Even though Sony trumpeted the arrival of the inexpensive PSP Minis (a sub-section of downloadable games that are smaller projects with cheaper price tags) months ago, I have yet had a chance to give them a fair shake. That ends now, thanks to Halfbrick Studios' Echoes. This exciting action game proves that you can do a lot with the medium and still charge a meager $2.99. But even with the small price tag, some gamers may feel like Echoes doesn't live up to its promise.
Echoes plays a lot like a dual-stick shooter (Geometry Wars, Smash T.V., etc.), only there's no shooting in this game and no dual-stick to speak of. It's a game about avoiding obstacles, all told from an overhead point of view. The gameplay is simple enough, you run around an enclosed area dodging attackers (known as Echoes in this game) and collecting a certain number of gems. The rub is that each time you pick up a gem another echo will come on the scene, which means that by the time you've completed a level you may have a dozen or more enemies after you.
Thankfully the developers have given you a few tactical advantages when dealing with these echoes. For one thing, each level gives you three lives to play around with. Each time you hit an echo you will lose a life, but you will start from where you died without losing any gems. You will also discover that the game has power-ups to aide you on your quest. Some of the power-ups include the ability to freeze time, a way to cause an explosive chain reaction and even an item that turns you into a spinning buzz saw. These power-ups only last for a few short seconds, so you will need to use them wisely if you're going to stand a chance.
Although the gameplay is fun (if a little uninspired), the whole thing is over too quickly. Obviously you don't expect a lot for $2.99, but a seasoned gamer can blast through all of the levels in less than a half hour. The level designs are also a bit lackluster, giving you a series of shapes (including familiar shapes like Australia, a snake and so on) that equate to a wide-open area. Towards the end this changes, but half of the game might as well be set in a wide-open box. Had the developers been able to assemble levels that worked against you and really made you plan your gem order, then this whole exercise would have been significantly improved. As it is this is an interesting idea that leaves a lot of potential on the table.
The good news is that there's actually a lot to do beyond the 30-minutes-or-less single-player campaign. After you've beaten the game a bunch of mini-games are unlocked. These include the Jackpot Mode, Survival Mode and Clockwork Mode. While interesting diversions, none of these extra modes are as fun as the standard Arcade Mode, but they will extend the life of the game (and give you a few new incentives to come back and compete against your friends). On top of the modes, you also get a series of trophies to earn, as well as a harder difficulty to try your hand at.
This PSP game controls fine for the most part, but there are clearly parts of the game where I wished that Sony had developed a better analog nub. I used my original generation PSP-1000, so perhaps the game is more comfortable on one of the newer systems, including the drastically redesigned PSPgo. On the other hand, when I tried the game out on my PlayStation 3 I had absolutely no control problems. There the analog stick was comfortable and easy to use, but at the same time it made the whole thing much too easy.
The game's presentation is understandably simple. When you pay $2.99 you certainly aren't going to expect Dissidia-level graphics. In essence all you're doing is looking at a yellow circle run around the screen dodging blue circles. The backgrounds, while varied, are all the same color and there are no exciting cinemas or anything. In fact, the most visually impressive thing about the game is the title screen, and even that is a bit underwhelming.
As a first taste of the PSP Minis, Echoes gave me hope for the future. This is not a perfect game, but it is a solid example of what can be done for cheap. This is the type of product that you can pull out when you only have a few minutes to burn and want something quick and uninvolving. However, even when you play it a few minutes at a time, you'll likely complete the game too quickly. There's an interesting idea here that, if expanded, could make for an even better finished product. $2.99 isn't much for something this small, just don't expect a game that will radically change the way you feel about overhead action games. Echoes is definitely not that game.