Chained Echoes

released on Dec 08, 2022

Take up your sword, channel your magic or board your Mech. Chained Echoes is a 16-bit SNES style RPG set in a fantasy world where dragons are as common as piloted mechanical suits.

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Far from being 'just another' retro-style JRPG, Chained Echoes is pretty much the highest-quality homage to Chrono Trigger that I've played, succeeding in capturing the meticulous world design, epic narrative scale and, particularly, dynamic tactical feel of its turn-based battle system - and arguably surpassing its clear inspiration in some ways.
Set amidst a war of conquest by a recently-ascended prince, the story follows an expanding party as they seek allies in an attempt to stop the war - and ultimately a much greater threat. While the writing isn't the game's strongest facet, it does a good job of pressing forward the story, remaining compelling in the face of a handful of optional quests - just be warned that the game's first act (of four) is by way the longest, probably around half of the total! The pixelart that depicts the world is unfailingly detailed and attractive, imbuing the environments with a real sense of life - even if the backdrops themselves are mostly static - and with chests, hidden caves and buried treasure spread liberally to reward exploration.
Eschewing a traditional levelling system, character progression in Chained Echoes comes mostly from gradually expanding each party member's skills with points earned from each 'significant' encounter (mostly bosses) and equipment upgrades. This will be controversial, but to my mind works well, with the absence of a need to grind making for a refreshing change, and preventing the ability to win battle simply by out-levelling opponents - in-battle tactics are key. This brings me to the game's strongest facet, its battle system, which introduces a truly innovative 'overdrive' system. This sees the party's battle readiness represented by a bar, starting in a minimum position and gradually increasing with attacks/abilities and damage taken as the party 'warms up' and reaches an 'overdrive' level, increasing damage dealt, reducing damage taken and halving skill costs; however, exceeding a limit sees the party 'overheat', instead taking increased damage. Battles then become focused on managing this overdrive level, which is reduced by defending and the use of skills that fit into a rotating type (physical attack, magic attack, buffs, etc.), ensuring an ever-present requirement for tactical thought, always compelling. With a total of 12 diverse characters available, with up to 8 participating in a given battle (4 active, 4 in reserve), an impressive level of variety in approach is possible too. Also notable is the implementation of automatic full-healing after every encounter, an approach that more RPGs really should follow!
It's not perfect, with a few elements that don't quite hit home as they might - a crystal-based weapon customisation system is a notable example that's just a bit too complex and involved to feel worth exploring - but when taken alongside the stunning fact that the whole game was created near-single-handedly, as a complete package Chained Echoes is very impressive.

Love letter to classic JRPGs. Spent 60+ hrs enjoying the beautiful narration and art style, killer soundtrack and satisfying mechanics/combat to master.

