#215: Echo Night
Initial release: August 13, 1998
You know, on balance it makes sense that Dark Souls and especially Bloodborne would have a survival horror feel, because FromSoftware have been making horror games off and on for years, all the way back to Echo Night, an obscure little adventure title that eschews codified survival horror mechanics for a largely passive adventure, where merely turning on lights chases away ghosts, and finding objects connected to them will banish them forever.
It’s late 1937 and Richard Osmond gets a call: his father’s house has burned down. On the same day, he received an envelope from his father containing only a key. While searching the ruins of the house, he discovers his father’s diary, which seems to transport him back in time. What follows is a strange, disjointed adventure where Richard is transported to various places and times, trying to piece together the mystery of a sinister red stone set into the handle of a ceremonial knife, and the history of two families entwined around it.
The bulk of the game is set aboard the passenger liner Orpheus, which disappeared without a trace in 1913. It’s now inhabited by hostile ghosts and the shadows of the people aboard the ship, all of whom are looking for something to help them move on. The gameplay basically works out like a first person adventure game as you traverse the ship, looking for clues and items to help you along your way. talking to the shades of the passengers and crew will give you clues as to how to proceed.
Self-defense is not an option in this game. Your primary means of defense is turning on lights, with switches marked by little red lights to help you find them in the dark. Sometimes you’re left with little option than to run.
However, the three hostile ghosts that haunt you at different parts of the game can all be banished forever by finding an object connected to them. Sometimes you’ll wind up having to literally find their corpses in the past to do this.
Each shade that you help move on drops an “astral piece” when they vanish. Early on in the game you’ll be summoned to a strange tower (somewhere in England it seems) whereupon a mysterious, seemingly blind seer will exchange them for potions that cure possession. If you collect all the astral pieces, you’ll be treated to a chance encounter during the ending sequence that will give you the option for some additional endings, for a total of four depending on whether or not you were able to escape the ship in time. Most of the astral pieces are easy to get and are obtained during ordinary progression, but some are easy to miss. Three of them can only be done by doing well in the ship’s casino, which is not as easy as you think — in fact, the game is rigged. Some careful testing revealed that the outcomes in the gambling games are geared to steer the odds out of your favor. More often than not, you’ll lose in blackjack; if you make a savestate in roulette, lose, reload, and bet on the number that won, you’ll likely still lose anyway. If you somehow can manage to do well in both roulette and then blackjack, all three of the ghosts in the casino will vanish, and the three hardest astral pieces will be available to you. But it’s such a bullshit process it’s almost not worth it.
In spite of this, and in spite of the relatively easy gameplay, this is an unsettling game that’s creepy in the way only PlayStation games can be creepy. The slow movement and mostly mediocre voice acting only add to the game’s uneasy vibe. Sometimes there’s some adventure game silliness, such as not being able to continue if you forget an important gear and you have to reload your save. But overall the difficulty is simple — assuming you’re observant and thorough.
The audio design leaves something to be desired. Most of the voice acting is very wooden and borderline phoned in — I half think they just used in-house staff for the voice work. Some of it is decent, though, especially the blind seer, who manages to be friendly yet sinister. There’s almost no music in the game either — little tunes that play when a ghost is in the room and that’s kind of it. Most of the game audio is footsteps, UI sounds, dialogue (and not everything is voiced, either) and some ambient noise. It’s a very quiet game.
All told, however, this has the position of being an obscure cult classic that gives an early hint as to how FromSoftware approaches atmosphere. The eerie silence, absurd plot, and inscrutible NPCs all are hallmarks of their later Soulslike games. At maybe 4–5 hours of play you won’t be spending a lot of time with this particular museum piece, but if nothing else, it’s a good look at a once lesser known studio’s contribution to the burgeoning horror genre.