Platforms: PC - Oculus Rift

Editor's note: Though Lone Echo is parternered with the multi-player game Echo Arena, the games have since been spun off into distinct releases, so we are reviewing them separately. You can read our review of Echo Arena here

To say space is a commonly used setting in video games is an understatement. Ever since Spacewar! countless games have used this perfect video game backdrop to great effect over the years, and there’s no reason to believe that’s going to change any time soon. Space has it all: danger, the great unknown, and a universe full of surprises waiting just beyond the stars.

That being said, you’ve never experienced space like this.

Lone Echo is the first VR effort from Ready at Dawn, whose resume includes the gorgeous but underwhelming The Order: 1866, and a host of solid PSP games such as God of War and Daxter. This ambitious VR project is a pretty dramatic departure from their previous work, and it’s an altogether impressive achievement.

Lone Echo is available exclusively on the Oculus Rift with Touch controls, and is out now for $40.

Narrative and delivery

The story of Lone Echo covers familiar ground for sci-fi fans, but the execution is top notch.

You play as a robotic Echo-1 unit named Jack, who works on a mining station near Saturn called Khronos II. You’re not alone out there in the cold vacuum; there’s a human Captain named Olivia “Liv” Rhodes who runs the ship alongside the player. She’s your primary companion for most of the game, and it’s through their very charming relationship you come to learn about Khronos and the danger it faces.

That relationship is quickly put to the test as a mysterious anomaly forms nearby the gas giant, and things begin to quickly spiral out of control.

A lonely, derelict space station is hardly a novel setting for video games (think Dead Space or System Shock) and is especially well trod territory for film, (Gravity, 2001) but there are some interesting ideas that set Lone Echo apart. Chief among those concepts is the two main character’s friendship, the almost familial closeness between the lonely Captain and her robot companion.

You learn about Olivia through optional exploration. When talking to her in her room you can ask about the pictures on her wall, or you can pick up toys she has sitting on the bridge and see what she has to say about them. You can also choose your responses to her questions (or choose not to answer at all), and though I haven’t had the opportunity to follow every dialogue chain, I’d imagine exploring those choices adds some replay value and interesting revelations.

This optional character development is very well implemented. I don’t enjoy when narrative is forced on the player, but when it’s subtly available for the player to find if they’re interested, that’s a different story. A good story.

The writing is solid all around, and the science fiction terminology seems natural. Ready at Dawn doesn’t try to force made up terms down your throat in the service of forced world building. Sometimes it’s nice to not have to remember an entirely new vernacular to understand a story, and I say that as a huge Star Trek and Mass Effect fan.

The dialogue is crisp and amusing throughout, and genuinely poignant at moments. This pathos is heavily accentuated by the stellar voice acting, led by the very talented Troy Baker as Jack.

Though it does hit pretty much every popular sci-fi trope you can imagine given the setting (no spoilers here,) the overarching narrative and themes of friendship and survival tell a very human story that is a stark contrast to the sterile and harsh environments you’ll be exploring.

Gameplay

Lone Echo is, at its heart, a puzzle game. An environment, movement, and physics based series of challenges that take place on both the station and beyond.

One puzzle might have you scanning radiation cells in the ship's core while the substantially more fragile Olivia walks you through the process from behind a shielded hatch.

Another might have you aligning power couplings in a simple but entertaining matching puzzle, or charging energy cells to start a generator that realign plasma fields to kick start a fusion reaction.

The puzzles are never terribly complex or challenging, but they are sufficiently varied and creative. They also have a logical consistency to them that feels very natural in the context of the setting.

The stakes get higher as you advance to more dangerous environments. Before long you’re frantically trying to reactivate a radiation dampener as your radiation shield quickly expires. You’re flying down a hallway avoiding beams of plasma and clearing debris from cooling units, or desperately clearing air vents of alien spores so you can reboot a life support system.  

