Many indie games nowadays attempt to capture the essence of retro old school 16-bit titles, but only a few are able to truly shine and stand out. Matthias Linda’s Japanese-inspired role playing game Chained Echoes not only pays immense homage to the games we played under the covers when we were kids, but also brilliantly embraces some modern mechanics while honoring old ones. Originally started as a Kickstarter back in 2019, this indie pixel turn based RPG created by a solo developer is finally releasing on all modern day platforms.
I’ll just say it now: Chained Echoes starts off very slow and quite confusing, but stick with it. You play as several different characters, with different backgrounds and motivations, in various parts of the game world. The characters fatefully cross paths in a narrative set piece that ultimately forms your starter party for the rest of the game. The game is set on the continent of Valandis, where a raging war ensues among three kingdoms, and super cool advanced mech battle robots and dragons exist in the same reality.
Since you end up gathering a team of multiple characters, there isn’t one central main one. But I guess you can say the “main” main character is Glenn, a red haired boy adopted into a group of mercenaries who just happens to also be an excellent mech pilot. He is accompanied by his mentor and friend Kylian as they venture out to find the source for a weapon of mass destruction. The other four characters in your party of six include the sly but kind hearted thief Sienna, an undercover princess Lenne and her bodyguard Robb, and a noble lord Victor. Matthias Linda has created a live and thriving fantasy steampunk world here with an incredible backdrop for a narrative filled to the brim with lore. Don’t worry, you’ll meet tons of characters that you can recruit into your party as the narrative progresses.
Gameplay plays out in stereotypical turn-based fashion, where your party members and enemies take turns whacking each other. A nifty visual timeline is available to you at the top right hand corner of the screen that shows you whose turn is next. The game markets itself as one that features no random battle encounters because enemies can be seen running around on the field. While this is true for the most part, there are still some moments where enemies may pop out of nowhere and gank you, which pretty much equates to a random encounter. Some of the attack animations during combat can get dragged out and repetitive, especially after hours of gameplay, with no option to skip or fast forward through them. A nice quality of life feature is that battles feature seamless transitions, which seems to have taken inspiration from Chrono Trigger. Your party’s ultimate ability meter is also automatically filled when you enter a boss battle. Mech battles play out in similar fashion, with your mech suit containing its own unique set of moves and abilities.
Even though Chained Echoes is inspired by many classic RPGs such as Xenogears and Suikoden 2, it introduces some outstanding elements that makes it stand out. The Overdrive System, which adds a unique flavor to combat, forces you to balance out which skills to use during battle. An overdrive meter that slides left or right on the top left corner of the screen dictates whether you get benefits or detriments to your party members. Keep the meter in the green zone and you get perks such as increased damage dealt, reduced damage taken, and reduced cost for skill usage. Drag it over to the red zone and your party will overheat, resulting in significantly increased damage taken. Think of it like a thermometer, where certain skills bring it up and others lower it down. This mechanic represents how synced your team is and intuitively drives you to not spam the same abilities over and over again.
Another fascinating system that the game uses is the tag team mechanic, allowing you to switch out party members on the fly during battle without using up a turn. This essentially means that you can have up to eight party members, four active and four in reserve, to strategize with during combat, opening up endless combinations and synchronizations. You can’t just swap any member out for another and instead must customize the formation of your team in the settings menu. The game also utilizes a “stagger” mechanic where an ally can get staggered by an enemy attack and be unable to move, forcing you to naturally switch them out for a reserve team member. Downed allies are automatically revived after the end of a combat scenario, as are all your health and stamina. This is a little surprising considering most turn based JRPGs don’t function in this way, as this pretty much renders consumable items useless and makes the game less challenging.
Leveling up and progression are also done a bit differently in this game than you might be used to. You don’t get experience points in the usual sense, but instead you earn skill points to upgrade your skills and grimoire shards to learn new ones. Grimoire shards are rare to come by and are only earned after defeating bosses or special tasks. Each character has their own unique ability pool, resulting in no shared skill points among party members. Skills are divided into three categories: action, passive, and raw stats, which are all quite self explanatory. You gain access to specific class emblems, such as cleric or knight, as you progress through the game, which you can then equip to a particular character. This non-traditional take on leveling up results in gameplay that puts more emphasis on strategy during combat rather than grinding up experience points. On the other hand, armor, accessories, and tools can be purchased in shops, found as loot, and upgraded at blacksmith locations. Weapons can be fused and slotted with gems that provide bonuses that sort of act like Materia in Final Fantasy VII. There’s a complex and well-thought-out system here that goes very in depth and is surprisingly very balanced. There are no difficulty options but the game is well paced and I never felt like I was too overpowered or underleveled.
The world of Valandis is vast, and you’ll be spending a lot of your time exploring open ended areas with little to no hand holding. The game boasts a wide variety of environments, from luscious fields and charming villages to abandoned sewers and forgotten cities. Or take your adventure up to the skies with your mechs, because the world is your oyster. Venture off the beaten path to find hidden caverns, treasure chests, or unlikely villagers tasking you with side quests. Participate in various charming minigames as well if you want a change of pace, including going up against a rock-paper-scissors master or participating in a turtle race.
You even get bonuses for completing various in-game activities like defeating a certain enemy type or reaching a new town displayed in a nifty board-game-like reward board. The level of detail in this game is just insane, with a multitude of systems that mesh together into something special. And yes, you can pet the dogs and cats in Chained Echoes. The opening hours of the game where the narrative and characters are introduced is very linear, but know that the game opens up substantially after you invest some time in it, especially after you get access to your Sky Armor robot mech suits. I particularly liked the fact that no objective markers are used, as it naturally promotes exploration and curiosity. I’m definitely one to explore every nook and cranny of a particular area before moving to the next in fear of missing out on some optional content.
If none of the above convinced you that Chained Echoes is a game with a lot of heart and love, perfect for anyone craving a nostalgic gem created through a modern lens, then let the masterful soundtrack do the talking. Eddie Marianukroh, the composer behind the original music for the game, has created a ballad of melodic tunes and engaging battle themes that add resonance and life to the overall game. His masterful usage of various orchestral instruments, electronic beats, along with classic piano and guitar come together to form a score fit for any occasion. Keep in mind that this game contains no voice acting, so instead the soundtrack must do all the heavy lifting in the audio department. I will say that the dialogue does go a little overboard with the swearing and vulgarity, considering most games of this genre are more family friendly.
In a world where games cost as much as $70, Chained Echoes is priced at a humble $25 and is available pretty much on all modern day platforms. Keep in mind this is a lengthy 30-40 hour game so there’s plenty of content per dollar here. This review was done on the PlayStation 4 version played through backwards compatibility on the PlayStation 5. I fully expected load times to take somewhat long, considering there’s no PlayStation 5 native version, but to my surprise, Chained Echoes loads lightning fast and performs flawlessly. Controls are responsive and snappy, with crisp and detailed pixel art and a smooth 60 fps. These smaller indie games usually have console ports that are riddled with technical performance issues, but there’s none of that here. Nonetheless, even if the asking price is a bit high for an indie title, keep in mind Chained Echoes is also launching on Xbox Game Pass day one.
It’s loud and clear that Matthias Linda has created a passion project and love letter to the games he grew up playing. Chained Echoes is a fantastic retro-inspired JRPG that made me feel like a little kid again. It pays homage to everything we loved about old school 90s games filled with charming easter eggs and references. With breathtakingly phenomenal pixel art, an endearing cast of characters, a unique take on turn based combat, and a beautiful soundtrack, this is a nostalgic experience that you don’t want to miss out on.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.