Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review: Ecochrome

JAPAN Studio

PSP, PS3 (download only)

In their very nature, third-person games have a major hindrance – the camera positioning, relative to the character you’re controlling. Some games (Mario 64, Gears of War) manage this relatively well by minimising camera clipping, locking the camera close to the main character, and effectively hiding the problem; for others (Ninja Gaiden II, Sonic Heroes) the shifting, impossible-to-control viewpoint simply negates any positive gameplay aspects the games may have had. An actively obscuring camera obscura, if you want to (re)coin a term.

Ecochrome, a recent release for PSP and the Playstation Network, demands a literal paradigm shift from the player, although it’s one that isn’t difficult to grasp. Initially, there’s the disconnect from the on-screen character – it’s not under your direct control, instead continuing to follow its path as far as it can. Like The Trials of Topoq or Super Monkey Ball, you’re aiming to move an object (in this case, literally a mannequin) through several goals (echoes), until you reach the end-point of the level. Unlike those two games, however, Ecochrome’s movement constraints are determined not just by the objects around you, but also by the camera’s perspective of the level.

For example, if there’s a hole blocking the Walker’s path, you can simply shift the camera so that the hole is hidden – using the game’s ‘law of perspective absence’, the hole simply ceases to exist while the camera holds its position. The ‘law of perspective presence’ means that if a gap between two pathways is blocked from your view, and appears to be connected, it is. Similarly, if two separate pathways seem to be touching, they are, and the Walker can cross between them. Finally, the Walker falls and jumps according to the camera’s two-dimensional interpretation of the 3D levels – he’ll land on whatever appears to be beneath him, and jump up to whatever appears to be above him.

The above five ‘laws’ of the game generally hold true, but controlling the camera so minutely – swinging your perspective to a pixel-perfect point where paths converge – is actually pretty difficult, albeit less so with the PS3’s thumbsticks than the PSP’s nubbly analog stick. Individual results may vary, of course, but some of the later levels are so mind-bendingly difficult (on either hardware platform) that you’ll be perfectly happy to blame the controller.

You could equally blame the repetitive music, I suppose. Sound design really isn’t a strong point, with discordant and unsettling classical music looping again and again. Not that it doesn’t suit the game – you’re likely to make the Walker fall off the edge of the level often enough that a looping track seems entirely appropriate. The lack of alternative music is disappointing for a black-and-white game streaming off a UMD or hard drive, but there’s always a volume control if it gets too much.

Take-home message? Ecochrome is a Reutersvärd-meets-Escher feverdream, at times infuriating, but packed full of so many different levels that you’ll easily overlook the fact that it’s compromised of almost pure theory.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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