Mini-Review: Echo: Secrets of the Lost Cavern

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

(Or "Secret of the Lost Cavern". I guess a one-letter title change is better than some we've seen; but I still have to mention the alternate title, for full Googlage.)

This game seems to have come out of several studios collaborating -- or maybe just passing a hot potato back and forth. Kheops is listed first, and the engine has Kheops's tidy feel, but the credits also cite Totem Studios (for the original idea and overall project management) and MZone Studio (graphics work?) (But MZone also lists Mysterious Island and Voyage in their portfolio, so maybe I should just assume that they're permanent partners of Kheops. Or maybe I should lighten up on the authorship obsession and talk about the game.)

Echo has a nice premise; you're a Stone Age hunter and budding painter, on a quest to reach the caves that today we call Lascaux. (If you don't recognize the name, think of paleolithic cave paintings. The ones you've seen photos of. That's Lascaux.)

This is educational gaming, of course, but then so was Return to Mysterious Island. You get an in-game encyclopedia about Life In Those Days. More importantly, all the game elements and story events are drawn from that knowledge: you hunt, you fish, you use stone tools. And, of course, you paint on cave walls.

This sort of didactic game can be smothering, but Echo keeps it lively. The game events occur from a genuine -- well, plausibly genuine -- prehistoric point of view. You are not a scientist in animal skins. Figures drawn on a cave wall are spirits, capable of aiding you on your quest. And they're presented that way. They come to life; some guide you, others give you the power to achieve great feats. The game makes no attempt to put this in a modern framework. You may be exercising your imagination or forcing yourself through a physical trial, but in the game's terms, the spirits of the wall are what's important. The matter-of-factness makes it work very well.

Unfortunately, the dialogue and voice acting (at least in English) doesn't support the effect very well. It comes off as distractingly modern. I'm not saying that an "aungh throw rock" preposition-stripped pidgin would be any better. But I'd be happier with -- well, I suppose I'm expecting the tricks fantasy writers pull to make their characters sound over-the-hills-and-far-away. It doesn't have anything do with with historical usage per se, although that's a common source. It's the same reason that ancient Romans always have British accents.

The game runs in a typical anamorphic panning environment, nicely detailed. I never felt like the designers were minimizing animations, or blocking my line of sight to reduce the number of scene variations they had to render. And it plays like a typical Kheops game, with plenty of tools and things to combine.

However... (I see I'm back to the "Yay, however, yay, however" review structure)... it doesn't have the typical Kheops structure of many puzzles surrounding you with many solutions for each one. In Echo, you nearly always face one challenge at a time, and there's only one way to solve it. So you can almost always feel your way through by trying everything in your inventory. They try to put in variation by providing three or four tools to work with, but it isn't really enough to create a dimension of choice. You just try everything in your inventory three or four times.

And, indeed, this was how I solved most of the game.

Interspersed with the tool puzzles (which are tightly bound into the environment and the story) are a few set-piece puzzles. These are, unfortunately, of mixed quality, and go downhill as the game progresses. Some are the cave paintings I mentioned earlier, and those fit in thematically at least. But the theme gets thinner as the puzzle logic gets more ornate.

And then, well, you know you're in trouble when you see a Tower of Hanoi made of rocks. And then there's a slider puzzle. It's creative slider puzzle, at least; but the creativity is in making the pieces get stuck on each other in complicated and not-very-visible ways. Also, it lacks a reset button. By that time, I felt the designer was jamming in puzzles that the game neither needed nor benefitted from.

Which pretty much brings you to the end of Echo. Since the game is trying to be historical, and we don't know much about the purpose and meaning of the Lascaux cave paintings, the game peters out in a cloud of spiritual generalities.

Conclusion: A lovely idea for a game, carried through in a way which is mostly competent but not brilliant. Should have had some of the classic-model puzzles kicked out in favor of more period elements.

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