Role-playing games often have systems on top of systems to allow the player a wealth of customization options. These can range from more surface level choices – like putting a few points into your character’s guns skill so they’re better at shooting – to much more in depth, number crunching type stuff – having someone in your party equip an accessory that adds a small boost to their critical hit chance. This is part of why I love the genre, both in tabletop and video game forms. By the time you’re knee deep in an adventure, there should be something about it that’s unique to you, whether that’s what party members you choose for each location, some equipment you got for side questing, or even your entire build. Sure, you won’t see much variation in a game like Dragon Quest 1 or Jack Move, but you still get a similar feeling from character progression in things like levels or upgrades. Chained Echoes is an incredibly ambitious title that offers an overwhelming amount of options, but ends up spread too thin and much more simplistic as a result.
Chained Echoes takes place on the continent of Vlandis, where the prince of Tormund is on a quest to unite all the kingdoms of the realm by force. The Band of the Iron Bull, a mercenary company, has been hired as an opposing force in the battle against Tormund. Ace Sky Armor pilot Glenn is to break through the enemy lines and destroy their crystal as the rest of the company serves as a distraction. After a heated battle, he smashes the stone, yet in a twist of fate it engulfs the entire battlefield in light, killing everyone save for Glenn and his fellow mercenary Kylian. Wracked with guilt, the two dedicate their efforts to finding and destroying the stone once and for all. They are quickly joined by the princess of Tormund, Lenne, and her ward, Robb, a skilled thief and swordswoman, Sienna, and a long lived mage and playwright by the name of Victor, each with their own reasons for banding together.
The premise is engaging right off the bat, but unfortunately it becomes a mess of plot threads, character motivations, and constant twists that makes everything feel like it was written on the fly with no clear direction or point. For example, Robb was born into a noble family but through various circumstances became a simple servant of the royal family despised by the rest of the staff. He clearly hates it when you go there, but remarks way later on about how he wants to return to the castle as living there was much better than… living on an island where people love and respect him? It also doesn’t help that the game has an awful English translation, with some incredibly awkward lines and a mix of that typical Ye Olde English as well as modern slang in the same sentence. Apparently the game was written by a single German developer, and only translated back into his native language after the fact so this is technically the original script, and it really could have used another draft or two. Even putting aside the awkward writing, the overall plot just feels too messy and quite a lot could have been cut.
I will say that, while poorly written and thought out, it is paced pretty well. Regardless of how I feel about it, the story moves at a decent clip with things always in motion and another revelation or story beat just around the corner to keep you playing. It’s like the opposite of Soul Hackers 2 in that regard; where that game had absolutely nothing going on, there’s way too much happening here.
This excess continues in the combat system, which is turn-based. You can have up to four party members at once on the field, with each having a tag-team partner to swap with R for a total of 8. While everyone can Attack, Defend, Use Items, etc. your main method of action are the 6 character actions you can set. These can be anything from a fire-aspected attack to playing a song that grants the active party HP regeneration. Skills cost TP to use, and once your out normal attacks will replenish it.
Every move you make will change your position on the Overdrive bar in the top left corner of the screen. The bar is divided into three sections: yellow is the normal state, green reduces TP costs by half and damage taken by 15% while increasing damage dealt by 25%, and red causes the party to take 25% more damage. Combat essentially revolves around this meter, requiring you to use whatever type of skill is displayed to move the cursor away from red and back to green, but as the game progressed I found it mattered less and less. Near the start I was basically at the thing’s mercy, with incredibly weak characters who needed that green buff to survive every encounter. Halfway through it became a nice bonus and helped a lot in boss fights. At the end though I could basically ignore it and blast through every fight easily.
I think this is mainly the culprit of the leveling system. In short, there isn’t one: characters don’t gain experience. Instead, similar to Chrono Cross, each party member gains a “level” in the form of a Grimoire Shard which you can spend in the skill tree for another move, a passive skill to equip, or straight stat increases. After spending a certain amount of shards, you’ll gain the real level in the form of surprise stat boosts. I like the idea here, gating certain areas through story progression and removing any sort of grinding, but it’s executed poorly. Once I found a party setup I liked (mostly favoring raw damage over exploiting weaknesses or using debuffs), I started to put all my points into the simple stat ups and I quickly became overpowered.
