From the minute the title screen loads up, you’ll already have an idea of what to expect from Ecco…everything about the opening of the game oozes tranquility, serenity and harmony, from the beautiful opening passage of music to the motion of the water on the main menu screen. And you’d be right – at least as far as the opening few levels are concerned. But Ecco is a far more complex game that extends beyond these preconceptions. The settings themselves range from colourful, swirling coral reefs teeming with life, to desolate, dilapidated underwater ruins devoid of life except for the few bloodthirsty sharks pursuing our hero with visions of dolphin sandwiches dancing in their heads. Ecco is far from a one-trick pony – or dolphin for that matter – however. The core of any good game is it’s gameplay, and Ecco is no exception. Ecco’s repertoire of moves consists of a dash attack, sonar (to communicate with friends or bemuse foes), and a few turns and twists to help him out of sticky situations. This sounds pretty limited, but I assure you that once the game gets in full swing, the controls method is both intuitive and effective. Scattered around the various environments are white crystals that will spell out your directives in riddles. Sometimes these riddles are easily deciphered, at others they are horribly cryptic, but if like me you enjoy a good riddle once in a while, some of them will really get you thinking. The directives you are assigned range from saving a baby whale from it’s prison behind a wall of rocks to directing a giant manta ray through a cave so that it may protect you from being devoured by an enormous moray eel. One of the most impressive elements about Ecco is this sense of scale – the environments are enormous with fantastically deep and intricate networks of tunnels and passages – which occasionally makes it difficult to navigate. Make no mistake –
Ecco is NOT an easy game. Many of the challenges are incredibly cerebral, requiring a huge amount of lateral thought – and a fair share of luck – to complete. This doesn’t mean Ecco is not enjoyable, however. Far from it, in fact, Ecco is a hugely enjoyable game in the respect that, even if a particular assignment is taxing your overworked brain to the limit, you can simply swim around and explore the fantastically detailed areas, and give yourself time to cool off and think things through – which is the key to success in many cases. In places Ecco will leave you hurling your control pad at the screen in frustration, only to discover the solution to the problem was so obvious you’ll be kicking yourself all the way through to the next task. Ecco, being a mammal, is subject to a certain amount of limitations, such as the need to breathe oxygen. An oxygen gauge is displayed below your health meter, and slowly decreases the longer Ecco is immersed in the water. Also, if Ecco receives a nasty blow from an enemy, the wind will be knocked out of him, taking a large portion of the O2 bar with it. Also, Ecco is only human – err, dolphin – and so isn’t the strongest creature in the sea. Attacking hammerhead sharks or misshapen monsters of the deep will often leave our porpoise protagonist a little the worse for wear (Okay, so technically he’s not a porpoise, but what good is alliteration if you can’t improvise a little?), requiring the use of some sneaky hit-and-run attacks or cover from jellyfish to pull off a successful kill. Ecco is not defenseless however, far from it – as he progresses through the game, new powers and abilities are assigned to him, such as the power of air to increase the O2 bar, the power of vigour to make his charge attack more effective, or the power of sonar to increase his communication device into a weapon of long-range destructive power. If it
9;s a question of longevity, Ecco has that in spades. The levels are long and varied and have plenty to do, and your lifebar can be lengthened with the help of "vitalits" which are scattered around the levels. Finding all the vitalits is a task in itself, and as if that wasn't enough there are several mini-games locked away which include a 2D sub-game harking back to Ecco's earlier mega-drive excursions, and a cunningly-implemented game of dolphin-football. So we have serenity, action, cerebral clues, taxing puzzles, stunning visuals and an intuitive control system. All we need now is a gripping storyline. Guess what? Ecco pulls it off without so much as flinching a dorsal fin. The story starts with our hero – Ecco, of course – swimming happily about outside the gates to Atlantis, without a care in the world. And with good cause – he and his amphibious friends, in fact the whole of Earth, is protected by an enormous forcefield generated by “the guardian”, an enormous creation of the dolphins of the past. The caretaker dolphins – i.e. the few dolphins that remained behind after humans and dolphins ventured out to explore the universe – protect Earth with the assistance of this huge creation. But their harmony is not shared by all creatures in the universe – least not “the foe”, an evil race of space miscreants set on wreaking vengeance on the planet that defeated them – thanks to the help of Ecco, many years before. The foe succeed in infiltrating earth and steal the dolphin’s precious traits – free will, intelligence, strength, et cetera, and hurl them into a time vortex. This is where the ingenuity in the storyline steps in – Ecco has, in essence, many storylines, all dependent on the foe and their time travelling shenanigans. There are three presents – The initial present, where dolphins and humans live in harmony and the seas are
a multitude of swirling colours and teem with life and energy; the second present where the dolphins have been exploited and enslaved by mankind, imprisoned inside twisted machines and forced to build the weapons of man; and the third present, where dolphins rule supreme and have become corrupted by power, becoming sinister looking black manifestations of their aggression, building weapons of their own and twisted mazes which Ecco must traverse in order to restore balance and harmony between humans and dolphins. After this third and final present, Ecco is returned to the initial present, still chasing the precious gifts that were stolen from dolphinkind. Returning to the present, he finds it corrupted by “the foe”, inhabited by aliens and strange creations that he must battle through to make the Earth safe again. The story is beautifully scripted and narrated by Tom Baker (of “Doctor Who” fame), and immerses you completely from beginning to end. And with all these praises, regrettably – but inevitably – there are a few drawbacks. The environments are occasionally a little ambitious, which may leave some players disoriented in parts, and occasionally the clues are a little too cryptic, necessitating a slightly more “trial and error” approach to things. The puzzles themselves can occasionally be insanely difficult, and building frustration detracts from the gameplay. But to anyone who is thinking of or has bought this game, my advice would be “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”. Some of the more difficult encounters or puzzles might appear impossible on the face of things, but persist and the rewards certainly outway the small amount of effort required to pass that room or beat down that boss. All in all, Ecco is a fantastic accomplishment by Appaloosa and SEGA, and an adventurous, original and worthwhile addition to the Ecco franchise.