Space is the place

Lone Echo review: Exploring our relationship with A.I. while floating through space

Lone Echo offers a refreshing VR experience that sci-fi fans will adore.

Lone Echo is available for Oculus Rift.

It's a regular day of work at the mines. All the labor bots are in working order, the sun is reflecting off of Saturn, and our ship's life support system is humming. As I'm gazing out the front window, an anomaly appears. Its electromagnetic pulsing shuts down a bunch of our crucial systems, and now a regular day of work has turned into chaos. My captain, the only other person worth talking to, says we must go against standard operating procedure and investigate the anomaly.

Radiation is so high that it's up to me to head out into space — my robotic body can withstand it, but only to a certain degree. It isn't until the anomaly shows its true form that things get really interesting.

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Keeps you guessing

Lone Echo story

Far in the future, humans have moved out into the solar system in order to mine for resources. In the case of Kronos II, we're in the rings of Saturn where we're cutting out enormous blocks of rock and using a number of plasma lathes to cut them into neat rectangles. Kronos II is an enormous ship with a number of satellite stations (and legitimate satellites) situated around it. Despite the size of the operation, there is just one organic human on board — Captain Olivia Rhodes.

Thanks to technological advancements, Olivia, or "Liv" as you call her, has a robotic assistant with elevated artificial intelligence known as Jack. This is who you play as, and you're injected into the story near the end of their time together in space. Liv's about to be transferred to another location, and you're set to take over command of Kronos II.

Other than telling you that an anomaly appears near the Surface of Saturn and kicks everything off, I don't want to go much deeper into the story. It's best to let you play through without any hints. I was unsure of where the story was taking me at numerous points in the game, and just when I thought I had things figured out, I'd again be presented with something I didn't see coming. It all flowed together well, and nothing seemed too far-fetched.

Shades of sci-fi greats like Asimov, Dick, Wells, Heinlein, Clarke, and even philosophers like Marshall McLuhan are on display here. The complicated relationship between artificial and organic intelligence is immediately put on display, and throughout the game, there are odd moments where you wonder what sort of feelings are actually going on between these two individuals. You'll spend plenty of time at the start floating through zero-gravity environments, and you'll have plenty of time to think.

Ready At Dawn must have realized that making Liv teach you how to do everything would ruin the idea of two equals, so at the start of the game, there is another A.I. named Hera who runs you through some tutorials. As you progress, there are more tutorials that teach you how to use new tools. At no time do you feel bombarded with controls, and the tutorials are woven into the storyline without much of a seam.

In all, if you run straight through the main storyline, it should take you about 4.5 hours to complete. If, however, you like to complete secondary missions as you go, and you like to explore all the knick-knacks and doo-dads floating around in the differing environments, it should take you upwards of seven or eight hours to complete. That includes restarting at a checkpoint in a new body when you happen to ruin your old one — Jack's intelligence is centralized, so respawning is handled in this clever way.

Lone Echo is first and foremost a story-driven experience. Don't expect an action game here, despite what the trailer presents. One of the only gripes I have with the game is that the pacing is a little wonky. Things will seem like they're building up only to present you with a fetch missions that sort of sucks the air out of the overall feeling. On that subject, you'll have to perform a lot of menial tasks along the way, but the mechanics are so well designed, you won't mind finding batteries and scanning cargo holds for radiation.

The perfect way to get around in VR?

Lone Echo gameplay mechanics

Upon starting the game, you're treated to a few interactive tutorials that teach you how to move through the environment. It's immediately apparent that this isn't going to be the same sort of teleportation or standard locomotion found in most other VR games. If you've played ADR1FT, you'll recognize the same sort of free-floating movement.

However, here in Lone Echo, you can grab onto any surface and either stop yourself or propel yourself forward. Whether you're standing up or sitting down in the middle of your VR space, the act of moving your arms around, grabbing surfaces as you go, is quite an experience. Your brain is somehow tricked into thinking you're actually in a zero-gravity environment, and so motion sickness is kept to a minimum.

On top of grabbing surfaces and propelling yourself, each of your hands has boosters that can mostly be used as trajectory correction. Where you're pointing, you'll go. Later in the game, once you're moving around outside the ship, you'll also have a stronger booster and a brake.

Getting everything to work together will take a bit of getting used to, but it wasn't long before I was moving with precision and (a bit of) grace. Getting around in this game might be the best part about it, and your skills will be tested in the latter part of the game.

This is a Touch title, so everything is handled with the two controllers. The joysticks are used for the large booster and brake, as well as snap-turning, and the buttons are used for small boosters and to bring up the dialogue menu. Overall, the controls are simple and fun. Most interfaces are accessed by touching a button or moving a slide on either or your arms. A screen (that can be moved around with either hand) will have some options on it, or a tool will appear, otherwise hidden inside your arm.

After awhile, you really start to feel like you're in the body of this robot, a feeling no doubt intensified by the convincing motion tracking of your virtual body. All fingers move depending on whether or not they're touching the controller — or if you're hitting the grip buttons — and your robot arms are almost always exactly where your real arms are. The rest of your body floats below or behind you, in view when you take a look around.

Might be time to upgrade

Lone Echo graphics and performance

Before investing in Lone Echo, be sure to take a look at the recommended system requirements. I was able to play on medium settings with almost no stutter, but it was impossible on high settings. My GTX 980 and 8GB of RAM are on the low end of specs to run this game, and it shows. There are a ton of settings to tweak in the menus, and I can only imagine what it would look like with a truly high-end system.

On medium settings, graphics are nevertheless gorgeous. Lighting and shadows are outstanding, and the attention to detail is through the roof. Each environment is different enough that your view doesn't get stale, yet you don't have to figure out how to operate in a new manner.

This is one of the nicest looking VR games to date, and everything from your arms and hands to Liv's model to the space stations you'll navigate are absolutely beautiful.

Lone Echo review: Conclusion

Despite Lone Echo not quite being the thrill ride that the trailers would have you believe, there are still frequent moments of awe as you make your way through the thought-provoking story. The pacing is relatively slow — with some unfortunate lulls — but at the end, when reflecting on what you've been through, you might also realize it's a welcome speed.

Ready at Dawn solved the problem of zero-gravity, nausea-inducing movement with a clever locomotion method that is my new favorite way to get around in VR. Just when you're starting to really get the hang of moving around, you have to use your newfound skills to navigate treacherous environments. It's a clever way to add a layer of difficulty, and I think it worked well.

Having most controls located on your body in the form of sliders and buttons really helps you get invested in Jack's entity, despite it being disposable. When one body gets ruined, you hop into a new one, which, to Jack, is no big deal. For us mortals, losing our body means the end, as there are no decentralized locations to hold our consciousness. It's a weird sort of mechanic, and just another layer on top of a story that, in our current world, doesn't seem far-fetched.

Is Lone Echo worth your time and money? At about $40, there's no better way to see the rings of Saturn.

Pros:

  • Beautiful graphics, even on medium settings.
  • Near-flawless locomotion.
  • Intuitive controls.
  • Compelling story has layers to it.

Cons:

  • Story's pacing is a bit wonky.
  • Requires a beastly system for high settings.

Outstanding

4.5/5

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