Chained Echoes

Chained Echoes wears its inspiration on its sleeve. Just a glance at almost any shot of the game and a savvy individual can tell that the game is clearly pulling from those SNES sprite based RPGs (arguably one of the golden ages of such games). As someone who supported the Kickstarter (my name’s in the credits and everything!) I can confirm that the creator took inspiration from such major names as Final Fantasy 6, Chrono Trigger, and Xenogears. Those are some major shoes to fill.

Chained Echoes pulls off the nearly impossible task of actually filling those shoes, of standing alongside some of the greats to be something truly impressive.

That probably reads a bit hyperbolic, but I’m hardly the first critic/blogger/nerd to point that out. Somehow Chained Echoes manages to actually emulate the games of old while still incorporating elements that flat out make most modern games better. Its graphics have that same sprite based look, but it does what I often argue that such games should do: invoke the feeling of playing a nostalgic game instead of emulating them. Honestly what can be done with spritework these days is impressive, and yes, Chained Echoes does that as well.

The graphics and spritework here really are top notch, some of the best I’ve seen. Everything and everyone looks incredibly, and the animations are almost flawlessly smooth. I actually struggled to find a screenshot that I thought would showcase the game’s art style, and even as I sit here writing this, I wonder if I couldn’t have done better.

Getting the art right is tricky, but there are other elements that contribute to a game’s success and legacy. Foremost among those for JRPGs is the story. Chained Echoes is no different.

It mostly follows the Final Fantasy 6 model here. There’s an ensemble cast of characters, hitting nearly a dozen if you find all the secret and/or optional characters. Of those, about six to eight have lasting story relevance (this is my problem with optional characters for the most part: they often don’t fit smoothly into the narrative and sadly Chained Echoes has that problem as well). Early on you follow Sky Armor (mecha) pilot Glenn, who’s working with friend Kylian as a mercenary. The game produces a major cataclysmic event in just the first opening hours, essentially setting the backdrop for the world at large. Even better, Kylian and particularly Glenn are at the heart of it.

The story then splits to show us hidden princess Lenne and her sidekick Robb and their story. Lenne is going to be filling in the part of destined magical warrior throughout the narrative, while Robb is the jerkass noble. What’s actually surprising is that Robb feels more like an homage to Theon from Game of Thrones than a particular RPG character (though he bears more than a passing resemblance in both appearance and attitude to hated Algus of Final Fantasy Tactics). They’re both working as guards for a town, and are looking into some shady dealings.

There’s also Victor, who is apparently an immortal (this is sadly one of the bits of worldbuilding/lore that the game doesn’t really get into as much), a well known writer and performer who knows far more than he lets on.

Interestingly we also see one of the first overt nods to older games with Victor’s introduction. He begins by playing various carnival based mini-games, much like the opening of Chrono Trigger (which the game also just outright copies in the beginning). These are quite fun, and I took particular joy from the turtle races. The music for the race itself had me bursting out with laughter and joy, and I don’t want to ruin it for others. It is sadly disappointing that the points you accrue mean absolutely nothing. I wasted almost an hour racking up enough points for whatever prize I wanted, and this felt like the game mocking me for that.

Lastly comes the fan favorite and arguably the objective best character, Sienna. She immediately starts with the ability to steal from enemies as well as deal impressive amounts of damage and she’s faster than everyone else. The creator melded together the standard archetype of the thief, which so often is popular but not useful, and the samurai, which is so often just plain useful. On top of that, Sienna has this delightfully sarcastic personality that’s sure to appeal to fans of games like this.

Oh, she’s also an incredibly well written and handled LGBTIA+ character. Her intro nods to bisexuality and there are relationships in the game to support this (though they could be written a bit better; there’s also this odd pattern of giving main characters in indie RPGS queer romance partners that for some reason aren’t actually in the main party; Rise of the Third Power did that as well).

Her section involves her sneaking around town and stealing things, before drifting toward the castle. That’s where all the narratives thread together and collide, and the party of six gets formed. These will serve as the major protagonists, with much of the narrative leaning on Glenn and Lenne, who are admittedly the least interesting of the six. Everyone will get their due, and the game will trickle in characters a handful at a time (though four are optional, with quite a few of those being clumped toward the end game).

As this likely indicates, the narrative is quite complex. It eventually involves past lives and the cycle of fate and rebirth in some really engaging ways that clearly took inspiration from Xenogears and other heavily philosophical games. It turns out that many of the characters have varying degrees of trauma, and dealing with that will be part of their story.

