Continuing our look at the fabled Metroid Prime series, we now delve into Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. It’s a common occurrence in the video game medium that a franchise peaked early in its life time. When a game is as stellar as the first Metroid Prime, it’s going to be very hard to create something better. And this is an apt description of Echoes. It’s definitely a good game, but sadly, with nothing new to show, and a few problems introduced, Echoes doesn’t live up to expectations.
In this installment, Samus has accepted a request to find a missing Galactic Federation starship that was last heard from while hunting down a Space Pirate frigate above the planet Aether. All communications with the GF starship have been lost since then. Not one to pass up easy money, Samus accepts the mission and travels to Aether, but as she enters the atmosphere, a virulent electrical storm damages her gunship, leaving her stranded on Aether until her ship repairs itself.
After finding the remains of the GF’s ship and her squadron, Samus is introduced to the enemy: a barbaric race of pitch-black amorphous beasts called the Ing. Apparently an asteroid crash landed on Aether years before, bringing with it the Prime series’ infamous mutagenic goo, Phazon. The impact was so powerful that the planet was broken into two separate dimensions, Light and Dark. The Ing resides in the Dark realm, while the original inhabitants of Aether, the Luminoth, live in the Light realm.
War waged between the two, and the Luminoth were brought near extinction. This is where Samus Aran steps in.
Your task is to restore the world of Aether by destroying the Dark realm completely. To do this, you must venture into the Dark realm and take back the planet’s energy, which has been split up between the two dimensions. If one realm holds all of the planet’s energy, the other shall fall.
If this scenario sounds familiar to you, then pat yourself on the back – this dual-world mechanic is something that Nintendo loves to use. Link to the Past was the first Nintendo title to introduce gamers to the “world of two,” with Twilight Princess and, to a lesser extent, Ocarina of Time, recreating it later.
The general idea is very interesting in Prime 2, but the execution is somewhat of a problem. When traveling to the Dark Realm, you find that Samus is vulnerable to the world’s atmosphere, and she’ll take damage just by standing in it. To protect yourself, you have to find safe zones, areas blanketed in light that were created by the Luminoth. Each zone is only about ten feet wide in diameter, so you don’t have much breathing room. The player is always in a state of stress in this realm, especially at the beginning of the game where your health is low and the atmosphere is potent. Not until you get the first suit upgrade will you start to calm down and let your nerves have a break; this is about 3-5 hours into the game’s estimated 20-hour experience.
A side effect of this dual-realm idea is that the game’s world is twice as big. Echoes is nearly double the size of Prime 1, making the sequel a daunting beast through which to travel. If you are a gamer that likes a big meaty game, then this is your game. But for the rest of us, Echoes is just too big for its own good.
The rest of the game is great, however. The First Person Adventure mechanics return in Echoes, so if you liked the first Prime and how it controlled, then you’re going to enjoy yourself again. The scan visor makes a welcome return, and we are introduced to two new visors to shake things up. You’ll acquire the Dark Visor, which lets you see inter-dimensional objects like platforms, and the Echo visor, which lets you see sound waves.
Unfortunately, Retro didn’t utilize the Echo Visor that much. It’s only used to find extra items, like missile expansions. You never really need it to solve puzzles that are integral to the game’s progression. And you only use it a few times with one of the bosses. It’s an awesome feature, but when you technically don’t need it that much, there’s essentially no point for it.
Another problem is the ammo system. Like Prime 1, Samus gets four guns throughout her adventure, but in Echoes, two of them, the Light and Dark beams, have a finite number of bullets. This means you have to conserve your ammo, which adds to the overall level of stress that Echoes produces for the player. What the beams do is really interesting, however. Enemies in the Dark realm die more quickly with the Light beam, while enemies in the Light realm die more quickly with the Dark beam, much like what Treasure did with Ikaruga.
It definitely adds in a layer of strategy, as well as some puzzle-solving situations, but Retro is asking a lot of the player considering you already have to struggle between two realms.
Add the fact that Retro turned the game into four “To Do lists”, and you start to ask how badly they must have wanted to fuck things up. First, you need to restore three Beacons of Light to get rid of the Dark realm. Which means you need to fight each area’s boss. Which is protected by a gate that needs three keys to unlock. And once you do all that, you need to find 12 keys to open up the path to the Sky Temple, where the final boss awaits you.
And most of this is revealed to the player very early on in the game. In Prime 1, the game’s plot is revealed very organically as Samus traverses Tallon IV’s various locales. But with Echoes, you begin with a set list of objectives. Zelda titles have done this since the very first NES game, but I’ve never enjoyed the game mechanic much. Going through Tallon IV was far more enjoyable when you didn’t know what was going to happen next.
As for the graphics, we have another hit-or-miss situation. The game is in some ways a very dreary experience. Light Aether is basically withering away, with deserts and swamps swallowing up the last bits of habitable land. You’re going to see a lot of grays and browns. When comparing Echoes locations to Prime’s fire-red Magmoor Caverns, and the lush greens of Tallon Overworld, it’s far more noticeable and depressing.
