By Phil Schipper / January 19th, 2016
|Release Date||December 10, 2015|
When I heard that Pale Echoes described itself as a puzzle game, I was pretty confused, because, well, it really, really looks like an RPG. All the talk about jumping through time and collecting memories on the description page is a little unclear, too, so in this review, I’m going to spend a little extra time just clearing some of these points up. But, as always, I must also answer the big question: is it good?
Schorl is the last human left in a blasted, destroyed world. Yet, those who died linger on as memories. With the help of her fairy partner, Schorl is able to see the world as it once was and meet people from just before the world ended. Her mission, in short, is to put them to rest, so that the world of her time can be restored to nature.
The vast majority of memories in the game are good ones, which will add themselves to your collection once you’ve fully interacted with them. In many cases, all you have to do is talk to an NPC in the past, hear their regrets, and they’ll become a memory. Other times, when you’re wandering around in the present time, you’ll find a special place where a memory actually sucks you back into the past to meet them. These ones are usually more hidden, but if you explore carefully it’s not so hard to find them.
There are evil memories, though, and these have to be purified. This is where the “puzzle battle” system comes into play. Each turn, you must choose three memories from your collection to summon. After choosing actions for Schorl and the three memories, they execute in order, followed by the enemy’s turn. However, once that turn is done, those three memories are gone for the rest of the battle. Therefore, not only do you have to keep an eye on Schorl’s concentration (basically health), but you also have to make sure you can defeat all the enemies before your memory supply runs out.
What makes this a puzzle game is that your actions basically have fixed outcomes in battle. Normal attacks deal exactly 100 damage, and enemies’ turns seem to be almost completely scripted. At certain times, they will assume a certain “stance” for a turn, which affects your attacks in a standard rock-paper-scissors format–in essence, a temporary elemental weakness. Besides their element, attacks also have a targeting type–besides the normal single target, you can hit all enemies for half damage, or three random targets for half damage (which is more effective than single if there’s only one left).
Memories also have support abilities, allowing them to boost the other memories on the same turn, boost Schorl on her next turn, or heal Schorl. While some memories are considered better than others, that’s just because they have a wider range of action choices, and once you make the decision they’re no more effective than any other. Since losing a battle just kicks you out of it instead of giving you a game over, and allows you to try again, battles in Pale Echoes really are a matter of trying until you get a good combination of actions. That’s why it looks like a standard RPG battle, but feels a lot more like a puzzle.
Navigating the world can sometimes feel like a puzzle in its own right. The points at which you can jump between past and present are fixed, and the portals block the tile that they’re on. When you cross them, you’ll be spit out at the opposite side from where you came in. Since the layout of areas is considerably different between past and present, the developer often plays with this mechanic to force you to think through the path you take.
Some of the portals are closed at first, and you’ll have to sacrifice one of the memories in your possession in order to open it. A handful of these are mandatory to finish the game, but most are optional. All of them, luckily, lead to new memories, which are usually a little better than the ones you would have had before. I can see a situation where getting rid of the wrong memory might make the game really tricky later on, but I never had a problem with that. In all, there are 40 memories available, and to get them all you would need to use up 20 of them.
It is worth exploring everything, though. In addition to the extra memories, which all have small but unique pieces of bio information, you can also examine objects to add pages to your lore book. Some lore pages have to do with the object you examined, but a lot of them just explain the world, history, and Schorl’s own backstory. By picking up all of them, you unlock some extra features at the end of the game. Actually, to get the most out of the story, you do have to get both all of the lore and all of the optional memories. Luckily, your fairy partner can tell you how many memories and lore pieces are still left in an area, so you shouldn’t be trekking around too much to accomplish this.
I can’t say anything remarkable about the graphics, because, well, they’re the standard RPG Maker VX Ace graphics. To the developer’s credit, they use them pretty effectively, but if you’ve spent any amount of time with that engine, this game will look pretty familiar. The reliance on it also means that the resolution, overall, is pretty darn low. The music is also freeware, but at least it’s not the stock tracks, and I do find it to be pretty good overall.
Pale Echoes is pretty short. I got the full experience in about 5 hours, though I can imagine running through it in just 2 or 3 easily if I didn’t care for the side content. I enjoyed the unique style, because it seemed like the first RPG in a while where I actually cared to think through my actions at all. The simple but emotional story kept me going, as did my desire to find and collect everything. While the memory selection could get clunky at times and the visuals were nothing special, this is a game worth experiencing for that short span of time. In a world where tons of new battle systems seek to complicate the turn-based RPG formula, it’s refreshing to see one that simply makes you think about it in a new way. For only $4.99 USD, I’d say it’s definitely worth picking up.
Review copy supplied by the publisher.
degicapale echoesRPG Maker VX AceSteamWyrmling Productions