Premature Evaluation: ECHOPLEX

Every week we expose Brendan to the radioactive chemicals of the early access laboratory. This time, the time-bending puzzles of ECHOPLEX [official site].

I am stuck. There are 15 short levels currently available in ECHOPLEX, a first-person puzzler along the lines of Portal and Antichamber, and I am stuck on level 11. It is a toughie. The thing is, I’m not sure if the game is working as intended. Bugs are part of the early access merry-go-round, for sure, but if they show up in the strict logic of a puzzle game they can be boldly destructive. But there’s a bigger problem than that: I don’t know if what I’m seeing is a bug, or if it is simply part of the puzzle that hasn’t been explained.

To tell you the basics first. You’re a test subject for a program that retrieves memories. Or at least it seems that way. You’ve woken up in this chamber next to an IV bag with neon pink liquid in it called ‘continuum’ – some new drug made by a strange corporation. To get your memories (short videos of the story) you go through various trials of opening doors using glowing gateways that act as switches. The difficulty: a past version of yourself will appear shortly after beginning he level and will start doing everything you’ve already done. If he touches you – bloop – you’re dead. Restart the level.

It’s a smart concept and surprisingly unnerving from the first moment you see your masked past-self bumbling down a corridor toward you. There’s something horrifying about not being able to remember exactly which side of a corridor you came down just moments before, something creepy about the way your screen distorts and crackles if you pass too close to your clone. The whole conceit is uncanny in a way that few horror or sci-fi games manage to be. There is something coming after you and it is you. Yet you need that echo to complete the puzzles. It’s a strange game where your enemy is also your ally, an interesting spin on first person puzzles.

The first few levels are spent figuring out the rules. The glowing gateways you pass through might open a doorway for a limited time, or they might act as an on/off switch for the doorway. It depends on the level. For the latter, that means that if you hastily run through a red gateway and toward the red door that has just opened, your echo might pass through moments later and close the door on you. Now you need to discover how to stop that. You can delay your echo by just standing around, or running along a long corridor, for example.

A lot of the solutions have to do with precise timing – using your old clone to do something you know you’ll need in the future. This becomes slightly more confounding when a second echo is added to the test. If two echoes collide, they blow up in a small orb of super hot white light (and you too, if you are close to them). Here, you need to run through the gateways and doors in such a sequence that your future self will be able to pass through the end goal of the level, but that your twin echoes will also never collide. That means, not stopping for too long, not running in the opposite direction, and taking care when “crossing” paths or, er, futurepaths.

Yet, despite the potential for chin-rubbing, the first batch of levels flows faster than a water slide. You are pressured from this thing behind you to run on and try every path as quickly as possible. As an antagonist, your echo doesn’t so much light a fire under you as it does strap fireworks to your ankles. Sometimes you run through a level without truly thinking it through, yet somehow manage to complete it anyway. This misses out the essence of a puzzle game altogether – that moment when the solution “clicks”.

The developers, Output Games, have said they are working on a solution to this. They plan to make the echoes last a shorter length of time, with a bar for their lifespan displayed on the side. My fear here is that the game will move away from its simple core concept by adding extra layers of timing and meters, which would not be necessary if the levels themselves were more refined or clear.

For instance, many levels involve Portal-like doors which lead you back to corridors you’ve already been on. In a game about spatial awareness, and avoiding a collision with another moving version of yourself, these sudden shifts in geography mix with the urgency of the puzzles to create a feeling of confusion. The flaw here is that, in Portal, you were responsible for the magic gateways, and thus had an innate sense of where you were travelling before you even stepped through. Here, the magic gateways are pre-made and serve to confuse you for the first few attempts at the level. With the panic of the echo(es) behind you, this encourages you to just keep running, when ideally, you should be able to stop and think things through. A better solution to the “rushing” problem, I think would be to simply allow the test subject to create his own echoes (although this may be what the developers have in mind for future levels). As it stands, you’re currently stuck with sometimes completing a puzzle half-wittingly. At least that’s what I found, until I reached level 11.

