When it comes to modern-day AAA RPGs it feels like the scope of some games feels a bit bloated at times that it’s unrecognizable compared to the golden era turn-based classics that turned many into JRPG fans. So getting the chance to play Chained Echoes, a 16-bit inspired turn-based RPG was a real treat as the game brings it all back to basics of what made the genre fun.
That’s not to say what I’ve played doesn’t have any problems as I do have criticisms, publisher Deck13 and German developer Matthias Linda made some unique decisions with Chained Echoes’ gameplay and battle system, systems that ultimately made me a little frustrated at first before finding the right groove. The same can’t be said for Chained Echoes‘ campaign as the narrative is told with a masterclass approach to its story, world-building, and its roster of playable characters that you get to learn their back story as you go through a 30 to 40-hour campaign.
I’m not someone who has a nostalgic eye for SNES RPGs from yesteryear as that was a generation cognizant to be aware of but even I can tell how much of a special game Chained Echoes truly is. While it doesn’t try to hide its inspiration, it wears it proudly and honestly, it makes great strides to push RPGs from that era with modern narrative and design choices. Characters feel like they have a purpose and don’t fade to the background as the player makes their way to the Chained Echoes‘ end game. After playing this it’s high on my list as one of my favourite RPGs of the year almost beating out my time with The Legend of Heroes – Trails from Zero from earlier this year. That says how much I loved my time with Chained Echoes.
I am… Gundam Sky Armour
It’s time to dive into the story, Chained Echoes takes place in the fantasy land of Valandis dating back over 3,000 years. Over the past 156 years, the continent has dealt with a multi-generations war fought between the three kingdoms of Valandis which include Taryn, Escanya, and Garvos with the winner earning complete ownership of the continent. Jumping into the present day you are inserted and woken up into the shoes of Glenn, a red-headed Sky armour ace pilot for the mercenary group, Band of the Iron Bulls and Chained Echoes‘ first main character. Your crew is on a huge payday mission to take back one of the kingdoms by destroying a power source to turn the cannons off,
To get into the action you and your fellow pilot, Kylian head out in their sky armour which is the world’s mobile suit like from that mech anime you are totally thinking about. You get your first taste of gameplay and the feeling of being in sky armour which you don’t get a feel for more than 10 hours but it doesn’t last too long as Chained Echoes forces you to land and make it to the power source on foot which you learn is a “Grimoire”. Things don’t go as planned, after Glenn and his crew destroy the Grimoire it causes a huge nuclear-like explosion that takes everything out in the castle’s radius seemingly leaving no survivors.
Following the event, not one kingdom took ownership of the destruction and all three kingdoms begrudgingly signed a peace treaty out of fear of more wanted destruction. One year on and the unrest and understated want for more war from highly violent hungry officials in the kingdoms can be felt with the tension between the three at an all-time high.
The fate of the duo at this point is up in the air as Chained Echoes transitions to a time skip you are put into the shoes of the Taryn princess Lenne who escaped her kingdom to get a better understanding of the worries of the everyday citizen. Currently, she serves as a bodyguard in the port city of Farnsport in the southern kingdom, she finds herself in a case that could disturb not just the city’s celebratory peace festival but Valandis’s current state of fragile peace with war ready to begin again.
Throughout the city, you will jump into other characters including low-class poet turned nobleman, Ser Victor and thief, Sienna trying to escape her former gang to get to her next ‘big break.’ During your time as Sienna in the sewers in her attempt to sneak into the royal’s castle, she finds herself teaming up with the familiar duo of Glenn and Kylian who make their reintroduction to the player by popping out of a Kraken and somehow survived the centre of that year-old explosion.
A Party is formed as Chaos Erupts
All these character perspective jumps come to a head when all six characters meet up and are forced to party up to take down a huge boss that is disrupting the party. Afterward, the tower you fight in comes crashing down and you are unexpectedly wanted by the royal army while trying to find the true culprit behind the series of events trying to push the war to start all over again. Your party ventures out of the city to a vast open world of Valandis where they’ll explore the land and run into new enemies, obstacles, betrayal, and new allies to join them on their righteous cause in this fantasy yet political adventure; maybe even get an airship/new sky armour along the way. Chained Echoes also has a fast travel system so players can visit locations they’ve already been to before.
Throughout the campaign, Chained Echoes mostly tells its story while masterfully building out its world from the perspective of your party in the busy marketplace of the Chained Echoes‘ towns you’ll visit but there are times when it shifts that point of view of the political drama happening in other kingdoms. This is done to give the player an introduction to new characters in the story as the player has a more understanding of the story than your characters so when they do show up, it doesn’t come out of anywhere. I think overall, Chained Echoes‘ approach to its narrative combined with each character’s very real dialogue together is one of the biggest positives I got from Chained Echoes as it is more than I was expecting from a $20 to $30 game as it’s the major focus of Chained Echoes.
