Mouse and Keyboard set-ups were fine and the game felt smooth and easy to operate but on the traditional controller I felt like I could not just adjust the sensitivity enough to be able to navigate puzzles efficiently. Others may have more success, but I would recommend using your Mouse and Keyboard or Steam Controller to play the game.
Like myself you may want to compare this game to the likes of Portal, Antichamber and The Talos Principle - all fine games that Echoplex stands on the shoulders of, but as you make your way through room after room, past echo after echo, you’ll find that this game has a language and rhythm all its own that will surely stand as one of the best mind-bending puzzle games in your video game collection. It’s available on Steam now for around $10 and that is an absolute steal. If you’re a fan of any of the games mentioned here, you’ll fall in love with Echoplex.