Chained Echoes Review – A New Masterpiece of Turn-Based RPGs

    Title: Chained Echoes
    Developer: Matthias Linda
    Release Date: December 8, 2022
    Reviewed On: PC
    Publisher: Deck13
    Genre: Turn-Based RPG

Throwback games to the SNES era have grown so frequent; their novelty has gradually waned to the extent that newer projects embracing the sheer prospect have been overlooked. One such title encapsulating this notion is Chained Echoes by developer Matthias Linda and publisher Deck13. This 16-bit style RPG wears its inspirations on its sleeve, but that doesn’t impede it from managing to be one of the best results the genre has seen in years.

Chained Echoes takes place on the continent of Valandis, a 3,000-year-old land with a rich history comprising magical research. Sadly, seemingly endless waves of war occurred for roughly 156 years, where the continent’s three kingdoms, Taryn, Escanya, and Garvos, fought for dominance.

Though, following a catastrophic explosion in the east taking the lives of tens of thousands of people, the nations signed a peace treaty out of fear since no one claimed responsibility for the incident. Now, in 807, one year after the treaty signing, several individuals of vastly differing backgrounds eventually unite to halt the war’s potential resumption born from conspiracy.

In the title’s opening hours, players will shift perspectives between the members of the primary cast, learning of their backgrounds, motivations, and traits prior to their eventual and eventful meetup. From Taryn princess Lenne and her faithful bodyguard Robb to the thief and con artist Sienna, every party member receives extensive focus significantly bolstered by the masterful and meticulous worldbuilding.

In fact, the first facet of the experience most players will likely notice is how this game wastes no time providing lore. Historical events and the world’s multiple races are detailed alongside key figures within certain regions and organizations. However, if that writing style doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, this title certainly isn’t for you.

Because while there is notable character focus and growth, the worldbuilding is arguably more intricate, and delving into that subject matter helps better illustrate the cast’s places in the continent as well as the severity of their beliefs and actions. Still, this dense storytelling doesn’t make Chained Echoes dull, not at all. Actually, the dialogue is another area where this game vastly shines, as there’s a pretty enjoyable sense of humor rooted in trope subversion and candid remarks.

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Some coarse language is also utilized, though not for the mere sake of it. It’s firmly incorporated in contexts where their usages make appropriate sense depending on the type of figure present. Further, this language aids the world’s diligent depiction of realism. A well-honed equilibrium is struck, so there’s no needless shock value meant to elicit shallow reactions.

As for the party members specifically, they can all be seen as a protagonist, with some more fleshed out than others. However, Glenn is the overall one due to this constant presence and the noticeably stronger focus on his plight compared to the rest. For an inexplicable reason, a mysterious voice occasionally interacts with Glenn, briefly warning him of incoming dilemmas he should avoid, implying that whatever this being is, it’s more privy to the world and Glenn’s surroundings than the man himself.

Sienna is a favorite of mine since, despite her relatively to-the-point interactions and characterization compared to a few other characters, her existence provides a diametrically and inherently opposed stance to how the rest of the cast operates. She simply brings juicy, entertaining drama.

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Gameplay-wise, Chained Echoes manages to impressively implement a customizable yet approachable series of systems, though admittedly initially overbearing. You see, characters don’t traditionally level up here like in other RPGs. Instead, everyone receives items called Grimoire Shards after defeating bosses and completing noteworthy tasks, which are then used in the main menu to learn various types of skills. And said skills are divided into three general, self-explanatory categories; Action, Passive, and Stats. I usually recommend prioritizing the Action skills since they can be immensely worthwhile when handling specific encounters.

On the other hand, the Passive and Stat varieties are useful in the long term, meaning they’re best pursued once all available Action abilities are obtained. Several skills are locked until a prerequisite number is achieved. Moreover, equipment, notably weapons and armor, can be upgraded at select forging locations with materials for enhanced stats.

Additionally, crystals found throughout the world impart gems that can be combined into more robust iterations and then inserted into equipment for boons, like enhancing an umbrella of damage output. Truthfully, save for later items, these materials rarely necessitate extensive grinding, allowing for a consistent sense of progression not strictly affixed to the characters themselves.

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Although, I suppose there technically is another collective resource to grind for, Skill Points. These are acquired when winning battles and used to upgrade already-acquired skills in any of the previously mentioned three general varieties. Since standard mob fights usually respawn, it is possible to grind for SP, but the game’s design doesn’t really advise that.

The amount of SP earned from grinding battles is usually meager, and while the number of Skill Points needed to upgrade a skill decreases the longer they’ve been active or used, you’d need to exercise an excessive level of patience for any meaningful results. Theoretically, you could also spam battle skills to eventually attain mastery, but that’s unnecessary. Summatively, without explicitly saying so, Chained Echoes tells its players to keep naturally progressing at a steady pace.

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Personally, I genuinely appreciate this development choice, and not because it saves time. It’s because this compact character growth works in tandem with the combat design, letting each enemy encounter challenge players at levels demanding mastery of the many present mechanics. To elaborate, your standard RPG, especially those with expansive options such as a Job system, tends not to be balanced for the sake of making every player’s chosen playstyle feasible for beating the game.

