Chained Echoes Review – Review
“It’s much easier to be given a place to belong than to make one for yourself.” – Citan Uzuki (Xenogears)
As if falling off of an airship or summoned with meteor Materia, RPG fans were jubilated when Chain Echoes dropped onto the Switch last December. The retro-inspired RPG comes from the mind of solo developer Matthias Linda. Is drawing from a golden age of role playing games enough for Chained Echoes to stand up to today’s more modern standards, or is it best played with rose-tinted glasses equipped?
More often than not, an RPG is only as good as the tale it weaves, and I am happy to report that the story of Chained Echoes is one you’re going to want to bear witness to. Off the jump you’re laced into the boots of the main protagonist Glenn, an ace Sky Armor pilot and a key member of the Band of the Iron Bull. Your troop of mercenaries have been hired to help liberate the recently overtaken kingdom of Wyrnshire on the continent of Valandis. The events that transpire on this battlefield reverberate through the political intrigue-filled narrative of warring nations and our heroes being caught amongst the chaos. While the story is wonderfully told, the reason it ultimately succeeds is because of the memorable cast of characters–standout being Victor, a travelling bard you meet early in the story who is famed across Valandis and whose life experience is an invaluable tool to the party. Each teammate has their own motivations, faults, and reason for being a part of the team that is further explored the deeper the story goes. It’s a fantastical story that is grounded by its participants and the rich world that is Valandis.
Modern turn-based RPGs have a lot to live up to. Improving on the established gameplay of the classics that still hold up relatively well is no easy task. Can they evolve on the formula when such heavy-hitting franchises such as Final Fantasy have mostly abandoned the gameplay that launched their popularity? I am happy to say that Chained Echoes is the one of the most modern iterations of the traditional turn-based combat I have experienced. It takes into account massive quality of life improvements while driving the gameplay forward.
To break things down, enemies appear in the overworld, so there’s no random battles here. When you start an encounter, things should look somewhat familiar if you’re a fan of the genre. Turn order is attributed to agility much like in Final Fantasy X. You have your attack, defense, item, and skill commands. One major difference is that to the left of the screen you’ll see the “overdrive meter.” It has three colored sections: orange, green, and red. You start off at the far left of the meter in the orange zone. Each attack or skill-based action will move the meter forward. The goal being to reach and stay in the green overdrive zone. Within this zone you take less damage, deal more, and save on TP (think of this as mana). But be careful; every action the enemy takes moves the meter further to the right as well, pushing you closer and closer to the red zone, which when achieved puts you in the “overheat” state, wherein you deal less damage, take more punishment, and expend more TP. These two states can be the difference between surviving a global attack and a complete team wipe. So how is this mitigated? When you reach the green overdrive zone, a randomized symbol will appear to the left of the meter representing one of the different skill types at your disposal. Using one of the represented skills will lower your position on the meter slightly. That alongside using defend or specific overdrive items will also push the meter back. It creates a really fun risk-reward system and ensures you always feel like an active participant in the flow of battle.
Leaving a battle, you may notice something: you didn’t gain any experience. You’ll only reap a small amount of SP (Skill Points) to level your skills, but these are accumulated so slowly they don’t count for much when it comes to character progression. Character progression is more focused around Grimoire Shards. These items can only be acquired by defeating a boss. One Grimoire Shard grants 1 point to spend (per party member) on unlocking skills, either active talents, passive skills, or permanent stat increases. What this system allows is the complete removal of any necessary grinding which has bogged down so many other fantastic games in the genre. I think the importance of that fact can’t be understated.
That might make you question the game’s difficulty, but fear not: some enemies can be downright nasty if you’re not careful. Escaping from combat is guaranteed outside of story battles. But if you find yourself continuously wiping against a boss, take a look at your equipped skills, focus your character build, and delve into the equipment upgrade system. You have the ability to increase your damage and gem slot count in your weapons and armor, and gems can carry stat bonuses or even useful things like granting a particular elemental attribute to your attacks.
As you progress, you’ll want to go off the beaten path as much as possible. There is so much hidden throughout the world and it’s a joy to explore. Interactable doors are marked with a green arrow on the ground. No more bashing your face on every door in town to check if you can go inside. Hidden item pickups are also indicated by gleaming lights. But if you feel as though you’ve checked an area thoroughly, don’t hesitate to return later in game, things change and new paths may be revealed. You could find class emblems which act as drastic stat manipulators; for example, a warrior emblem will shoot up your attack and health as well as grant you some physical attack skills. There are 12 of them in total to find and they are well hidden. Each has an associated battle to prove your worthiness before acquiring them; these can be a massive challenge but some of the most unique battles in the game. Chained Echoes also has a bevy of side quests to experience. And though they aren’t mandatory, you should still make them a priority in your playthrough. You get further insight into a few characters and have the opportunity to unlock up to four additional playable characters.
The character of the continent of Valandis itself is shaped by its people but also by composer Eddie Marianukroh. They have done a remarkable job with the soundtrack that not only fits the tone of Chained Echoes, but helps lift it closer to RPG greatness. It somehow stokes nostalgic flames as you listen; I caught myself remembering past games such as Chrono Cross and Final Fantasy 9 simply through the score. Suffice it to say, the game has astounding music that adds wonderfully to the experience.
Overall, Chained Echoes was an absolute joy to experience, though it wasn’t without a few faults. I had a repeated UI bug occur on a couple occasions where the turn order character icons would simply disappear. A reboot fixed the issue, so it wasn’t overly problematic, but worth noting as it was frustrating when I found it the first time during a boss fight. One sidequest in particular sat with me as incomplete. It was a very engrossing storyline tied to an optional character, but as I reached what would be the climax of the questline it ended abruptly with a text blurb and all was well. If this was unfinished cut content, I do hope to see it added in a future update. I would also have loved to see more emoting in the character portraits when they speak. I feel as though the story would be that much more impactful with a little more characterization in the portraits but perhaps that was a stylistic choice to reflect its influences. Lastly, the early-middle of the game has a bit of a pacing issue; once you clear some of the open areas between hours three and seven, things pick up noticeably. These are very nitpicking negatives to an overall incredible package, and considering the length of the title, these being my biggest gripes is incredible.
I ended my playthrough of Chained Echoes at roughly 65 hours. On the Switch OLED this game is beautiful, the vibrant pixel art aesthetic shines on screen, and its performance other than the aforementioned UI bug is flawless. Gameplay is also buttery smooth and appears to be running at a high frame rate. I enjoyed my time in Valandis so much that I experienced as much of the side content as I could. This full length RPG stands as a love letter to the games I grew up with. The inspirations are clear, and yet this is a wholly unique RPG experience that anyone who has an affinity for the style–and 90s’ RPGs in particular–owes it to themselves to enjoy.