Echoes of a golden age
It almost feels like bringing something back from the past decades of video game history is considered "retro" now a days and almost always seem derogatory in copying the originals but I never really understood the sentiment. The beauty of video games is that they always build off each other and present new ideas especially when it's a genre that has been found lacking in recent decades. Turn based JRPGs still exist of course but always in the form of more low budget titles from big publishers because they're really cheap to make now with no real passion put behind them other than a few projects here and there. I was always eyeing the scene for the independent scene to make a JRPG reminiscent of the SNES-PSX days and while there are some great turn based JRPGs made by indie developers already, I always felt they lacked the traditional ambitious "adventure" feel that made the games we loved what they are today. Chained Echoes comes as a pleasant surprise for me, a heartfelt and passionate ode to what loved and defined us and recreating the feeling that almost seems lost after a while.
One of the game's greatest strengths and one you'll notice immediately is the pacing of the whole adventure. The game starts off very strong and fast which is something you aren't really used to as JRPGs tend to have pretty slow starts as it is and this alone pulls you in pretty quick. It slows down a little in the middle and the pacing always varies if you decide to do side content in the game but the overall journey I would say is just bordering on excellent. It tries to have that ambitious narrative with a lot of threads and intrigue and for the most part succeeds barring a few things that are left unexplained unless you do the side content. The characters are good here too with interesting backstories that I actually felt for even though I kinda wish there was more content or even a side quest relating to each party member to flesh them out a bit more. One qualm I do have is with the game's writing though as it really really dry here and leaves very little to the imagination. I feel like a game's writing helps you able to imagine the characters talk when there is no external voice and dry writing makes you imagine them doing a very bad performance at least from my perspective. I know some people don't like the flowery writing a la FFT or Tactics Ogre but I always felt like it gave more emotion to what's going on and the ideas and concepts of Chained Echoes are done pretty well without being blatant about it.
I could talk about the battle system in this game for days if I could, I have a few minor annoyances with it but it's overall amazing and really challenging that makes you think about every move. There's a lot going on in a regular battle to keep track of and it almost feels like a tug of war with how one of the main mechanics work with the Overdrive Bar. Think of the Overdrive Bar as a momentum meter and something to keep you in check that rewards diverse play over boring strats as doing so will put you into a zone where you do more damage, take less damage and halves TP cost while being in the overheat zone makes you take a lot more damage and things can go really bad really quickly. Each character has their unique moveset and passives that let you build them however you want to an extent with the addition of class emblems that augment your stats and give you new actions a character would've never learned otherwise. Only having eight skill slots which is your bread and butter throughout the whole game is gonna feel really limiting but this also keeps in mind that you can also swap party members on the fly essentially having eight on the field at any given moment and the game rewards you for doing so too with a small reprieve of "cooling". With this said, there's no overleveling in Chained Echoes and there's little reliance on stat bloat as obtaining the resources for growth are mostly story based so you'll always be at a range of where the game wants you to be. The other form of fighting is fighting in these cool mechs called Sky Armors and I kind of wish they were more realized in how you can customize them. The moves you learn in them are completely up to the two weapons you equip with no way to mix and match which I would have loved considering after deciding the pair of weapons I wanted on each that I didn't bother with the others as much. I only got a little burnt out on the combat when some encounters were unavoidable despite having no random encounters and after I got the skills I already wanted on my characters that every fight almost played out the same barring bosses and every grimoire shard became less and less important but the boss fights do enough that I still have a strong positive impression of the gameplay.
It's not a JRPG without dungeons and a world map as you'll go to a lot of locations as well that are very varied in visual design and in traversal. From the cold vertical mountains to the horizontal archipelago, there's a lot to do and see outside of combat in terms of bolstering your strength. Finding recruits in the world giving you bonuses, side quests that reward you excellent rewards and even new party members, and a reward board that feels like a stamp card that rewards you for completing specific tasks in the world in a chain so to speak and it's also how you'll get most of your class emblems and extra grimoire shards when you need them which gives a much needed reward system to interact with the world a bit more other than the initial first time through. You eventually get the ability to fly over the zones instead of running which lets you explore even more areas so it's always a good idea to return after a while.
I will say the work done for the sprites are pretty good here and really shine with the bosses and enemies later on while being a colorful world just to look at in general. The soundtrack is something I didn't expect to be this good at all, it has some traditional orchestral tracks that feels at home with a game of this genre but it also has some tropical ass strings in my favorite area theme, an eerie and serene theme going through fields of flowers and ash. The battle themes are pretty great with my favorite one being the one where guitars are just shredding as you fight in literal space. Huge props to the composer for this soundtrack. The dude did not have to go this hard and I'm glad he did.
Funny how I always try to keep my reviews shorter but for JRPGs, it feels like word vomit and I can't ever seem to stem it but I love the genre so much and I can easily tell the people that made this game love it as much as I do. It goes without saying that if you're a fan of JRPGs that this is a huge recommendation and I hope it doesn't go overlooked by the popular masses because it doesn't have a Square Enix or Atlus logo on it. Keeping the genre of fighting literal gods alive. Video games are extremely difficult to make and especially solo endeavors but it makes it that much more special when you take years to craft something in hopes of shining bright to the ones that shaped you growing up. Congratulations to Matthias Linda because your title shines just as bright.

