After seven years in production, indie developer and mostly one-man army Matthias Linda’s Chained Echoes has finally come out. It’s a spectacular 16-bit inspired progressive JRPG meant to invoke the wonder and joy from what many consider the Golden Age of JRPGs. The question now, after such a long time in development, is if Chained Echoes stand amongst the greats of the genre, or was it left in the oven too long?
I said Valandis not Vana’diel
The kingdoms of Valandis have been at war for several generations. When an operation to gain hold of a magical artifact unleashes a terrible force of destruction, peace becomes the only option. But when war without surcease and unreasoning hatred continue to hold sway, peace can only last so long. Before long, a plot to start a new war between the kingdoms throws Glenn and his friends deep into the middle of an assassination plot in the hope that they can stop it before it begins.
While the overall story is pretty much par for the course for many role-playing games, it’s really what Chained Echoes does in between the major story beats that make it shine. There’s a wonderfully diverse cast of party members to play with, none of whom feel like a second-fiddle sidekick just there to buff the hero. Everyone has their own backstory and the game often throws you into the shoes of other party members to drive home the point no one here is a throwaway accessory.
There are plenty of twists and turns to the story, along with oodles of side quests and world-building that always ensure there’s something new to do or encounter. There’s a lot of political manoeuvring at play, but the characterisation ans impressive sprite work elevates a story that we have seen before. Coupled with some fantastic writing, especially for our party of heroes, Chained Echoes wonderful story and satisfying exploration chews up the hours relentlessly.
Traditional systems with unconventional twists
Chained Echoes builds upon the mechanics of RPGs from yore. Its inspirations, clearly apparent on its proverbial sleeve, have been improved with the hindsight that twenty years or so can bring. World exploration remains the same as ever. You can travel on foot, scale cliffs, explore towns, delve into dungeons and, at some point, you’ll gain your own customisable airship. There’s also a mech suit for you to run around in, which is more than just a movement mechanic. Fast travel has also been implemented with areas unlocking the first time you visit them, so there’s none of that old school tedium of having to backtrack through a winding canyon dungeon so you can hand in a side quest in a small village. Oh, and enemies can be seen and avoided in the world. There are no random battles here.
Traditional levelling has also been done away with. Instead, stat boosts are tied into a skill, armour, and weapon upgrade system. You’ll gain Grimoire points for every boss you defeat, which will let you unlock a new skill, be it passive or active. Every couple of skills you unlocked will see a stat boost for your characters. Furthermore, you can enhance stats with equipable items and crafting gems to slot into your weapons and armour, along with levelling said weapons up through use.
Each enemy defeated gives you the SP (Skill Points) that you need to level up your skills. Skills can be levelled up three times with significant boosts to their abilities each time. Sadly, this is the one time that grinding raises its ugly head in Chained Echoes. The game’s design feels tailor-made for continuous forward progression. In many ways, the pacing and level layout for dungeons feel like an older Bioware RPG, where you’re always at just the right level to fight what’s been thrown at you – mostly.
I say mostly as you’ll want to level your skills to survive Chained Echoe’s challenging combat. Whether it’s a standard overworld enemy or a boss, every encounter in this game can be your last. The balancing has been set up just perfectly so that every fight forces you to take full advantage of your skillset.
Talking combat – it’s of the traditional turn-based type, but also incredibly in-depth, nuanced, and tactical. You can’t just mash a button while staring at your phone and hope to get somewhere; you have to pay attention to every move in a fight. Without the usual levelling systems to grind yourself into an easier encounter, enemies can really dish out the pain. Beating them requires you to use all of your skills with a decent enough plan. Once you recruit more than four party members, you can swap them out at any time in a fight, with the new member coming in ready to attack. Part of the reason you have to do this is that many skills are designed to complement each other. Just as there are no throwaway party members in the narrative, there are no throwaway skills in combat either.
As a simple example, Glenn can coat an enemy in oil while Lenne can use a fire attack to ignite the oil and cause massive damage. It’s also one of the few games in which poison is an absolutely essential skill to use in a fight. Paying attention to what the enemy throws at your party, along with what buffs they can cast is imperative. An early fight against some ghosts had me repeatedly losing until I realised that the first attack type you use on a ghost, is what they cast a 100% effective buff against, forcing you to use a different attack type to beat them while your initial attack type continues to miss them for the rest of the fight.
Battles are designed to be fast but challenging, and many of them – especially boss fights – can go the distance. Yet having said that, none of them felt like a chore. To add to your expanding arsenal of conventional gear and skills, there’s an Ultra move meter that builds up, with each character capable of using it to pull off a specific super. There are also no consequences for using your skills and taking risks as after each fight you’re fully healed. The developers want you to use all your abilities all the time.
The biggest game changer, and what you have to pay attention to, is the Overdrive Meter. It’s divided into three coloured segments equating to average, Overdrive, and Overheat. Each attack dealt, move used, or damage taken, builds up the meter until it’s in the green Overdrive section. At this point, you deal buffed damage with each attack. But it’s also where you have to play around with your attacks to keep it in the green and avoid it rising to high. It changes with each battle but you’ll find that defending and swapping out party member drops the gauge while certain skills will also drop it. The skills that do this are random in each fight, so you’re going to have to work them out as you go and aim to have them drop the gauge and be beneficial at the same time. Let the meter hit the Overheat section of the bar and enemies do extra damage to you.
If I have one negative, it’s that fighting in your mech, your “Sky Armour”, essentially works the same, though the attack and ability names are slightly changed.
Pixel art perfection
Visually, Chained Echoes might look far from novel these days, but it is a gorgeous 2D game nonetheless. The level of detail in the backgrounds is superb and the game is full of tiny animation details like birds flying away from you, vegetation moving in the wind, or wheat parting as your party tromps through it. The sprite animation is just superb overall, especially as your party members as they bob and sway in combat, or navigate the world. Adding to the package are the stunning score and punchy sound effects. Music often makes or breaks JRPGs and I’m happy to say the musical score is wonderful throughout the game.
A Final Fantasy?
Creating a 30-40 hour game is a challenge even for a fully staffed studio with publisher backing, let alone for one person. But Matthias Linda has not only managed to capture the look of 16-bit JRPGs but also recaptured the fun of them. With its gripping story, quality writing, and tactical combat system, Chained Echoes is one of the best RPGs of the year. More than that, it’s a game that reminds you why you fell in love with the genre to begin with. Don’t pass this up if you’re a fan of the genre!
A review code for Chained Echoes was provided to gameblur by the publisher.
Chained Echoes (Nintendo Switch) Review
Chained Echoes (Nintendo Switch) Review
Visuals8/10 Very Good
Excellent combat system forces you to pay attention
Constant sense of forward momentum
Some battles can last a tad too long