While I never was a Stranger Things fan, especially cause I tend to not really follow any kind of “modern tendencies”, I sure can relate to most of the inspirations that led to Netflix producing a 80s children pseudohorror series. I have always had quite the soft spot for Monster Squad, The Goonies, Tales from the Crypt or even Little Monsters (yes). But, unfortunately, as it usually happens when an entertainment product hits big, the explosion of games and movies that desperately want a small slice of the pie ends up saturating the market. This is also because, unfortunately, the nostalgia craze seems to not want to quietly go into the gentle night. Fortunately, though, Echo Generation plays its cards right when it comes to inspirations.
The overall Stranger Things inspiration is clear from the atmosphere and narrative that the game developed by Cococucumber employs, along with their takes on urban legends and suburban horror. Still, while the blueprint is there, the dev team went their own way with a surprising mix of inspirations and shifts in tone that keep things fresh. What at first may seem like a lighthearted little tale of horror, will pretty soon reveal some disquieting twists and turns, even going for a jump scare or two. I definitely can appreciate games that do not stick to just monotone, but do constantly try to enrich their spectrum via different flavours and tastes.
Echo Generation plays like an exploration RPG with turn based battles, quite similiar to the Paper Mario or even the Mario & Luigi series. I would not say dare to call it open world since there’s only a handful of locations that can be visited at each time, but the player is mostly free to wander. Brother and sister will travel around their neighborhood and suburb trying to find out the reasons behind many weird events. They are accompained by “pets”, either cats or dogs and even little trusty robots. They will naturally be of help in fighting battles, providing health restoring powers or additional properties like attacks that make us gain items.
The leveling up system works as expected, for each level comes with the choice of raising health, attack powers or skill points. SPs are used to pull off special moves, which are definitely required to defeat some of the bosses. Again referring to the Mario & Luigi series, each special move requires the player to ace a dexterity test: pressing the required directions in time or waiting for all the lights to turn green before pressing the button. Even a split second later will mean that the attack will cause half damage and, thus, end up being wasted. Also, the timing mechanism also comes into play when defending, pressing A at the right moment. so, again, any minimal delayed button pressing will, probably, result in a loss. This system feels slightly robotic, not really platformer-like and entertaining as Alphadream’ series.
And thus we come at what I feel is the biggest problem with Echo Generation: the difficulty tends to be a bit too high, at least for this kind of exploration game. Some of the fights, especially in the first couple of hours, can end up taking a lot of time. Not only because the enemy is strong, but because of a frustrating combination of the dexterity special moves and the way the game lets you level up. Since there are no random battles in the first section, defeating the first boss will end up being quite problematic if one is not skilled enough. While I am not trying to berate the game for lack of accessibility, less dexterous players will probably end up failing most special moves and, thus, finding themselves before an even more difficult task.
This grievance also comes with a good part of the RPG/combat design feeling slightly off, especially compared to the rest of the game which is definitely solid. Allowing the player to just find as many random battles as possible to gain levels would seem obvious in these kind of games, but Echo Generation does not *always* allow the player to do that. Especially early on, places with enemies are few and far between and they do not even seem to always respawn. The player is artificially stuck at a level, but it does not feel like a designed cap, which might make sense, instead feels “random”, like there was not enough playtesting to feel how balanced the first two hours are.
If these problems ended up actually ruining the game, I would talk about them in more detail, but luckily, I feel that once past the two hour mark, along with naturally defeating the two bosses, will actually lead to most of the difficulty problems being solved. Once there is a good chunk of places to explore, which mostly come with random battles here and there, leveling up does not seem to be a problem anymore. It then becomes only a matter of grinding which, well, might not really be an entertaining experience, but your mileage may vary on that.
Exploring and talking to people is definitely the best part of the whole experience, since it comes with many quirky characters and actual good dialogue that does not just drop pop cultural references and call it a day. The quests are a little less engaging, since they seem to be mostly of the fetch variety or, even worse, “buy this item for fifty dollars, then bring it back to the NPC who will give you the actual quest item”. They don’t feel memorable for sure, but they don’t get in the way of the gameplay and they are just a good excuse to wander around a bit more.
Considering the target audience of Echo Generation, or at least what feels like its natural audience, probably focusing less on a rather inflexible combat system and more on the narrative and exploration, would have made the game highly recommendable. Especially because everything else in Echo Generation feels just right. The voxel-like graphics, while at first looking pretty run-of-the-mill, soon lend themselves to some amazing vistas and incredibly atmospheric scenarios, like sunsets or forests full of shadowplay. The soundtrack by Pusher is also quite well-done, not merely a synthwave re-hash of melodies or vague ambiance, but a melange of styles and ideas that, while not incredibly memorable, always manages to stay consistent and solid throughout.
In the end, the toughest sections of Echo Generation come right at the beginning, once past those the gameplay gets slightly less annoying, the graphics take off and the overall narrative of the adventure opens up immensely. Also, a patch has been recently released (1st of December) that fixes enemy respawning and a few bugs, which should make things a little bit easier for most players. While a little bit of patience is required to enjoy Cococucumber’s game, I think it can definitely reward many players. For a solid action RPG with the right kind of nostalgic vibe, not just a mere copycat experience, Echo Generation shall deliver good things to those who wait.
Echo Generation is available on the Xbox game store, free with Pass or at 25$
The game was reviewed with a free key provided by Stride PR and the developers.