A lot of that is going to focus on Glenn, who is mostly your standard JRPG protagonist. I will say that they throw in a twist to his story that I only started to see coming moments before it happened. They actually take the interesting path when it comes to possibilities with Glenn, which is something I don’t say very often. I fully expected the game to just hint at this, but instead they dive right into it.

I think that’s part of what makes Chained Echoes so successful. The game’s not afraid to take more interesting paths if they present themselves and deal with some serious subjects and ideas. We meet characters both good and bad who have done horrible things for their powers and abilities, and its fascinating to see how they discuss and handle it. ON top of that, there’s arguments and struggles regarding what to do with the major powerful MacGuffins.

Even the villains feel fleshed out, such as they are. One of the best is actually a traitor to your party, one who I kept expecting to redeem himself and rejoin the group (an idea supported by the fact that their level screen showed them having levels all the way to max, and the fact that you still keep picking up weapons that were apparently exclusive to the character for a while). That character does involve this almost painful bit where they are apparently stuck in an unwanted sexual relationship that seems to lean on old negative stereotypes involving old priests and misconduct. It’s a disappointing choice that really doesn’t feel all that necessary for either the narrative or the character itself, though it’s at least not too horribly written.

Chained Echoes also contains several overt gameplay moments that draw on games of old. The above shot not only reveals the name of the traitor, but also shows a point where you can select any of the characters that were all in your group to follow. Each has their own gameplay element, one of which involves sneaking around an occupied enemy city.

Fans of old school JRPGs will recognize this as a direct homage to Final Fantasy 6, which did the same exact thing at almost the same exact moment in the game. I did wish that they did this more often, allowing you to have multiple parties at key points. Final Fantasy 6 actually did that for the last dungeon of the game, and I would have loved to see something like that emulated here. It feels a bit like a missed opportunity.

I also lament this because the game seems to have just a few too many characters. The way you organize your party seems to hint toward using 8 characters, with 4 being active party members while 4 are reserves that can be switched into (the idea being that characters take the place of their partner character). It’s a good system that works well, but the game gives you 12 characters. On top of that, many characters fill similar roles (there are at least four characters that serve as tanks, which is about two to three too many), which would lend itself well to the whole split party thing. This is particularly egregious late in the game, as you’re given characters that you’re likely to ignore completely, as you’ve already got characters you spent the entire game developing for the exact same role as someone who just got introduced (I shelved at least two characters immediately after getting them).

It says something about the game that most of my major complaints are “I wish it did this cool thing more.” It also says something that I, an unabashed fan of the retro games, am willing to state that this brand new game really does feel like a new Final Fantasy 6 or Chrono Trigger. Yes, there are overt homages. In fact, those homages are so overt that they’re almost surprising. It’s rare that you see a game willing to just outright say “this happened in another game, and we wanted to do it our way because it was cool.” I also know there are several games that borrow heavily from Chrono Trigger, but I can’t remember many that draw as much from Final Fantasy 6, which was always my personal favorite of the two (even as I acknowledge that Chrono Trigger may be the better game from a lot of design perspectives).

What makes Chained Echoes work so well is that it looked at the past and said “There’s stuff here worth stealing” and just took it. However, it also looked at the same sort of thing and went “we could improve this. It’s leveling system mimics the much maligned system of Chrono Cross; there’s a universal “star level” that everyone gets. But it does something new: you pick abilities that increase at those stars, controlling how you shape characters into particular roles (pick the active and passive abilities before the stat increases until you have a great slate of good abilities). It took that scenario split and tweaked it ever so slightly (the sections are more balanced than FF6 and there’s less new characters to throw at you). They used new ideas too, like an achievement board and healing characters after every fight.

They took a turn based combat system that feels like a direct homage to Final Fantasy X (the king of those systems for many; it’s either that or Grandia, depending on who you ask [I like ’em both, personally]), but they added unique mechanics and spiced it up.

The creators of this game knew how to meld together things of the past with things of the present to create something that’s brand new, but feels like a classic game that was just rediscovered. That is one heck of a feat, and it deserves the praise it gets for it. I sincerely hope that people continue to remember this fondly and that other projects learn from this moving forward: I would love to see another Chained Echoes (and I now there’s at least one game coming down the pipe in 2023 That will hopefully be like that).

9 not quite perfect thanks to a few flaws with the story and a few mechanics that I had to find out myself (the skill leveling in particular), but still a new classic worthy of attention and praise

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