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.
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.
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.
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.
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.