The game really has trouble keeping you in the relative power levels it thinks you should be in, despite the railroading systems in place. Once again, at the start of the game I had to try every single encounter multiple times because enemies are just way too strong and you’re ridiculously weak. So in the accessibility options (which are a great addition) I set enemy stats to be a tad weaker, which provided a more reasonable challenge for about an hour or two. Then I was just mowing through everything. However, if I set it back to normal, I’m back to having my head handed to me by every single monster in my zip code. I was forced to choose between the two extremes of way too difficult and way too easy, so to preserve my sanity and get this review done in a reasonable amount of time I chose the latter. (I switched back to normal for the final boss, and on that difficulty it has an attack that just kills your party in 1 hit even at full health.)
So I was able to effectively ignore the Overdrive mechanic in the late game, but that was actually the mechanic that held out the longest. You see, Chained Echoes has systems on top of systems like a Xenoblade game, but clearly wants you to interact with them constantly even if the benefits for doing so are negligible at best. While you don’t gain experience from normal battles, you do gain SP to spend on leveling up skills, which only gain points by using them otherwise. The increase in effectiveness from leveling up skills is very, very small: like going from a healing skill restoring 0.1% HP at level 1 to 0.3% HP at the max of level 3. Sure, it’s effectively tripled the output, but is it worth using even then? No, not really. You’re better off not healing at all or just using items or buffs. After all, your party is fully restored after every fight so killing the enemy eliminates the problem entirely.
You can also upgrade your equipment and insert gems for passive buffs like attack up or a chance to heal with every hit. It’s an interesting idea, but again is undermined by the fact that you’re constantly tripping over better equipment. So if you do decide to go through the fairly lengthy process of improving your gear, it’s guaranteed to be outclassed by whatever you find in the next chest in about 5 minutes. I really tried to make use of this system whenever I could, but it’s pretty confusing in all honesty and I got sick of all that time being wasted.
About 12 hours into the game, you gain access to four Sky Armors (mechs) which change up the battle mechanics a bit. The Overdrive bar begins in the middle with no green zone and red at each end. Your Armors have three gears they can move between by pressing R once per turn. Each party member begins in gear 1, which is the normal state and moves the cursor right with every action. Pressing R will move up to gear 2 where TP costs are increased by so is damage output, with the cursor moving left. After gear 2, the cycle restarts with gear 0, in which the cursor doesn’t move and you can’t use any skills, but normal attacks will recover large amounts of TP.
It’s another interesting system, but it feels a bit more shallow than normal battles. Since getting hit will always move the gauge right, It felt like there was no reason to use gear 1 – it’s just a stepping stone back to gear 2, that is if a battle even lasts that long to begin with. You also don’t really have a choice of whether to use Sky Armors or not. Damage numbers and HP increase exponentially in battles intended for Armors, so there’s no way you can beat these larger foes on foot.
Sky Armors add a bit to exploration too. While on foot, you can access smaller areas and jump over tiny gaps. In areas you can board your Armor, however, you can hover over most terrain and even fly over cliffs. This is restricted of course by how much room you have, and you can’t board or land near monsters or grassy terrain. It’s a neat way to encourage backtracking to previous areas once you get the Airship along with the Armors, even if you’re not required to do so.
To further encourage this, Chained Echoes has a few side quests to do between story missions which will reward you with new party members, gear, and class emblems (which can be equipped to learn two new skills in battle for a total of 8). However, these quests are incredibly short, sometimes only taking a few seconds to acquire and complete. It’s very strange, and it seems like they mostly serve to add some world building through dialogue, which would be nice if the writing wasn’t awful. I wouldn’t say any of the rewards are particularly valuable either, not even the optional party members. Heck, I barely even used most of the main party with Glenn and Robb taking a back seat in favor of Lenne (Physical/Caster),Ba’Thraz (Caster), Sienna (Physical/Debuffs), and Victor (Buffs). Your party can grow so large too, with a total of 12 characters, that it’s easier to just stick with what works.
As you can tell by the screenshots, Chained Echoes features some nice pixel art. It’s detailed and colorful, but not to my personal tastes. I think it feels a bit generic, like there’s nothing to set it apart from other games with pixel art. The animations are great and expressive though. I also have to say that the music is fantastic, with a catchy battle theme I never got tired of and fittingly epic area themes. It’s very by the numbers and while it fails when it tries to innovate, I’ve certainly played much worse RPGs.
Chained Echoes is an incredibly uneven RPG heavily inspired by the likes of Chrono Trigger and Xenogears. With bad writing, poorly thought out mechanics, and an overly complex… everything it can be hard to get through. Even so, there is a little fun to be found here, mostly near the beginning.