This is pretty much everything I have wanted in a JRPG. Let us start with the gameplay. After every battle your HP and TP (MP) resets. Meaning, you are incentivized to use all of your skills. I almost never used a simple attack. Furthermore, there is a gauge. You want to be in the green (middle) not in the red. If you are in the red your defense is decreased and your spells cost more TP. You can stay in the green by defending at times or using a specific type of spell, that is randomly decided, that will lower your gauge. Scenario as an example: I want to use a poison skill but if I do I will be in the red, the gauge says if I use a buff my gauge will go down so I use a buff instead. Some won't like this but I think managing your gauge gives the combat an extra layer of strategy.
Also, there is no EXP in the traditional sense. Instead, there are Grimoire shards that will allow you to upgrade your characters (learn a skill, stat boost, or passive skill). 1 shard upgrades all your characters once. You mainly earn these shards by just completing the story events. However, to earn additional shards there is a chart of achievements (like kill 10 wolves in Fiorwoods or explore most of the area) and if you link a chain of achievements, you will get rewarded a Grimoire shard. This negates the need for traditional grinding. There are other things and nuances, but I have spoken too much already.
STORY! In the beginning I was intrigued by the whole grand story, which is largely political but does have a lot of fantastical elements as well. The characters I was less sold on, but I did like the fact that the tone was more adult than other JRPGs. As the story goes on you learn more about the characters and I loved them. Victor, Ba'thraz, Sienna, Lenne and Glen's backstory chef's kiss. The story reveals in this game were amazing. So much so that I tried to think of the simplest way to explain them to my GF because I wanted to share it. She was also shocked or at least pretended to be for my satisfaction. Also, by doing side quests you will fill in story loose ends from the main quest.

I like pretty much everything this game does, I just don't think I'm that in to JRPGs anymore. I noticed that a few years ago that I struggle to play them regardless of their quality. I love the battle system here, I love the art, the music, and even the writing. I just didn't feel like continuing after about 10 hours because there were other things I'd rather get to. Not a hit on the game at all. I do think the overall story/lore is very complicated and it can get very wordy very quickly. That was a bit much.

I just... man, it's so close. So much about this game is awesome, and extremely impressive as a solo dev project. But I know this might be blasphemous to say, but I think this really could have used another person working on it. It's ideas are fantastic, but there's so much indulgent lore and in-universe buzzwords that are just so unnecessary and detract from the actual narrative of the game. Every time a scene felt like it was going somewhere emotionally, characters just started dumping exposition which prevented any of them from feeling real. The game expects you to not only know, but be deeply invested in like 8 countries, 3 sets of gods, and an entire world history in order to resonate with the plot, and it's just too much, man. There's no strong emotional througline to the narrative besides the lore, and if that never grabs you, the story just feels meandering and frustrating
In contrast to Chrono Trigger's perfect pacing, which this game was openly inspired by, this game feels so muddled in its actual storytelling. The cast is absolutely gigantic which means none of them have nearly enough time to be actual people or develop in believable ways, and the game keeps introducing new characters and villains as soon as you begin to feel invested in one. Frederick is the main villain! Except no, he's not. Gwayn is the main villain! Except no, he's not. The Harbinger is the main villain! Except no, it's not. It feels like every chapter the game is trying to throw a curveball at you, which does keep you guessing, but also prevents you from feeling invested in any one plotline.
This sounds like I'm being super hard on this game, and that's just because it's SO close to being incredible. Despite what I said, I really did want to like the characters, and a lot of the lore concepts are actually really neat. It's also a weird thing to say about an RPG, but I genuinely think the gameplay is what makes this worth playing, not the story. The overdrive system is great, even if it does feel like you're just pressing the button the game tells you to sometimes. The later bosses where you're constantly buffing and tagging characters in and out are phenomenal, and are among my favorite turn-based battles ever. The Sky Armors do suck, though, and I actively dreaded having to use them for bosses, which is the exact opposite reaction you should have to getting into a giant mech suit.
I really wanted to love this game, and sometimes I really did. But some of the choices regarding the story and characters just feel like they needed an entire new draft. This is an extremely impressive project and I will absolutely play whatever this developer makes next, because I really do think he can make a masterpiece with this foundation. I just wish Chained Echoes was that masterpiece.