Wot I Think: Echo Of The Wilds

By Adam Smith on March 24th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

that is not a carved stone with googly eyes

Echo Of The Wilds is a mysterious game that initially appears to be both a retro-pixel arthouse tenant and a crafting/survival sim. If that were the sum total of its being, Anthony Case could lay claim to have created an accurate container for indie gaming’s most popular current trends. Heck, the difficulty level is high and there’s enough randomisation to claim roguelike tendencies are in play so we could go for a full house. There are even elements of the mighty Going For A Walk genre but what is it really and wot do I think of it all?

While all of the labels above are applicable, Echo Of The Wilds isn’t easily boxed. In fact, if it were any sort of thing resembling a box, it’d be a beloved piece of old luggage, with labels indicative of different times and places attached to every surface. When I started playing, I didn’t know anything beyond what the trailer had shown me and I think that may be the best way to begin.

With that in mind, here are the basics. It’s a beautiful game, alternately at one with the wonders of nature and then cringing from the scale of sublimity. The immediate goal, at the dawn of each new day, is to gather provisions in order to survive through the next night. The human body requires food, water and warmth, and you’ll be collecting plenty of fuel to create the latter.

Days are short and mostly involve exploring small side-scrolling areas, accessed via a map, on which areas are filled in through scouting and exploration. There’s a natural progression from one type of wilderness to the next rather than complete randomisation, so the bare necessities are always available, but the crafting concept introduced early in the game introduces the means of progression.

this is what happens if you eat a lightbulb

It is not enough to survive. A strong narrative runs through The Wilds, and balancing the need to hunt and gather against the desire to unlock the secrets behind your isolation is the main challenge. This does make the game somewhat repetitive, as most days begin with visits to the same berry bushes, forests and streams.

Creating tools and learning tricks cuts down on the time taken to harvest, and constructing storage units allows for hoarding, which circumvents the limited inventory space, but the daily process is more limited and tightly structured than I expected. But Echo Of The Wilds isn’t really a survival sim, a crafting game or a Going For A Walk game. That’s just the disguise it has chosen to wear so that you’ll allow it get its foot in the door. The door that leads to your thoughts and fears.

If you leave that door even slightly ajar, chances are this game will finds its way inside and set up camp in a quiet corner.

It isn’t a side-scrolling Minecraft or Proteus with an extensive rulesheet, that’s for sure, and I’m still not entirely convinced that I know what it is at all. I understand how it works but I don’t fully understand what it means. The closest point of comparison might be Lone Survivor, although Echo Of The Wilds explores different kinds of alienation, anxiety, fear and solace.

oh, deer! Oh dear.

The cutesy confusion of the language in the dialogues and monologues is reason enough to doubt the integrity of the scenario, but the first time you perish, whether from hunger or exposure, the verdant veil isn’t just pulled back – it’s shredded. Nothing is as it seems in The Wilds, and there are other worlds hiding between the trees.

Scouting out a new area for the first time reveals a bird’s (or god’s) eye view, which makes the wilderness seem impossibly claustrophobic, a natural immensity bounded by water and the screen’s own borders. It doesn’t look like a space that allows those within to go without. As the mysticism and nightmares pile up, it becomes increasingly clear that the overall objective is not to survive or to escape, but something else entirely.

Explaining too much would diminish the pleasure of discovery and falling through the narrative is the game’s key pleasure. I’ve found the process of actually progressing a little wearisome, particularly when I’ve overstretched myself in an attempt to forge forward, only to miss out an essential survival resource.

Mount Doom in the spring

Unpicking the pieces often reminds me of my own attempts at wilderness survival (I was a Cub Scout, I failed to make a bivouac on several occasions). It’s hard work and it’s not always clear what the rewards are going to be. Do I really want to perform so much busywork just to face the same again tomorrow? What do I get other than another lonely night and the demanding day that follows?

For those willing to persist, the reward is a glimpse through a window into a weird and wonderful world. Echo Of The Wilds isn’t quite like anything else I’ve ever played – it feels like a Romantic poem scratched onto the wall of a litter-strewn alley. You forget the surroundings while you read but there’s something concrete and haunted at the end of every line. Coleridge would probably have been all over this.

I think I appreciate The Wilds all the more because it seems to have sprung into being fully-formed. That’s not the case obviously but it was new to me when I noticed that it had been released last week and the absence of two years’ worth of development diaries and screenshots bolstered the sense of playing something private and personal.

Ridiculous Fishing crossover coming soon

While it may not be an unqualified success, it’s a game that seems to be cut from the same cloth as Lone Survivor and even Cart Life (linked to Wiki because Richard’s site is currently down due to hosting devilry following an influx of traffic after this news).. A reflection on existence laced through with systemic elements that must be handled correctly and that encourage experimentation within the limits of the clearings and ghostly glades.

Eventually, in both its story and its mechanics, Echo Of The Wilds is perhaps not quite obscure enough. When the functions and origins of an object are understood, it loses mystery even as it accrues meaning, but I enjoyed losing myself for a few hours and might even be tempted back into the woods to try the endless survival mode. Without the lure of the plot, I’m not sure how long I’ll want to last but I’m interested to see if the basic procedures can maintain my interest on their own.

Either way, I’m glad to have played and strongly suspect that I’ll wake up one morning thinking of the trippy interlude animations that drunkenly dash from one scene to the next, and the sombre nightly balancing of the fire and the heart. It’s an experience that imprints its greatest moments directly onto the memory as if they’ve been lived a thousand times.

