This game was reviewed on Playstation 5.
Reviewed by: Luka Vondrak
I finally got around to playing and finishing up the Final Fantasy VII Remake recently. As I waded through masses of Shinra goons and weird, floating popsicle-like monstrosities I wondered: "What ever happened to the turn based battle systems of yore? Why are they so reviled by modern Square Enix?" Ever since Final Fantasy XIII I get the feeling they're somehow ashamed of their turn taking ancestors. Now that I think about it, it's quite rare to find a AAA game with a relatively old school turn based battle system outside of your Personas and Dragon Quests, which are established long term franchises. Most of them have been relegated to Steam's massive pile of indie pixel art RPGs that feed off our nostalgia for the 'good old days', mostly inspired by FF VI and Chrono Trigger. But you see Brutus, if a whole empire can be built on stealing other peoples' ideas, then a great game can arise from the copycat kennels of Steam as well.
Chained Echoes is a title that rings with that vague fantasy –like sound that promises everything and nothing at all. It's not helped that it's Steam preview page has the usual artwork of a JRPG fantasy red haired guy holding a sword, although I guess that's enough to attract the audience the game is going for. What awaits behind the generic shop window ad however is a beautifully handcrafted, steampunkish fantasy game with an unquestionably old school, turn based battle system with a slight twist.
The world of Edrea is a beautiful place. The 16 bit pixel art is vibrant, colourful, easily recognizable and wonderfully animated. From the starting city of Farnsport, over the verdant grasslands and rolling hills, to the underground caves and ruins the game takes you, no location looks uninspired. If just looking at a pixelated wheat field as the wind sways it slightly makes you think "Wow, that looks great", then the art does something right. Even the sewer level has some foul charm to it. The music accompanying the locations also deserves a mention. Most of the areas have their own distinct themes that accompany the visuals, enhancing the mood of the place, and composed with the same care that was given to the art style itself. I can say that several tracks have firmly lodged themselves in my mind and aren't leaving any time soon.
The game was undecided on which JRPG story opening it wanted: the action packed one, filled with explosions and war crimes where you take a flamethrower to some poor sod's face, or the 'in bed being woken up by mom a few hours before a cataclysm' opening. And just as Caesar decided when asked which of the two countries he would like to conquer first, the game said: "Both!". So as Mom wakes us up with a hearty slap over the face, our first protagonist Glenn is awoken by his comrade, who looks like Flipper if he was the byproduct of a particularly nasty Zootopia fanfic. Did I mention this game has furries? Well it does. It's an old school, Final Fantasy inspired JRPG! Did you think half of the world's population wouldn't be somewhere on the furry-to-scaly spectrum? Anyway, Glenn and his friend Kylian are Sky Armor pilots (mediaeval armour looking mechs) and part of the Band of the Iron Bull mercenary company (think Band of the Hawk, but with less human rights violations), flying on their airship towards a job that promises riches and complete disaster. Disaster arrives on time, genocide gets committed and our hero gets his tragic moment.
After that, we are introduced to the other main characters through short personalised introductions. At first look the main characters all fill out the JRPG bingo to a t: Young protagonist, young protagonist's older friend, princess in hiding, princess in hiding's grumpy protector, wise old man and mysterious femme fatale. Their unique designs and hints at actual personalities beyond the usual tropes got me interested in everyone's personal flavour of angst. Through several chance encounters and one catastrophic evening, they are brought together and sent off to unravel a massive, ancient conspiracy and save the world…or kill god, possibly both.
Alongside their aesthetically pleasing designs, all characters have their own roles to fill in combat. The main gist of it revolves around a bar that fills up and empties during combat with every action, your PC's and the enemies', affecting it. It's composed of three sections: neutral, red and green. Green is best, obviously. In it you deal more damage, take less damage and skills cost less, while the red side is exactly the opposite. Defending, switching out characters mid combat or using certain skills lowers the build up, but getting hit and using anything else brings it closer to the "Danger Zone!" (points if you read it in Archer's voice). Most of the time it's key to winning a battle, which is especially true when facing any of the game's colourful bosses. The heat bar gives the combat a dynamic feel, while still being very rooted in the standard turn based combat system. The challenge comes from the fact that the skills which bring the heat down are randomised every few turns, or until you use the particular type of skill required. The downside comes from the fact that the RNG sometimes decides to follow the XCOM rulebook of utterly disregarding your sanity and forcing you to either use a very suboptimal skill for the situation or eat a massive attack which wrecks your chances of winning completely.
Going back to those roles I mentioned the characters have, I should go through the character building aspect of the game. In my completely unprofessional opinion, it's okay. Not great, not terrible. The game eschews the standard EXP progression for levelling up, using so-called "Grimoire Shards" which are awarded through story checkpoints and side questing. Each shard corresponds to a skill point which is used to buy skills for your characters. Skills are separated in three categories: Active, Passive and Stat boosts. You can only have a certain amount of active and passive skills equipped on a character at any time, but they can be swapped out if needed. Skills also level through skill points which are obtained through combat, enhancing their effects or lowering the cost. My caveat with the whole skill system is that a lot of skills aren't worth investing points in. I appreciate different builds and combinations, enabling you to use one character in different roles, but Chained Echoes presents a lot of trap options when it comes to skill choice. Many passive skills are also based only on percentages and situations under which they activate. Some won't have any issue with that, but I find such skills boring and unreliable when it comes to actual strategy.
Equipment is another part of the progression game. Weapons and armour can be upgraded using materials which are dropped by, or pilfered from, monsters in combat, bought and found in the overworld. As well as upgrading, equipment can be 'socketed' using crystals to further specialise the party. While many crystals also suffer from the same percentage based procs just like the skills, they aren't an essential part of progression, making them more appropriate for this. The item upgrade system I also consider a welcome addition, enabling you to enhance your equipment and stats without having to wait until the game unlocks a higher tier of equipment.
I do think the character progression system would have benefited from more viable options, or less skill bloat, but I feel no less satisfaction from picking a new skill, stat or watching those damage numbers go up after I level. But that's not all! The game also offers an interchangeable class system, Sky Armour combat, an airship and many other surprises which I will recommend you try out yourself.
I believe I have already gone into enough detail over various aspects of this game to help a JRPG connoisseur decide if they would like to partake of this game, so I will be brief in this conclusion to avoid any confusion. If you are a fan of JRPGs or never played a JRPG, but would like to try, Chained Echoes is an excellent choice. If you would like to play a great game regardless of genre, Chained Echoes is an excellent choice. With a cost of only 25€, an intriguing story, wonderful art and various other spices added to the tried and true gameplay formula, Chained Echoes is an excellent choice. Go play it.
Reviewed by: Luka Vondrak