With CrossCode beat and Sea of Stars not yet ready, it’s natural to experience pixel-art JRPG withdrawal (and I probably won’t live to see Secrets of Grindea be finished because, well, it’s Secrets of Grindea). Fortunately, thanks to my stumbling-on-things power, I happened across Chained Echoes. It’s an old-school turn-based JRPG with whimsy and mechs. I like both of those things, so it was an easy impulse buy! Let’s find out whether or not said impulse buy was a mistake.
Before I even get into the premise of the game, I MUST praise its visuals. I remember a bygone time when I was not too impressed at modern pixel art in games, but nowadays, it’s what I crave, and Chained Echoes satiates that appetite. It is vibrant, stunning, and gorgeous. It runs silky smooth, and bursts with life. Sure, Sea of Stars and CrossCode still look better, but Chained Echoes is sure as hell up there with them.
In Chained Echoes, a man named Glenn is part of a mercenary group called the Band of the Iron Bull. He engaged in a reckless mission to conquer some place, but when he destroyed the object he was assigned… it exploded. Fortunately, this explosion caused the three kingdoms that were at war to sign a peace treaty. Of course, this is a JRPG; we know there’s gonna be a big adventure and whatnot.
I know that this was in development since 2015, but boy does its basic theme hit hard coming out the time that it did; last December, ten months into an ACTUAL war; the one in Ukraine, to be exact. Right at the beginning, it brings up things that have sent me reeling these past three years, mainly the impossible-sounding process of forgiving the people who were just your bitter enemies. It only corroborates Ezran’s speech in the fourth season of The Dragon Prince, which purports that we must live with our inter-generational hatred bottled up inside instead of trying to not feel it.
Otherwise, it’s your usual classic JRPG story, albeit really dark. In the end, we gotta fight the bad guys and steal the evil superweapon. Eventually—spoilers of a trope that happens all the time—you get to fight gods. It’s not all doom and gloom; there is a lot of good humor. It’s an indie game, meaning that the dev really knows how to meme. There is literally an achievement for selling poop. The peak of meme-ness is the turtle racing minigame; it’s worth doing at least once, because of what occurs during it. The plot is basic enough to feel nostalgic for ye olden days, back when twenty hours was the average length of a JRPG and it didn’t take ten hours to get out of the first town.
Unfortunately, the trappings of the classic JRPG is the biggest flaw here. One of my least favorite tropes is when you set up all this moral ambiguity, with allegories on real-world issues like racism and war, just to have all suffering in the world be because of a single, higher power pulling the strings. It’s a very good/evil solution to a problem, when the entire story told you that such clear-cut sides don’t exist. Couple that with the staggering, potentially excessive amount of suicides in the game, and you could honestly argue that the story is actually REALLY bad. It kind of resembles Square Enix’s current philosophy to make everything as grim as possible because of a preconceived notion that the majority of people prefer it that way. The cherry on top is that it ends with sequel bait, despite the dev saying in a post that they didn’t really know where to proceed from here. Maybe it’ll be a DLC campaign?
The cast of characters are pretty good, though. They don’t ham in the memes like Xenoblade characters, but they’re memorable enough. Glenn is a pretty good traumatized war veteran, and it shows. If the game was more popular, people’d be fighting over if the tomboyish Princess Celestia (who uses the pseudonym of Lenne for the most part), the sexy thief Sienna, and a third person who shows up too late to justify me talking about her was the Best Girl. Victor is generally the rational guy who actually knows how to do anything.
As a retro-RPG, Chained Echoes reinvents the wheel. However, any retro-RPG worth its salt would still find a way to upend the original wheel’s design, and Chained Echoes does that. First off, it has amazing quality-of-life mechanics. Not only is the turn order shown in battle, but enemies, strengths, weaknesses, and whether or not they can be pickpocketed are automatically shown in battle. The bestiary also shows drops, including ones that can only be obtained via a steal. Even more importantly, you are automatically fully healed after battle, basically like in Xenoblade; no consumables nor White Magic required! Oh, and don’t worry about saving your invaluable Ultra Meter for the next boss; it will fill up to full during any boss encounter.
Battle itself is also very wild. Sure, you have your usual attacks, skills, items, whoop-dee-doo. However, the Overdrive bar is where it gets interesting. Actions will automatically fill it up, and when it enters the green zone, your whole party is boosted. Skills cost less and you take way less damage. However, when it enters the red zone, it backfires and you take WAY MORE damage. The fun involves juggling between actions that increase and decrease the meter, so you can maintain Overdrive indefinitely. Most importantly, using skills that match the symbol shown on the left end of the meter (the top-left corner of the screen) will decrease it substantially.