Level 11, named Memento, is hard. I think, if it is working as intended, it is probably the best level so far, because it has stumped me (only one other level managed this – level 9 – for a completely different and completely stupid reason. I had to “hold” a door open for my echo by standing next to it – an ability which was in no way sign-posted or talked about before that point). But I’m not sure the Memento level is working as intended. My echo appears very quickly. I need to get through one blue door but the time between my echo and I does not leave enough room for me to make the doorway in time before he switches it off by passing through the blue gateswitch. That part is obviously intentional. From the level’s design I know there is some way to extend that time but – shit shit shit I think I just figured it out hang on…

Nope, not a clue.

Part of my problem is that I understand, theoretically, what I need to do here. But any time it seems like I am getting close to it, my echo disappears. That, I’m almost certain, is a bug. The only other way I’ve seen this level get solved is in a YouTube video where I am sure the character controller glitches out allowing the player to jump further than usual. If this is the actual solution, it is a terrible one, because it means the yellow gateway in the level is purposeless.

Anyway, if anyone out there with a brain not rotten and deflated by years of dumb television can help me out, go for it. Until then, I’m putting this aside. Not because it’s a bad puzzler, I think it has a lot of potential. But what it currently lacks is the ability to communicate its problems in a readable way. And I’m also confused about its early access presence at such an infantile stage of development. Even had I completed the Memento Problem, there’s only four more levels after that, and it only took me one hour to get to where I did. For a person smarter than I, you can get more value (even at the game’s admittedly cheapo price) out of a microtransaction in WordBubbles. It won’t have the same sense of fear, urgency or uncanniness to it, but it will at least be consistent and understandable – attributes I genuinely hope ECHOPLEX achieves as it continues to form.

ECHOPLEX is available on Steam early access for £6.99/$9.99

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9 Comments

  1. JackMultiple says:

    Haven’t played the game, but the Christopher Nolan film “Memento” is one of my favorites. It’s about a guy with very short term memory, and will soon forget what just happened to him unless he writes it down somewhere (often on his body with a sharpie!) but also he’ll take a Polaroid snapshot of a moment/person/thing and write what it was so he’ll “remember” it later. So in 15m from now, when he’s already forgotten why he’s standing where he is, he can look somewhere on his body or at a photo to find the “note” that he left his “future self”.

    The clever part of the movie is… it’s filmed backwards… I think to give the audience a “sense” of what having short-term memory might be like. Like the guy in the movie, you (the audience) don’t know what happened 15m ago either! So the movie keeps “clawing” it’s way back through time. It’s a murder mystery of sorts, and the movie begins with a clip that is quite far along in the story. And then… jumps back to the previous 15m and presents that timeline for 15m, and then… jumps back to 30m before now, and repeats, until you eventually see what really happened at the “beginning” of the story. Dunno if that helps you here. Probably not. Regardless whether that’s why this level is called “memento”, it’s a fun, mind-twisting film. Yes, kinda like Inception turned inside-out.

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    syllopsium says:

    Precise timing? That does not sound like fun.. The joy of Portal is that practically none of the puzzles were that timing critical; they could be thought through at leisure.

    That changed in Portal 2, which was a great pity, but the presentation, humour, and plot were sufficiently improved so as not to be as concerned.

    • April March says:

      Yeah. Every time a game comes out with a puzzle like this, even one as interesting as this one, the trailer might as well be the word TIMING being branded on my skin for all it’ll make me want to play the game.

  3. DEspresso says:

    I recall there being an FPS Game with similar mechanics where you had to create multiple clones of yourself to finish the levels. Unfortunately most of them ended doing tasks like open door close door open door..

    At least you had a rifle so I guess you had to shoot someone/thing?

    I can’t remember what the game was called though :/

    Anyway the lesson I learned from this I like to play with myself ;)

    • GameOverMan says:

      Project Temporality? Rewind?

    • itsbenderingtime says:

      Is it Prometheus? (link to moddb.com). It was one of the first games to jump from an Unreal mod to the UDK, and it’s the one I always think of with this sort of thing.

      The most mind-blowing part was realizing what I needed the rifle for.

  4. Josh Grams says:

    There was also the little Flash game The Company of Myself, a little Braid-inspired platformer where all your past selves replay their paths and you can stand on them (or they on you).

    • Soapeh says:

      This concept was also explored in the wonderful Adventures of Shuggy a few years later.