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Echo Generation review: a spooky grab bag of familiar retro tropes

Stranger things have happened

Like anyone, I went into Echo Generation knowing it would be riding on Stranger Things’ coattails. With its young cast and retro, small town setting, this is a game that definitely falls into that familiar “gang of boys plus maybe someone’s girlfriend going on an occult adventure” vein of 80s nostalgia fests like The Goonies and It. But the question was, would it be an inspired homage to the Upside Down, or a cash grab with a voxel paint job designed to lure in 'the youth'? The answer, sadly, is neither.

You can pick one of several avatars at the start of the game, but whatever face you choose, you’ll star as a spunky latch-key kid with an adorable kid sister. It’s suggested that your parents may be separated or divorced, but it quickly becomes apparent that your father is missing and it’s up to you to find him because adults are Not to Be Trusted (for... reasons). It’s all pretty loosely goosey, though. Yeah, you should probably look for your dad, but you also have a number of other concerns to attend to. Yoou have a very important no-budget movie to film with your friends, one of your classmates has also gone walkabout, and everything appears to be haunted, so you’ll get to your dad when you get to him.

As is perhaps par for course for an 80s inspired adventure, Echo Generation is full of familiar retro tropes. From the outset, it's crystal clear that comic books are the source of all knowledge (indeed, you learn special attacks from them), station wagons abound, and you also live just around the corner from a mad scientist type who’s far too comfortable with other people’s children for modern sensibilities. The game even gets its obligatory Dungeons & Dragons mention in not once, but twice in the first 60 seconds of screen time if you happen to check the extra chunky desktop computer in your room.

Beneath the 80s aesthetic, though, Echo Generation is your standard turn-based combat adventure, with the slight twist that you can land critical hits by acing a quick mini-game. Basic attacks often involve nothing more than performing a timed, Paper Mario-style button press, but others require a bit more concentration. The protagonist, for example, has a flying puck attack that requires aiming a crosshair at a moving target, while Lily's uppercut punch gives you a little Dance Dance Revolution moment.

Two kids battle a spooky bear clown in Echo Generation

It’s a nice way to keep you engaged, and if you’re a bit more attentive than I am, you should be able to land all of your critical hits and power through pretty much any encounter in one go (though it also seems like the kind of feature that could easily be made toggleable for accessibility). If not, and you happen to burn through whatever healing snacks you pulled out of the garbage, the only penalty for dying is restarting the area you're in and walking all the way home to heal. As such, it’s simple enough to grind on smaller enemies until you can swing through bigger battles without trouble.

The absolute high point of this game is the art. I’m not a fan of Minecraft-esque blockery myself, but Echo Generation's highly detailed environments pulled me into every nook and cranny of Maple Town just to see how all the pieces fit together. Some areas, like the cornfield, the sun-dappled woods, and the road leading to the junkyard, are an outright breathtaking collage of voxel foreground backed by pixel skies, and every area has a unique aesthetic and colour theming that really draws the eye. The same goes for many of the monsters and boss-level baddies, some of which are properly unsettling despite the game’s cutesy looks.

A dad talks to his kids in Echo Generation

The story, on the other hand, is less a coherent narrative and more a collection of soft horror concepts scattered throughout a suburban neighborhood. You fight ghosts, aliens, mole-people, giant rats, an eldritch horror... if Stephen King’s written about it, it’s in there. It holds together pretty well, but never digs very deep beneath the surface. Characters similarly serve to check a box on the genre checklist without any further elaboration. You have the crazy professor, the stodgy principal, a pair of incompetent police officers, some FBI agents, a local van dweller bent on making first contact... The list goes on. Your friends, meanwhile, come in the flavours nerdy, cool and rich.

Ultimately, it all feels a little trite for a game going for £21 / $25 (although at least has the benefit of also being on Game Pass if you want to see it for yourself). Worse still, one or two basic quality of life features are just missing entirely. For starters, some of the dialogue within an area often didn't update to reflect new discoveries I'd made in the main story. When you discover a crashed spaceship, for example, your character just keeps telling their friend you’re going to check out that sound she heard in the cornfield without ever volunteering that it was, in fact, aliens, so interactions get stale fast.

Two kids walk through a corn field at sunset in Echo Generation

There were also multiple times I thought I’d reached the end of an area and wound up circling the map for hints on what to do next before I got desperate enough to try walking past what I’d thought was the edge of the frame. Fixable enough with some additional visual cues, but still a timewaster.

The most painful omission, though, is the absence of any kind of quest tracker. Instead, the only way to get a refresher on your mission details is to go through entire conversations all over again, assuming you can even find the person who gave it to you in the first place. On multiple occasions, I was reduced to completing a full sweep of every unlocked area in the hopes of picking up the trail - and I still don’t know where to find Jasmin to start filming our movie, or if that’s even what I’m meant to be doing right now. Indeed, if you're intending to play this with kids, you'll certainly need an attentive adult in tow to help steer them in the right direction.

Kids fight a bunch of raccoons in shorts in Echo Generation

Speaking of kids, while there are a few creepy moments in Echo Generation (the first jump scare got me not once, but five or six times in a row), it never gets too dark or seriously disturbing, and any enemy that can talk has a somewhat bumbling air about them, further disarming any would-be terror. It’s also just friggin’ adorable. There are so many itty-bitty pixel animals: you can recruit a hip-hop raccoon and your kitty’s licks heal you through the power of cat love, and they all talk. You and your friends also hang out in a tricked out tree house bigger than the ranch-style home your family of four lives in. Even as an adult, I covet that glorious treehouse.

Still, even cute animals can't save Echo Generation from feeling like a bit of a slog. I'd persevere through the absent quest tracker and other systemic niggles if the underlying story was strong enough to pull me through the occasional clouds of confusion, but when you're rehashing a dozen old tropes you've seen before, I'm just not convinced it's worth the effort. If you’re an absolute turn-based combat fanatic fiending for a fix, then by all means go for it if you've got Game Pass, but those after a spookier kind of game to vibe with at this time of year are better off looking elsewhere.

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