ECHO: Secrets of the Lost Cavern Review

ECHO: Secrets of the Lost Cavern takes the gamer back in time -- to a primitive world where a young boy named Arok, coming from a clan of hunter/gatherers, has greater aspirations. As Arok begins to investigate his own desires, he gradually starts to uncover his own gifts. With the help of a mentor named Klem -- a cave painter -- Arok is challenged to search out those gifts. It is this search that leads Arok on the journey that unfolds within the game, and takes him to the very heart of an ancient, sacred, and mysterious cavern.

Having seen numerous screen shots and a few trailers for ECHO prior to its release, I was eager to play the full game. In addition to the detailed high-quality graphics in the previews, I've also been quite pleased with previous offerings from Kheops Studio, including Crystal Key 2, The Egyptian Prophecy, and a recent favorite, Return to Mysterious Island.

The game has fairly modest system requirements (aside from the now-common requirement for 1GB or more of hard disk space), and should be playable on most recent PC systems (see sidebar for details). The installation of ECHO went smoothly. The game is distributed on 2 CD-ROMs, and the installation completely copies one CD-ROM (plus most files from the second CD) to the hard drive, eliminating the need for any disc swapping while playing.

The user interface in ECHO is a fairly simple and familiar one -- especially for users who have played Return to Mysterious Island. Introductory screens and menu options look remarkably similar to that game. Like RtMI, ECHO uses a fairly simple point-and-click interface, with a cursor that helps identify possible directions of movement, potential interaction with other objects, existence of puzzles, and so on. All of the common options (Save, Load, Resume, Quit) are placed on a Main Menu, as is access to an in-game encyclopedia containing detailed information on prehistoric times, customs, rituals, lifestyle, etc. Throughout the course of the game, the player is directed to information stored in this encyclopedia, information that typically relates to something that is happening within the game at the time. This basically makes ECHO something of an "edutainment" game, as well. (Much of the information in the game, as well as some of the graphics and game play itself, are based on archeological excavations and prehistoric art found at the Cave of Lascaux, near Montignac, France in September of 1940 and since.)

The inventory used within the game is as intuitive as the rest of the user interface. Throughout the game, various objects can be picked up and placed into inventory, to be used at some point later in the game. The use of most of these items is fairly obvious, although there is an occasional need to combine simpler items into more complex objects before they can be used.

The majority of the puzzles in the game relate to these inventory items, and consist of finding out what is needed, locating the necessary item(s), and using them correctly. Often, the "finding out what is needed" part is a result of conversations that Arok has with other characters in the game. Frequently, another character will ask Arok to bring them something, or perform a certain action. Aside from these type of inventory interactions, there are occasional "stock" puzzles -- that is, puzzles that are puzzles for the sake of being puzzles.

And unfortunately, this is one of ECHO's weak points. Because aside from sometimes being gratuitous (i.e., unnecessary to the game and simply put in place to add "challenge" to the gaming experience), one or two of these "logic puzzles" have actually been designed in such a way as to artificially extend the difficulty of the puzzle. In at least one case, this was done simply by increasing the mathematical probabilities for the puzzle. On the whole, gamers who prefer to focus on the more intuitive, "right-brain" kinds of puzzles will be more satisfied by the kinds of puzzles presented in ECHO than those who look for more analytical/mathematical puzzles.

Another thing that made some of the puzzles more difficult than they needed to be was a lack of explanation of what the puzzle entailed -- what the goal was, how to interact with the puzzle, what the possible manipulations did, etc. While this could be considered to enhance the "intuitiveness" of the puzzle-solving experience (i.e., "figure it out for yourself"), I found it to be more frustrating than anything.

I was surprised to discover that there are actually very few geographical areas that make up the bulk of the game. There are essentially three or four main environments: a cave, a small area of outdoor paths, another cave, and the final "lost cavern". (Yes, a lot of time is spent in caves and caverns!) Some gamers may even be bored by the minimal environment of the game. On the bright side, the graphics and 3D renderings that make up most of the game are astounding (and perhaps the very reason that the scope of the game is as small as it is). I can't recall another game that was so detailed -- down to individual blades of grass, or leaves on trees. The scenes use pre-rendered backgrounds (with the outdoor scenes being especially vibrant, colorful, high-contrast, highly-detailed scenes), with full 360-degree panning. It is obvious that a lot of attention was given to the design and creation of 3D models and realistic textures. In fact, it's a shame that the developers didn't spend more time in the outdoor environment, where their artistic talents could have been displayed even further. As it is, much of the game is played in dimly-lit caves, or caverns, resulting in a lot of fairly dark scenes that do not provide the same level of detail, contrast, or color.

The 3D character animations are done well, although the primary movements of the characters are their facial expressions as they talk to Arok. Examples of these graphical achievements can be seen in the sample screen shots in the sidebar. In addition, the game incorporates brief cut-scenes to segue between key areas of the game, and to help develop the story line. These cut-scenes are created equally well. There were a few instances, however, where certain anachronisms were introduced into the game, either by a word or phrase used by one of the characters, or even a gesture or other action that did not appear consistent with the prehistoric setting of the game.

Game play is quite linear. There is very little choice that Arok has, in terms of where to go, or what to do next. Often, this is controlled by conversations with other characters (who basically tell Arok what his next activity is), or simply by eliminating other possibilities (e.g., reducing the number of places Arok can go or the things with which he can interact). Things must be done in a certain order, and only in that order. And the end game was a bit briefer, and came more suddenly, than I expected. In fact, I was almost surprised when the credits came up, as I felt that the game had fallen a bit flat at the end, and left me with a feeling of unfulfilled desire to continue.

As a result of the limited number of areas to explore, and the linearity of the game, ECHO is a fairly short game (especially by comparison to its sibling Return to Mysterious Island), and can be played fairly readily in 10 hours or so. I finished it in five evenings, even after getting stuck on one or two of the artificially difficult puzzles.

Even given its shortcomings, I think that I would still say that I enjoyed ECHO. It was a very entertaining game, it provided some interesting "edutainment" value, and I was once again highly impressed with the graphical design of an offering from Kheops Studio. I would have preferred the game to have been a bit longer, the puzzles a bit better designed, and overall game play more non-linear. But my overall experience was a good one.

-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.