Chained Echoes Features No Level Progression System
On the surface, the gameplay of Chained Echoes is simplistic of past and current turn-based games but it’s more unique the more time you put into it. As you start Chained Echoes, you’ll notice the lack of a traditional level system – a staple of the RPG genre. I’m not going to lie here I initially hated the lack of inclusion so much that I found it to be a frustrating learning curve like Chained Echoes was punishing me for not getting it. Later on, I got it because while it made enemies hard to deal with, at the same time it put most enemies on the same playing field – defeating enemies in the first starting area out of Farnsport will be similar to the ones you face in other areas. It’s just about how the player deals with the crazy circumstances that make Chained Echoes harder as you go through the story.
When getting into battle you can choose from one of five basic options – Attack, Skills (to use a growing list of special abilities at your disposal), Items, Defend or Escape. Chained Echoes interestingly tries to limit your input in battle with an overheat bar so the more inputs you put the “hotter” it gets but other than giving you a warning it doesn’t do anything – not even a penalty to health or TP – so feels like a wasted addition at times. When you level up in an RPG like Pokémon you learn a new move and something similar happens in Chained Echoes. As you defeat bosses you earn an item called a “grimoire shard” which is awarded to each character in your party. These shards can use to redeem and learn a new skill in your skill board, the more you unlock the more skills are available to you.
Skills Unlock the More Bosses Vanquish
A couple of the unlockables include new action skills, passive skills and increased stats. This approach made me understand why the lack of a level progression system as the developer already had a plan in place that would replace it without the player counting on farming to get better at the game which you can still do but you would be farming SP which can be used to level up the strength of all your skills. There isn’t a wrong way of improving your characters but it’s mostly done through progressing through the story, although if you’re a player like me who enjoys doing the extra work – you are awarded in the Reward Board. This is a board with tons of mini side quests that reward you money, SP, and sometimes items for completing small tasks like finding all the chests, defeating enemies, finding collectables, completing actual side quests, and more.
Going back to difficulty a bit, I think the lack of difficulty options should have been considered during Chained Echoes‘ development as it feels like I’m going through Soulsborne-like difficulty in the Chained Echoes with every enemy normal encounter early and at times, later on, feeling like I barely won. I think the addition of a difficulty option would make Chained Echoes more accessible to those who just want to enjoy the story instead of trying to challenge themself by acquiring the best gear the player has upgraded which if you find better gear on your own in the wild, enemies will weirdly up their difficulty. I think overall, I could be alone on this but the gameplay of Chained Echoes can be a mixed bag while I appreciate the approach of doing something different from Chained Echoes‘ inspiration. Playing it straight with gameplay that inspired the developer and players find familiar like other inspired games, rather making a truly unique RPG system made it feel unnecessary and it’s own worst enemy at times. I can appreciate the attempt alongside the fantastic storytelling but that can only go so far on my many attempts to put down Chained Echoes and move on.
Beautiful Artwork and Vistas
I did say the story was one of my major positives but there is one more thing Chained Echoes‘ excels at — visuals and artwork. Every time I take the time to appreciate the background of the vistas I’m always taken aback by how breathtaking the actual look of the game is. I don’t need the reminder because I know but Chained Echoes‘ art emphasizes that 8 to 32-bit games will always be something I find beautiful and the developer’s modern take on the game takes it to another level. Even the animation of special attacks and so much more just adds to the great overall product, but wasn’t too much of a fan of the character artwork – made it feel more western when an anime art style would have fit the game much more.
With the game being a 16-bit game that means it won’t be any trouble running on your platform of choice. For me on PC through my Steam Deck, the game instantly loaded surprisingly quicker than a lot of games I’ve played on the device even quicker than the other games I’ve played on my lovable PC handheld. If you end up picking up on PC you’ll easily get 60 FPS which made the gameplay flow and animation pop during my playthrough. Although there are times when I turned my Steam Deck back on when I faced a few stuttering issues here and there, I waited a couple of seconds before Chained Echoes stabilized and it was a consistent experience afterward.
Chained Echoes is easily one of the best JRPG tributes out there and the second-best RPG of the year with beautiful visuals celebrating the foregone 16-bit art style. In recent memory, Chained Echoes easily tells one of the best stories in the genre with a focus on political unrest alongside a great cast of likeable characters in a warring fantasy land with retro mecha technology.
While Chained Echoes honours its inspiration, it also tries to move the genre forward with its modern takes on the genre with its fantastic approach to world-building. Developer Matthias Linda’s ambitious, thought-provoking, and bold battle system was at times a good experience but the lack of level progression and difficulty options made the game less enjoyable. I implore fans, especially ones who are subscribed to Game Pass to at least give the game a try, as you might be more up to the challenge than I was.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]