Now I just need to make sure I stop writing Echoes Of The Wild instead of the proper title (corrected myself at least three times in this review) because the distinction matters. What’s in a name? A whole bunch of stuff. Just don’t tell Juliet.

Echo Of The Wilds is available now, as is a demo for Windows or Mac. You can also vote for the game on Greenlight.

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17 Comments »

  1. GameCat says:

    God, these screenshots are gorgeous. And the game is for $5. It almost literally takes the cash out of my wallet. :(

    • J. Cosmo Cohen says:

      “It takes the cash out of the wallet or it gets the hose again.”

  2. Shazbut says:

    I’m going to buy this so hard

  3. Meat Circus says:

    Steam tags: walking simulator, not a game, not actually a roguelikelike, lesbians.

  4. sub-program 32 says:

    Does this game actually save your progress? Cos I think I accidentally deleted my entire save…

  5. DanMan says:

    I wish the game used at least real fonts. Those huge, blocky letters strain my old, withered eyes.

  6. alms says:

    Only played the demo for about 15 minutes, then I pressed escape to go pick up a pack of crackers and that seemingly lost my savefile – my day count was correct, but the game still started from the beginning instead of where I left off.

    It looks and sounds great and I can see the similarities with Lone Survivor (as both seem indebted to Lynch to a degree), FWIW I think Sword & Sworcery also deserved a mention among the influences (and not just because of antlers and pixel art)

    I was among the ones who weren’t put off by the writing style of S&S, but here I had mixed feelings, it’s ornate in a way that’s at odds with the tone of the rest of the game (at least for the little I manage to play it). Seems it’s worth spending more time with, but next time with the full version that hopefully won’t eat savefiles.

    FTR I think in the first link block (above the third screenshot) you wanted to mention Cart Life instead of Lone Survivor? seeing as all the links point that way and there is no actual link to a wiki.

    • FFabian says:

      You can save your game but there is a specific in-game mechanism you have to discover – don’t worry happens very early into the game. There is an updated version out since sunday that has various bugfixes and a confirmation dialog to prevent accidentally exiting the game by hitting esc.

      • Idiot says:

        The game is quite interesting however it essentially blackmails you into playing long sessions. In game resources and time are scarce and you have to use both of these to save your game which means it is effectively impossible to play if you can’t put in marathon sessions.

        • FFabian says:

          Yeah it get’s a bit easier later in the game because an other, easier to obtain, resource is used for saving but I too preferred it if saving the game were a bit less of a hassle.

    • jonahcutter says:

      Yes, I hate hate hate when developers do this. Even if, as FFabian says, it’s rectified somewhat later.

      I do not, often cannot, play on the developer’s schedule or preconceptions. And unless I die in a roguelike, experience setbacks through actually playing the game, etc, I do not want to lose progress. NOT from stopping playing the game itself.

      Teleglitch was another one that did this. You lost all progress if you quit playing mid-level. Fucking maddening. And makes me reluctant to pick the damn thing back up, even if I really like the game otherwise, because I may lose my progress if I don’t quit only when the developer thinks I should. Because they’re sitting next to me and know my real-life schedule, needs and wants…

      Game developers, stop this. Have the game save progress when you quit. It is basic functionality in today’s world. If some want to use it to save-scum and thus lessen their experience, that is their prerogative. Don’t punish all players who want or need to leave the game on short notice.

      • Idiot says:

        I won’t categorically rule out save systems like this if there is a sufficient conceptual justification, but yes it is especially annoying in a game like this that requires extremely efficient grinding.

      • Darius_bd says:

        .
        Uhm? But it’s not that difficult to save the game. Just offer some fruit to the white altar and that’s all. If you also found the patch with berries and the statues, you can use gold from the river for insta-growing of the berries.

        I think we need a crafting guide though…

        • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

          I don’t know. The fact that I didn’t know about this way to save (I found another, by accident) after a half hour of play suggests it is too difficult, or at least too complicated.

          There shouldn’t even be room for discussion on “how difficult” saving a game is. It should be as difficult as one or two keystrokes or clicks. Anything else and the dev is showing disrespect for anyone who puts some of their time into playing his game, which outweighs any interesting ideas on combining narrative and game systems.

          This plus the fact that hitting ESC just ended the game, no prompt, no saving, was a deal-breaker for me. The comment above saying the ESC thing’s been fixed is making me consider buying it, maybe- and only because it’s a singularly beautiful game in so many other ways. If I hadn’t happened to see that comment, it would’ve been a lost sale forever.

        • alms says:

          Just FTR I had offered fruit to every altar I’d found up to that point, probably I hadn’t stumbled into the right one yet, I distinctly remember one not accepting offers at all, I suppose the game was still being tutorial-ish.

          With the day/night cycle, being able to pause the game seems kind of basic functionality, it’s a strange oversight, but it’s good it’s been fixed.

          Hopefully the author didn’t forget to patch the demo too.

  7. FFabian says:

    Man I love this game. Bought it a week ago and couldn’t stop playing. The pixel art is beautiful and there is much to discover – the different areas and puzzles. It’s no easy game and there is/was no help/wiki/walkthrough – you have to figure quite a lot stuff out for yourself. No buyers remorse – it’s fantastic if you like survival games. Easily the best game I bought this year so far – it’s so addicting.

  8. edgymirrors says:

    What a gorgeous game. I need it to come onto Steam so I can buy it! (Steam & Gamersgate are the only game sites that support my payment method of choice, Skrill).