Chained Echoes Review – Old style, new ideas

Chained Echoes is deceptive at first glance, leaving you wondering if you missed it back when its seeming contemporaries like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger were making waves. The reality, of course, is that this lavish and imaginative RPG is brand new and largely made by a single developer as a tribute and celebration of those old games, albeit introducing a healthy dose of new concepts. The resulting adventure may look like something from 30 years ago, but it plays with a sophistication that deserves any genre fan’s attention.

The developer likes to play with your preconceived ideas. Sometimes it’s about delivering on those expectations at exactly the pace and moment you’re most ready for it, both in story and gameplay, and sometimes it’s about subverting them. Ready for a new way of fighting? Here’s a new additional system where you control mechs in an intriguing alternate combat style reminiscent of classics like Xenogears. Do you think you understand the arc of the fateful heroic story? Maybe things are more complicated than you first thought.

Along the way, the staples of classic JRPG adventure appear in a balanced and rewarding loop. The thoughtfully designed combat system is limited to crunchy, repetitive combat. Instead, each battle demands your full attention, using enemy weaknesses, character abilities, on-the-fly party formation changes, and a unique Overdrive mechanic to keep your party at the optimal point of damage-dealing. The party heals completely between fights, so it’s all about throwing everything you’ve got at the enemy. Even normal battles sometimes boil down to just one hero standing to deliver the final blow. I found the high level of challenge enjoyable, especially since poor decisions and a game over resulted in an immediate decision to replay the fight, leaving the penalty for failure negligible.

The upgrade, gear, and leveling systems are all immersive and full of compelling choices. Wearing a class emblem can enrich your chosen abilities for each character, allowing you to specialize each hero in powerful ways. Weapons and armor can be upgraded and tweaked with gems that apply new bonuses and encourage players to spend time in the menus and play the tweak game. There’s even a fun “reward board” that offers valuable materials and leveling options for completing specific tasks around the world, encouraging extensive exploration and discovery.

While set within the established boundaries of the genre, Chained Echoes also tells a mature and nuanced story that touches on themes of fate and free will, recovery from trauma, and the weight of guilt. These and other tropes offer plenty of room for exploration in dozens of hours of available story and side quests. Thankfully, it’s a fun fantasy world filled with unusual species and monsters, intriguing biomes, and a complex geopolitical structure. At times, that final component of political elements can be overwhelming and difficult to follow, distracting from the more compelling character drama. But give Chained Echoes enough time, and it all starts to make sense.

A beautiful throwback music score is accompanied by pixelated graphics that convey nostalgia without being a game you’ve played before. Even so, the scope of the narrative and the maturity of the character interactions are at times at odds with the retro aesthetic. This incongruity can be a plus, highlighting moments of terror, war crimes, or betrayal. But at certain dramatic moments, the visual limitations hold back the narrative.

While Chained Echoes has the benefit of being decades removed from the games it draws inspiration from, in many cases it’s a better experience than the lauded games that gave birth to it. I prefer this combat, storytelling, and approach to progression and exploration to many of the JRPGs I grew up with and are so in love with. That’s the highest praise I can give to a game so far removed in time from the games it could be compared to. Whether you currently consider yourself a JRPG connoisseur or have fond memories of the genre’s heyday in the ’90s, Chained Echoes is worth your time. Chained Echoes Review – Old style, new ideas

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