“Wow, it actually works!”
My first experience with There Came An Echo was filled with careful hesitation followed by eager disbelief and curiosity. It might not be the first game to attempt voice commands, but it’s definitely the most successful at making it feel seamless and authentic. It’s such a brilliant hook that it almost feels like enough to carry the game, until you step back and look at how hollow the experience actually is.
The idea behind There Came An Echo is that it’s a game played almost entirely with your voice (there are mouse controls but I can’t imagine wanting to use them). Viewed from a tactical, isometric perspective you issue orders to characters, telling them where to go, who to shoot, when to reload; the sort of commands that have become instinctual to me over so many years of playing games, but here required I relearn how I interact with this sort of game down to the most basic function. By requiring I put previously silent button presses into words, There Came An Echo felt intensely engaging. I couldn’t rely on muscle memory and doze off, I had to constantly be aware of what was happening and find the words to convey that to my troops if I wanted to make it through a mission.
Where There Came An Echo rises above other voice activated games is in how much freedom you have in creating these commands, and how well the game interprets them. Rather than a strict list of possible orders I could give, I’d often find myself just naturally forming sentences and being shocked at how often they came out the way I wanted to. There were some instances where I attempted more complex commands than the game could comprehend and needed to break them down, but when There Came An Echo is working as intended it feels like something revolutionary, which thankfully is far more often than not.
But what are you actually doing with all these commands? That’s sort of the problem. While There Came An Echo incorporates some impressive tech, its other systems are comparatively very shallow. My first thought when realizing that the voice commands worked as intended was to wonder how far I could take them, but most scenarios I was placed in gave me little room for dynamic play. Maps are narrow and linear, and different weapon loadouts offer only very slight alterations to how you play. In a sense it feels like the game is directing you as much as you are your units, putting restrictions on what you can and can’t do while pretending to be more strategically deep than it ever becomes.
I’d have likely accepted this though if what There Came An Echo cares about most, its narrative, was worth the immense amount of time spent on it. Far from being merely drawn out and overbearing though, the writing here is positively painful. It’s also very, very weird, in its plot, its tone, its character motives; everything, really. Each line is full of earnest attempts at self-awareness, baffling plot twists, and unending amounts of technical mumbo jumbo.
It isn’t even that There Came An Echo is written so poorly, but that it gives off such a strong impression that it thinks otherwise. It tries so hard that I sort of just feel sorry for it, wondering if there was some way it could be salvaged but always coming up empty. But when it takes up more of the game than anything else, it’s difficult to write it off as just regrettable. The narrative is always there, pushing its one-dimensional characters, overreaching plot, and shallow questions as to what it means to be alive in your face and forcing you to humor them. And then it fridges one of its female characters and reminds you yet again that “bitch” is its favorite word and any sympathy quickly disperses.
I’m not exaggerating when I say There Came An Echo’s use of voice commands is one of the coolest ways I’ve played a game in years. It never stops being cool either and I hope other developers will look at this and start experimenting with their own games. There Came An Echo succeeds at proving an idea works and can add a lot to a game, but when that’s all it does while bringing along with so much fluff it’s difficult for me to recommend playing it on that basis alone. I don’t consider voice commands a gimmick, but them being the sole draw here has effectively reduced them to one.