Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch[Review code provided]
There are some that say that turn-based RPGs peaked in the 90s, when the SNES brought us classics like Chrono Trigger, Earthbound and Super Mario RPG. Whether you agree or not, it’s hard to deny that those years were, at the same time, very formative for the genre and influential for the future of RPGs.
Chained Echoes, a Kickstarter backed RPG from Ark Heiral, is one such example of the influence that era had. It’s a game that clearly holds a lot of love for the 16-bit era of RPGs, and would feel very much at home among them. But at the same time, it’s a game that recognises the issues inherent to the genre at the time and aims to build upon their foundations rather than slavishly adhere to their formula.
This comes through in the game’s presentation, which boasts lavish pixel art and a charming soundtrack. There are many seriously impressive visuals throughout the game, with gorgeous full screen scenes and densely decorated environments. Such detailed pixel art would be impossible on SNES hardware, but Chained Echoes does a great job of encapsulating the era’s look and feel and updating it to modern standards.
The story of Chained Echoes takes place in Valandis, a continent plagued by war. Players follow an ensemble cast of rogues, royals, mercenaries and more as they attempt to unravel and overcome the conspiracies that surround the Grimoire – a magical super-weapon capable of devastation on a grand scale.
I’m intentionally being a bit vague about the story to avoid spoilers. What I will say is that Chained Echoes is a very enjoyable adventure with some clever twists and several genuine moments of awe. The story does a good job of balancing conflicts that feel small and personal with large-scale warfare and – of course – battles for the fate of the world.
Chained Echoes also tackles some interesting themes – some of which are quite dark – and has several nuanced and charismatic characters, particularly within the main party. My personal favourite was Sienna, the party’s pragmatic and self-serving thief. While the writing does trip over some tired cliches and a few unfortunate attempts at being edgy, it’s never so egregious that it would spoil the whole experience. There’s also some really funny jokes and smart subversions along the way for long time RPG fans.
The great story is matched by great gameplay, as well. Chained Echoes goes for a traditional turn-based combat system, with a few twists that help circumvent some of the genre’s more irritating staples.
For starters, there are no random encounters, no EXP to be gained and characters fully recover after every battle. Characters gain stats when they learn new skills, and the required skill-points are largely distributed at fixed points (beating a major boss, for example). This means that combat stays very well balanced throughout and players are encouraged to use a variety of skills in every battle. There’s very little grinding to worry about, and no more stingy meter-managing because a boss might be around any corner.
The party is also quite customisable. Characters have a limited amount of space for active and passive skills and these skills level up over time. By equipping Class Medals (usually earned through hidden boss fights), characters can learn skills they normally wouldn’t, opening more flexible strategies. Armour and weapons can be equipped with gems that add even more options to your arsenal.
When you gain access to Sky Armor, they too can be customised with various loadouts for different combinations of stats and skills. But, at the same time, none of it feels necessary – if you’d rather not get bogged down in min-maxing your build, you can still get by with minimal input thanks to the game’s steady difficulty curve.
The other core aspect of combat is the Overdrive/Overheat meter (for on-foot and in-armour battles, respectively). These meters reward you for staying in the green and penalise you for drifting out of it. The gauges are influenced by various actions: switching characters, using specified skill types, and so on. Ideally, the system encourages you to mix things up and avoid sticking to the same strategy consistently, making combat encounters more dynamic.
Usually these systems are unintrusive enough, but in more difficult battles things can get a bit frustrating. Once you’re in the red – where you take more damage – it can be hard to get back into the safe-zone while also keeping the team alive. I found that getting put on the back-foot left me in an unwinnable ‘snowball rolling downhill’ situation more often than I’d like. Meanwhile, in more by-the-numbers encounters, it tended to prolong fights rather than make them more interesting.
Thankfully, Chained Echoes includes a few accessibility options which let you adjust the combat towards your preferred level. You can make the Overdrive gauge more forgiving and make enemies less aggressive, for example – or, if you want more challenge, you can tighten the zone and make enemies more aggressive.
Chained Echoes is also quite meaty in terms of content. The game opens up side-quests and more freedom to explore after Act One concludes – which, for me, was nearly 20 hours into the game. There’s all sorts to do – hidden chests to find, secret bosses to fight, a set of bonus objectives to complete and even more beyond that. Completionists will have plenty to sink their teeth into.
Although the game’s pace can feel a bit slow sometimes, it remains engaging throughout and does a decent job of keeping you on course. There were times when it was unclear if I was meant to be exploring an area yet (usually cleared up by getting one-shot by the local mooks) or if I was supposed to fight an enemy on foot or armoured up, but bailing out and trying again is quick and painless.
The tutorials are also a bit text-heavy and hard to parse, and don’t seem to be repeatable. It was also a bit weird to have the game’s aggro mechanic explained (and in vague terms) some 35 hours into the game. But these are pretty minor gripes, on the whole.
To conclude, Chained Echoes is one of the best RPGs I’ve played in a while. It effectively captures what people love about the classics that inspired it, while building upon and improving the parts that haven’t aged so well. It delivers a polished and well balanced experience that never drags too much, and stays interesting throughout with gorgeous visuals, compelling writing and a world that is rewarding to explore.
Chained Echoes, then, is the sort of game that can be enjoyed by any RPG fan, whether they favour the modern or old-school approach. It’s a well-balanced blend of modern design and retro flavour. I thoroughly recommend it.
Chained Echoes blends retro flavour and modern design to create a compelling and content-rich adventure for RPG fans. There’s plenty to do, the story is intriguing and well written and the gameplay is tightly balanced throughout. The game has a few small scuffs in it’s otherwise well-polished armour, but these aren’t enough to spoil an otherwise outstanding experience. Definitely one to check out.