What kills your eyes even more is Samus’s main suit upgrade. After the first boss you get the Dark Suit, which helps you take less damage in the Dark realm. Unfortunately, the thing looks like a rusted-out Transformer. Every suit Samus has acquired in the past has a nice clean and powerful look to it, but the Dark Suit is like what her Varia Suit would look like if it were 200 years old. What’s even worse is that you have this suit for the majority of the game. The Light Suit, on the other hand, is one of the coolest looking suits Samus has ever had. Too bad Retro only gives it to you for the last hour of the game.
And then add in the violets that are found in the Dark realm, and you are going to need some Katamari to lift those spirits of yours. From an artist’s point of view, they convey the right message, but the end result is 20 hours of burnt-out emotions.
Technically speaking, however, you have one of the prettiest GameCube titles ever made. Samus’s character model has been spruced up a bit, while Retro has added in a few graphical effects to add to the game’s presentation. One effect in particular is really cool. When going through the dimensional portals, Samus’s body is blurred into one huge mass, and then broken into a million particles. After she’s turned into a million little Samus balls, she is shoved through the inter-dimensional vortex. Even though you have to watch this sequence almost a hundred times, the graphical splendor of it all makes it very easy to endure.
Also present is Retro’s brand of ingenious level design. There are four main areas: Temple Grounds, Agon Wastes, Torvus Bog, and the Sanctuary Fortress. Each has its own distinct feel, and each is complex enough to differentiate the Prime series from other, more linear FPS games. The only problem with the level design is that there’s too much of it. With two worlds at your disposal, you’ll soon find yourself overwhelmed by it all.
Many people have protested the backtracking in Metroid games, but it doesn’t seem like Retro listened at all with Echoes. If you’re used to it, then you’re fine. But if you weren’t a fan of Prime 1’s backtracking, then you’re in for a bumpy ride.
From the way I describe Echoes, it sounds like a failed experiment, one filled with hardships and no fun, but this is actually far from the truth. In fact, I have found more enjoyment from Echoes than I do with most action-adventure games. It isn’t as good as the first Prime, but that’s a tall order. The game could have been half as good as Prime 1 and I would still enjoy it. That’s a compliment for both Prime games, as the base gameplay that Retro has defined is nothing short of amazing. The environment sucks you in, the scan visor envelopes you within the game’s narrative, the combat is fast-paced and enjoyable (with some new abilities in Echos to up the ante), and the progression is some of the finest in the industry. The peripheral enhancements that Retro added are the problem.
I talked about a few little nuances with the first Prime game, and I wanted to continue that with Echoes. These examples are small additions that truly show how gifted and dedicated the Prime team is at Retro studios, and it would be my pleasure to relay them to you, being the good journalist that I am.
The first one has to do with the lighting engine. I talked about how perfectly Prime depicts light in the previous retrospective, and they use it to great effect in Echoes. When you are first introduced to Aether, the planet seems to be at odds with itself, as you can see clear skies later ravaged by a violet-hued electrical storm. While outside in the Temple Grounds, you see mostly clear skies, but every so often, the skies will be filled with those dark violet clouds. It only lasts for a few seconds, but it completely blankets the area with a violet aura. If you’ve ever been outside when a storm quickly gobbled up any sunlight, then you know how this feels. Amazingly, Retro, with its beautiful lighting engine, has created this emotional effect within a video game, and it’s nothing short of amazing.
Some games that want to change the game’s mood will do it in an obvious fashion, possibly with a cinematic occurring to make sure the player sees it, but Echoes does it in real-time, as you’re actually playing it. It’s definitely more subtle but that’s why it’s so charming. This is what designers should be doing. Make the world feel alive, and not a hodgepodge of scripted events. That’s one of Prime’s best lessons for the industry. With a crafted hand, a developer can create an organic world out of bits and bytes.
The second example is what one of the enemies in the Sanctuary Fortress does to Samus. As we all know, Samus’s Chozo battle suit is equipped with a computer. Funny enough, there is an enemy in the Sanctuary Fortress that actually sends a virus into her suit, rendering her combat capabilities completely useless. In an awesome graphical effect, her view-screen’s refresh rate is cut in half, letting only you see every other frame, with bits of distorted signal showing up on the screen. It’s pretty trippy. The only way to get rid of the virus is to reboot your suit by holding the L and R Buttons. Once you do that, your computer initializes all of your abilities through a command prompt that you can see on your view-screen.
Even though I got my ass kicked several times by that enemy, I’m pretty sure I was smiling the entire time.
In the end, Echoes is a great game, but not as good as Prime 1. It has an interesting design that you don’t see too often, but there are a few aspects that take away some of the foundation of the first game. I still recommend the title to any Metroid or action-adventure fan, but don’t be surprised to put Echoes a little further down your list of best games ever.