Lone Echo never becomes particularly difficult once you figure out how to proceed. There’s no combat, and the penalty for death is very light. When your current body is destroyed, you’re simply rebooted into a new “shell” (think Bioshock’s Vita-Chambers) to pick up where you left off. The generous checkpoint system means you’ll probably get through the single player campaign in about six hours, but those six hours are filled with variation, fascinating sights, great storytelling, and some of the most extraordinary movement I’ve ever encountered in a video game.

Getting from place to place is a puzzle by itself, because movement is a key part of what makes Lone Echo so fun to play.

Getting around in space

Normally when I play VR games I have to address whether movement is good enough. Here, it’s an integral part of what makes the game such a joy to play.

Because the entire game takes place in zero gravity, movement consists off of pushing off surfaces, flying across the room to other walls or floors and grabbing on to stabilize or pushing off again. You have a set of light thrusters for small corrections, and movement does increase in complexity as you progress, but overall it’s a simple matter of exerting force and steering to your destination. It’s elegant in its simplicity, and I had zero issues with comfort throughout my entire experience.

Think about every time you’ve seen an astronaut or a space movie and wondered what it would be like to move in zero gravity...Lone Echo will let you experience that, and it’s extraordinary.

I can’t stress enough how fun movement is, especially once you master it. My initial impulse  was to zoom around the station as quickly as possible, but I quickly realized it’s more fun and rewarding to be precise. It speaks volumes about the enjoyment of zero gravity movement that there are so many options for how you choose to navigate the environments.

As is to be expected from a high-concept game like Lone Echo, movement is not always perfect. There were occasional collision issues, and alignment of your sensors can have a huge impact on effective locomotion.

Speaking of sensors, I played with only two. It worked fine, though I found it was easier to rotate on a horizontal plane with the right stick as opposed to fully tracked movement. The head tracking works great, but once you get turned around (and you will) the Oculus sensors lose the ability to effectively map your movement. It was still a perfectly pleasant experience, but if you have the luxury of three sensors for your Oculus, I’d imagine movement will be even more smooth and enjoyable.

Graphics / presentation

Part of what helps the game work as well as it does are the impressive visuals. A great deal of attention was paid to making sure Jack looks like a plausible robot, and Ready at Dawn very much succeeded. A lot of the game is spent interacting with your hands, and seeing the texturized padding connected over whirring gears and metal tendons never ceased to impress me. The way his hands curve around corners and react to different surfaces with procedural grip animations is unlike anything I’ve seen in VR, and though it’s not perfect, it will almost certainly set a new standard.

Olivia looks great as well; she’s a well-rendered, detailed character model who is animated with great care. Her expressive face and excellent voice work lend a great deal of credibility to the story as it unfolds, and it’s hard not to become involved in her struggle to survive as the danger escalates.

The environments are remarkable too, and were developed with an architectural cohesion unlike anything I’ve seen in a VR game. The locales are massive, and without getting into spoiler territory, there are some truly awe inspiring sights to behold in these monolithic structures. There is a small stretch toward the end of the game where the environments became a bit repetitive and less inspired, but overall I was thoroughly impressed.

I did run into two or three game-ending bugs and a few minor graphical glitches, but it’s reasonable to assume these will be mitigated with post-release patches. The liberal checkpoint system minimized my frustration with having to restart.

It’s not the best-looking VR game I’ve encountered, but it’s up there, and when the size and detail of the environments is taken into account there’s no doubt that Lone Echo is a marvelous technical achievement.

A case for space

Between the excellent presentation, thoughtful, well told narrative, and the absolutely fantastic movement mechanics, Lone Echo is one of the best VR experiences I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy. As a single player experience it stands out as an example of what is possible with VR, and I’ll be recommending it to any doubters of the medium that still remain.

The few technical issues I encountered aside, I’m looking forward to jumping back in, exploring the dialogue options I missed, and finding the remaining collectibles to unlock the rest of the story.

The fact there is an entirely separate multiplayer component that I haven’t even tried yet makes Lone Echo a very easy recommendation for any Oculus Touch owner.

Time to find out if my single player skills translate to wins in the Arena. Wish me luck.

For more VR news and hardware, visit Newegg VR Central