Metroid Prime is still undoubtedly one of the best games for GameCube to this day, and well deserving of a sequel. The question: Can Retro Studios do it again? The answer: Yes, yes they can.
Retro has once again managed to craft a well-balanced, challenging and engaging game with the right blend of action and exploration to keep new and old gamers satisfied. In addition, the game is beautiful—one of the most, if not the most, aesthetically pleasing titles on the GameCube. It is, however, clearly a sequel, and there are very few new elements. This is not a bad thing, considering the quality of the first Metroid Prime title; but the sense of freshness and novelty that one experienced with the first title is not there.
The premise is simple: You (as Samus) have been hired to check up on some Federation Troopers who crashed on planet Aether while chasing some Space Pirates. The opening is decidedly less dramatic than that of its predecessor, but definitely has its creepy moments. As the game progresses, you learn about the fate of the Federation Troopers and about the duality of the planet itself.
The game revolves around the theme of light versus dark. Aether is essentially two worlds: Light Aether, inhabited by the Luminoth, a sentient and helpful race of peaceful creatures, and Dark Aether, inhabited by the Ing, a race of shadowy, insect-like, vicious creatures. Of course, Samus quickly loses her gear, and the rest of the game is spent acquiring new weapons, suits and visors to unlock new areas to exploration.
This light world/dark world divide has been done many times before, and is used successfully in Echoes. The light side of Aether is full of varied environments ranging from bogs to deserts and populated by creatures great and small. Fans of Metroid Prime will definitely recognize some of the creatures, as many have been recycled and tweaked for use in Echoes. There are still plenty of new beasts as well. These beasts look great and many prove to be challenging enemies.
The art direction in this game is superb. Light Aether is definitely the more beautiful side of Aether. The art is amazingly done and everything works together to create a seamless and realistic environment. The natural life of the planet and the Luminoth technology blend together in parts. It’s really gorgeous.
Dark Aether is not quite as beautiful, but it does provide a nice contrast to the light side. It is mostly done in shades of purple, and the Ing structures are equal parts organic and mechanical. In Dark Aether, even the air is toxic, so Samus has to remain as much as possible in the shelter of light beacons and crystals placed around the areas. The dark world is much more claustrophobic and creepy than the light world, and the enemies are decidedly more difficult. Overall, the game is more difficult than its predecessor, with much tougher enemies and boss battles.
The controls are some of the most intuitive I have experienced in a while, particularly as far as first-person adventures go. Everything seems natural, and after a while you won’t even need to think about switching visors or weapons. In Morph Ball mode, the perspective changes to third-person to allow the player to see the environment. The one problem I encountered is that the lock-on mechanism does not seem as polished as it is in Metroid Prime. It can be frustrating in battles when you think you have locked onto an enemy but find that you have not, or if you suddenly lose the lock on your target. These problems are annoying, but are not serious enough to hinder the fun of the game. Otherwise, combat and exploration are simple and fun. Retro has gone to great lengths to make sure that the enemies are varied and difficult, and they have succeeded brilliantly.
The boss battles in particular are much more creative than those in Metroid Prime. Retro has made more extensive use of the Morph Ball, adding in many more Morph Ball-based puzzles and even battles. Some of the major boss battles are very difficult, as the bosses tend to have several forms which require you to switch fighting styles. The battles are never so difficult as to be frustrating. There is always the sense of accomplishment at the end, along with the reward of a suit or visor or weapon. The main bosses in each region are massive and beautifully done, and require a mix of tactics to defeat them.
One thing that could potentially frustrate people is the amount of backtracking in the game. It is a game based around exploration, and as one acquires new weapons and movement systems, Samus can enter areas that were previously closed to her. Still, this style of game requires that players backtrack through areas a lot in order to move forward. For most of the game, it’s not really noticeable; however it does seem to slow down a bit at the end, where Samus needs to collect nine keys to enter the final temple. Perhaps a bit more guidance at this point would have been helpful, because it can get frustrating to have to search the whole world (and it is a large one) over again for keys with only a few vague hints to help.
Still, the game moves forward at a good pace, with the well-integrated help system to guide players to their next major battles, and there is rarely a dull moment. It’s a good length game: it will probably take about 20 hours to complete, more or less, depending on how much time the player spends scanning everything. There are also unlockables, such as concept art and stages for the multiplayer portion.
As far as the multiplayer game goes, it’s well-made, but compared to other first-person multiplayer titles, it doesn’t have that much to offer. That’s not to say it’s bad; it’s a nice extra and definitely worth trying out a few times. Still, it seems somewhat unnecessary and out-of-place in a franchise that is really all about solitary exploration. It is fun to pick up and play for a while, and there are a couple of modes and maps to play on, but it’s not a reason to buy this title. In short, it’s a nice extra, but nothing really special.
What else is there to say about Echoes? The sound is excellent. The mood of the music changes to match the context, and the sound effects are solid. The light world as a whole seems rich and full of life, while the dark world is claustrophobic and menacing. Retro has done an excellent job of crafting a world, and while the dark world is not as visually compelling as the light world, it does serve its purpose nicely.
This is a game for anyone who enjoys adventure and exploration. It is not a first-person shooter; it is an adventure game that just happens to be in first-person. It is also one of the finest titles available on GameCube, along with its predecessor. Really, I would confidently recommend this game to anyone who likes action and adventure titles.