Chained Echoes Review
Chained Echoes is clearly created by someone who has a high level of literacy in the RPG genre, especially regarding classics from the SNES and PSX catalog, though not limited to that. Many independent RPG creators are inspired by the classics, but few succeed in their genre aspirations in the same way that Mattias Linda has.
As someone who has been with RPG Site for a decade, I've seen plenty of indie RPGs that wear inspirations on their sleeves. Some of these games are praiseworthy, but for various reasons, many are not. I was first introduced to Chained Echoes about three years ago, which was a bit after its crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. At first, it seemed like Just Another Throwback Indie RPG. But the closer the game came to release, the more promise and polish I saw. I wasn't able to check it out at release, but with the great word-of-mouth, I knew I had to check out Chained Echoes sooner or later, and I'm very glad I did.
Chained Echoes' inspirations are plentiful, sometimes subtle and sometimes overt. Character introductions feel like classic Wild ARMs. The perspective of the game and transition into battle is reminiscent of Chrono Trigger, and the global level-up system is like Chrono Cross. Building your hideout is definitely Suikoden. "Deals" shops are like Final Fantasy XII's bazaar items, and plenty more besides. There are several other inspirations beyond that in both RPGs and other media. Several moments of the narrative share similarities with the manga/anime Full Metal Alchemist. There are a few hints of Star Wars too, naturally.
I have to admit, I have a little bit of an allergy to media that is over-reliant on simply referencing some other material, as if recognizing the reference itself is where the value lies. 'This is like X from Y!' doesn't do a lot for me on its face, and there are a few occasions Chained Echoes toes that line of banality. But past that, it is evidently clear Mattias Linda has carefully considered many components from various RPGs and thoughtfully implemented them into Chained Echoes. It's not just that he took games he likes and copied their homework. Chained Echoes shows a level of understanding of why certain systems are constructed the way they are, and Mattias took a thorough examination of how to incorporate various components into his game. The end result is a surprisingly synergistic experience that manages to be satisfying but not overbearing.
At its core, Chained Echoes might be exactly what you expect, a classicly-styled turn-based RPG. But as the narrative progresses and systems begin to unlock, the well-crafted nature of the game starts to take shape.
One of the most refreshing things about Chained Echoes is that, due to its global level-up system, you don't actually need to fight a lot of battles to progress your units. More than that, each location on the map only has a few enemy spawns to begin with, and you'll never need to grind, because the mechanics don't work that way. You also don't need to worry about choosing which units to use in the party, as they'll power up relatively evenly as you progress through the story and side quests. Experimenting with new characters and abilities is a cinch; you just need the curiosity to seek out what each person can do.
Including a few optional characters, there are twelve playable units in Chained Echoes. However, you can only have 8 in the active battle party at any time: four in the front line and 4 in the back. Each character can also only equip 8 active skills and 3 passive skills from a much larger pool, meaning you have a lot of flexibility -- not only in party composition, but also on which skills each character actually uses in battle. It results in a very versatile combat system, opening up several viable strategies. I eventually found a stable rotation that worked quite well for me, but I'm certain other players' party layouts could easily look different than mine in the end.
The Overdrive system is Chained Echoes most original mechanic, and also the most defining. Put as simply as possible, certain actions such as attack skills will move the meter to the right, and other actions like swapping characters will move it back to the left. The goal is to sweet-spot it right in the middle of the meter. This system offers just enough resistance to coerce the player to maintain a varied approach to battle in order to keep the meter in the center sweet-spot. If you want, you can still just mash attack all the time, but it's not the most effective way to play, and such a strategy will get you in trouble against some of the game's more difficult encounters. Sky Armor battles add their own twist to the Overdrive meter, and some other enemies play around with it to a more significant degree. It's honestly pretty compelling.
Chained Echoes' writing also surprised me in a few ways. Not in the "totally subversive and unexpected pull-the-rug-out-from-under-you WOWZERS batshit" sort of way, just various small narrative wiggles that developed in directions I didn't initially anticipate. There's a good mix of sympathetic character motivations, villainous drama, captivating set pieces, and yes, a few surprising twists. The are a few stumbles in the plotting and localization here or there, but overall the story is admirable. The occasional bout of humor is a little bit hit-or-miss, but it's never overbearing and actually got a few chuckles out of me.
Sidequests are also designed in a manner most interesting to me: few in number but sizable in substance. There are only about ten or so sidequests in the game, but each expands a certain part of the world, whether it's a location, event, or character. Some quests introduce new explorable areas entirely, or lead to interesting battle encounters. There are even a few optional characters to pick up on the way.
Sidequests are just one way the game allows the player to explore, such that you are not always funneled into a forward-moving plotline at all times. There are also Deals to earn with loot, Unique Monsters to seek out, characters to recruit to your base, and a Reward Board with various objectives to complete. None of these individual components are overextended in their scope, and all are optional; they simply work well to satisfy those min-maxers who like to explore every inch of an RPG world.
Chained Echoes' music by Eddie Marianukroh also deserves a lot of praise. These too draw inspiration from many classic RPG soundtracks. Don't get me wrong, these tracks are wholly original pieces, but certain instrumentation or motifs easily invoke recognizable tracks from various genre classics.
Chained Echoes is an extremely impressive game, especially considering the bulk of the game's creation came from just a few people, led by Mattias. As trite as it might be to say, this isn't just a pale imitation of great RPGs, Chained Echoes is a great RPG in its own right. A few small quibbles won't stop me from recommending this game to anyone, especially those fond of the golden era of RPGs.