If there is one thing indie game devs are good at, it is paying lip service to games they grew up with. Sometimes the gratuitous winking and nudging can become obnoxious or pandering, but Chained Echoes manages to pay homage with a surprising amount of sly wit.
Most indie devs who dare to attempt making a Japanese-style RPG are often too compelled to be subversive with the genre. Too often modern-day sensitivities result in scenarios being rotten with irony poisoning. Chained Echoes is daring by way of actually committing itself to the genre and good old-fashioned innovation.
In some cases, JRPGs can get by with mediocre gameplay and a strong story can carry it. Does this game escape this trap? Can it stand on its own outside of its influences? Find out in this Chained Echoes review!
Developer: Matthias Linda
Platforms: Windows PC, Linux, Mac iOS, Nintendo Switch (reviewed), Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5
Release Date: December 8, 2022
Price: $24.99 USD
Chained Echoes is an RPG that is full of surprises. The cheeky references to classic JRPGs might be cute for some gamers and they sometimes can get a chuckle out of even the most jaded of gamers, but Chained Echoes manages to impress with how articulate and well-written it is.
At first, the story seems like it will be a standard JRPG plot. The tropes and archetypes will be obvious, but what Chained Echoes does best is take something very familiar and put a creative spin on it while also being in tune with the human condition.
The story begins with three kingdoms already at war that has lasted for over 150 years. The people are exhausted and most of them don’t know life without the constant state of fear or the possibility of a loved one suddenly dead from a surprise attack in the dead of night. The newly minted peace treaty will end the wars, but the engines of the war machine have begun to rev once again.
War is not just hell, it is also money. There are no successful wars, only endless wars, and sometimes wars are not literal battles- they can be spiritual too. Reincarnation is a major story mechanic. When a soul is reborn, sometimes some of the memories carry over too. Chained Echoes leans in heavily into these rules for incredible dramatic effect in its story.
There are extensive surreal, dream-like sequences that are set in a character’s subconscious. There are multiple instances of scenes that depict mass suicide and there is implied rape too. Due to the nature of reincarnation, Chained Echoes ask the question; “what is the measure of a good soul?”, and gets philosophical when it’s least expected.
Like Final Fantasy VI, Chained Echoes has an ensemble cast of heroes. While Glen would be considered the protagonist, the other seven party members get just as much character development and could have been the main characters in other games.
The party is made up of eight characters and every single one of them is likable. The writer did his homework and gave everyone fleshed-out backstories and clear motivations, and wrote dialogue that sounds natural.
The cast and even the NPCs who don’t even get a name all feel like real people. Tons of little interactions add to the authenticity of the world. Small character moments that are optional can say a lot about their personality.
The story can have a feel-good jaunty atmosphere, but it manages to also get dark. At first, you think you’re playing something like Chrono Triggerbut really- Chained Echoes’ story is a lot closer to Xenogears than anything.
Chained Echoes manages to have an epic and gripping story that can hold gamers’ attention. For most RPGs, that would be enough to carry the experience if the gameplay was average. Thankfully, Chained Echoes‘ gameplay is excellent.
At first glance, Chained Echoes looks like any other pixelated, retro-style RPG. Kemco makes a living mass-producing these kinds of games off of some assembly line, but Matthias Linda would not settle for average.
Not since the likes of Lost Odyssey and blue dragon has a throw-back RPG and manages to deliver all the elements that make the genre enjoyable. Chained Echoes has it all: big parties fighting big monsters in big dungeons, while exploring a big world map on a big airship.
Turn-based combat is the cornerstone of all great JRPGs and Chained Echoes manages to have a very flexible and strategic system. Like grandia, there is a queue for characters and enemies. Everyone gets their skills and they all have their effects and some abilities come with follow-up attacks.
Battles consist of four party members and each one can be partnered up with any of the remaining four for tag-team style switching. There are a lot of combinations to try and on top of managing the overdrive meter, going for an all-offensive strategy is not always viable.
The more offensive you play, the more the meter moves closer to the red zone as if to symbolize the “heat of battle”. If things get too hot, then foes go into overdrive and can unleash their most powerful attacks. The flip side is that taking and giving damage increases the party’s version of a “limit” gauge which in turn boosts stats and unlocks their ultra attacks.
In over 50 hours of gameplay, the battling never got repetitive. The flow of combat has a palpable tug-of-war sense to its friction. The only drawback is that late in the game, the various buffs can make it easy to break the game’s challenge if you know what you are doing.
Specializing in speed and more turns makes it so foes can’t get a chance to do anything. With enough speed, the party can have enough control over the various gauges that enemies become sitting ducks. Some outrageously overpowered buffs can trivialize most fights.
Compounded with all HP and TP being restored very easily, there is almost nothing stopping the party. There is also an equipment upgrade system that does not work as intended- mostly because the game is designed around replacing equipment as it comes.
While Chained Echoes does manage to have its voice which was inspired by other games, it does seem like some of the sprites might be redraws of existing ones. There are a few suspicious-looking portraits that Final Fantasy Tactics fans may recognize and some sprite tiles might have been lifted from other games too. Despite some dubious art assets, Chained Echoes looks good.
The writing is engaging, though there were a few instances of the developer showing his hand a bit too heavily. These rare occurrences were distracting and anachronistic enough to take me out of the scene.
Chained Echoes‘ worst quality is that it concludes with several unresolved loose ends hanging. Getting past this is easy since so much of the experience is a very finely crafted JRPG that one man poured his soul into. The story moves quickly and the cast never stays in one place too long. It is an incredible adventure about the indomitable human spirit.
Chained Echoes was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a copy provided by Deck13. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here. Chained Echoes is now available for Windows PC (via Steam), Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PlayStation 5.