Chained Echoes is, bluntly, the complete opposite. Despite the choices and customization tied to skill acquisition and equipment, every character has evident specialties that make their roles abundantly clear. The choice with the longest-lasting gameplay ripple effects is linked to Class Emblems, unique equippable items that grant considerable stat increases, and stellar skills that can outfit the right characters with amplified or dual roles depending on player preference.

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Thankfully, these Class Emblem skills aren’t solely affixed to the items themselves since characters will eventually master them, allowing usage sans the Emblem. So, even then, the greatest implementation of player choice doesn’t lock a player to a route that forever alters combat avenues; they can instead be perceived as supplemental side roads on a linear path, which heightens the intended challenge.

And speaking of the challenge, interestingly enough, everyone’s health and magic are automatically fully restored after every battle, implying that players should give their all as frequently as possible, also allowing for a grand array of continual offensive strategies that can be more frequently performed than in other RPGs where transitional resource management in between battles is an omnipresent factor. As a result, standard mob encounters always require genuine thought since they’re all designed with those replenishments in mind. These factors ultimately serve to individualize Chained Echoes’ identity even further.

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Now, let’s finally move on to how the combat system actually works. Fights are turn-based, and the fundamental utilities expected of the genre are here, though there are a few unique aspects worth noting. Firstly, and perhaps most vitally, is the Overdrive bar, divided into three distinct yellow, green, and red segments. As the playable cast performs combative actions, the arrow in the Overdrive UI steadily moves right. The common goal throughout every battle is to remain in the green as that enhances stats, while being in the red hinders capabilities.

It’s a simple-to-parse system that discourages incessant spamming of identical skills and instills opportunities for defensive maneuvers. Some skills will be intermittently highlighted in yellow as well, and using them will lower your placement in the Overdrive bar. Still, they’re not always contextually viable, so blindly using those abilities while in the red can do more harm than good. Status ailments and elemental affinities are implemented in the fray, too, being especially impactful deciding factors in many scenarios.

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When throwing buffs and debuffs in the mix, the myriad of systems here potentially being intimidating is offset by how straightforward they are, resulting in a masterfully woven battle system. My only real critique in relation to the combat is how overbearing the opening hours are with throwing a bunch of tutorial pages in your face without cleanly interweaving them into battles. Doing so would’ve made the mechanics easier to digest, but that’s ultimately a minor fault I doubt will hamper players’ experience. Although, there is one critique I have related to this subject matter that I’ll bring up later.

Regarding presentation, it’s as clear as day; Chained Echoes is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. The pixel-art style is understandably nostalgic yet still fresh and compelling, thanks to the prepossessing scenery, with the grim and ominous areas being grotesquely inviting. The quality of the character models is also similar, acting as the cornerstones of this war-torn, defiled world.

However, while great, I didn’t find the character portraits to mesh well with the environments. You’ll definitely get used to their designs, yet their approaches didn’t hit me as hard as the rest of the game. Glenn’s portrait, in particular, stood out as jarringly off compared to how his pixel art depicts him, but that’s far from an objective issue.

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Unfortunately, Chained Echoes has no library or resource menu in the pause screen housing tutorials or lore material found throughout the game. While the former isn’t strictly necessary for comprehending certain aspects, the title frequently shows wordy tutorials that some players may overlook near the start.

Moreover, the lack of compiled lore text is probably my most significant issue with this game because there’s an intricate degree of discussed factors that could use re-reads following their initial discoveries. I suppose the solution for this dilemma is to screenshot every unique worldbuilding piece and tutorial text, but you really shouldn’t have to do that.

Sidequests are incorporated as well and work as you’d expect. However, a system that, at least appearance-wise, reminded me of Final Fantasy XII’s license boards, was a menu readily accessible via standard UI that comprises an achievement system. Completing the tasks stated here imparts rewards, and additional prizes are granted if lengthy lines of the depicted achievement tiles are concluded.

These passive benefits paint a gradually finishing picture of progression, transparently displaying the player’s overall progress while also giving practical tools. Thankfully, fast travel preemptively stamps out the frustration that would’ve arrived with clearing a few of these tasks.

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As for glitches and the like, my experience was smooth, save for one relatively inconsequential instance. In the first open area of the game, I ended up partially stuck within a wall after a screen transition. But walking for roughly half a minute took me out of this odd quandary, so it wasn’t a softlock or anything similar. I can easily see this problem addressed in a patch, and since this is the only bug I ran into, you don’t have anything to worry about in this vein of conflict.

One final facet worth bringing attention to is this game’s soundtrack, which is ridiculously well-composed. Aside from the tranquil field and town themes, several battle tracks get that blood pumping. The sound design, in general, is sublime; audiophiles will certainly have their fill here. Finally, before moving on to the conclusion, there are still elements of the game I have not discussed to prevent prolonged rambling, such as the simple but enjoyable mech battles, which are worth looking forward to.

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Chained Echoes is a wildly ambitious and impressive turn-based RPG that, aside from minor faults, sticks the landing on all fronts. From its terrific and constantly thought-provoking battle system with well-implemented challenge, to its strongly written cast and masterclass worldbuilding, this is an essential must-play for any fan of the genre that I sincerely hope doesn’t pass anyone’s radar.

Score:
9.5/10
A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Orpheus Joshua

Random gamer equally confused by the mainstream and the unusual. Fan of JRPGs, Action, Platformers, Rhythm, and Adventure titles.