Another interesting feature is how the team participates in battle. You thought Xenoblade 3 was cool for allowing all six party members to fight? Well, technically, Chained Echoes allows EIGHT. Each of the four active party members has a reserve tag team member. You can switch between these two without consuming an action every turn, and reduce Overdrive in the process. To spice things up, most enemies can inflict stagger, a status which lasts about an eternity, but is instantly cured if the staggered person switches out.
Things get fun with the game’s stand-out mechanic: Sky Armors, a.k.a. mechs. They are useful for travel, but make for interesting battles. In combat, you are not able to go into Overdrive, but are instead juggling the meter to stay as close to the center as possible, lest you hit the Overheat zones to the left and right. Sky Armors can switch to Gears 0-2. Gear 1 is the balanced Gear, while Gear 2 grants an attack buff and defense debuff. Gear 0 is when you recuperate; in this mode, all actions significantly restore the Sky Armor’s TP, but you can’t use skills. Like in Xenoblade X, each Sky Armor can equip weapons with various skills (and RAMs that function as accessories). Weapons have their own experience meters, and leveling them up earns new skills, as well as stat bonuses that stay for good regardless of if it has that weapon equipped. This means you’ll be shuffling weapons a lot, and sadly, that also means giving physical weapons to mechs with magic-based builds; maybe you should grind those up later (fortunately they level up pretty fast). To make things simple, there are only four specific Sky Armor pilots in the entire group, unlike Xenoblade X where all fifteen party members can pilot a Skell.
Power progression is perhaps the most interesting it’s been since Final Fantasy X. Instead of XP, you gain SP, which is only used for leveling up equipped skills. Skills are learned through Grimoire Shards—earned only through bosses or other means. These aren’t boons to help you in battle; they’re also your passive skills and even stat gains. Fortunately, you get additional stat gains depending after learning certain amounts of skills in total. Leveling up skills is a combination of both winning battles with them equipped as well as spending accumulated SP on them. It’s a unique way to make you work toward something long-term, while also giving you a semblance of control in deciding what skills you want upgraded faster.
Furthermore, you have Class Emblems, earned by finding a special statue AND a special type of consumable key item, THEN winning a tough battle. Class Emblems give two battle and passive skills that can be freely set on the character once mastered. Basically, it’s jobs meets Espers from Final Fantasy VI (I think?). Also, have fun trying to decide what skills to equip; if you’re an RPG junkie, you’ll feel like you’ll need them all but you can only have ten battle skills and five passive skills.
Of course, the stuff you do outside of battle is important too. The big shaker-upper is how item selling is done. Well, you sell stuff and make money like normal. However, selling the right kinds of items unlock Deals. These are special sets of items that require both materials and cash. Just keep in mind that the item list on the menu only counts the amount of said items that you SOLD, not the ones on you; it can get confusing since that’s generally not how it works in 99% of RPGs.
Upgrading equipment is like Materia from Final Fantasy VII… but really hard. All weapons have crystals set in them. Crystals need to be at least Rank 3 to be equipped, and you can get stronger crystals by fusing ones with the same abilities together. However, crystals take up more slots the better they get. The slots of equipment can be increased by upgrading them, but require materials and money, and can only be done twice each.
To be frank, the crystals are probably the worst mechanic in the game, at least early on. Unlike the color-coded gems in Xenoblade, EVERY type of crystal possible comes from the same source, meaning that each draw point takes from a pool of every property. Even if you have an idea of what crystals to use for a tough fight, you aren’t likely to actually have them, especially early game. Also, setting them into a piece of equipment is kind of a done deal; you can remove it, but it will lose all of its purity, and thus the ability to be used as a base in crafting better crystals. You get new and better equipment pretty fast if you’re diligent, so you’d be removing and crippling these crystals quite often.
Exploring the world of Valandis is fun and rewarding… literally. They have a giant Reward Board where you complete various tasks and get rewards on the board. Completing tasks adjacent to each other can start a chain which has its own set of rewards (of course that doesn’t matter if you’re an MLG pro gamer who was going to get them all anyway). In any case, it does borrow from CrossCode and has numerous layers and secrets. Just pay attention to the environment to know where you can jump or climb (and I mean serious attention, because these points can blend in if you have tunnel vision).
Things really open up at the start of the second act. You don’t only unlock Sky Armors at this point; both sidequests AND your airship become available. An important mechanic involves finding various NPCs willing to join your cause. Don’t worry if this sounds daunting; literally the first person you find, right at your home base, exists to give you hints on where to find others. The real problem is that your base is kind of confusing, and has no map.
Anyway… Chained Echoes is actually really hard. It’s not Dark Souls-ian, but it will test you. There are a LOT of nuances, a lot of which is thankfully hinted at via NPCs. The most important nuance is that both you and the enemy will naturally gain resistance to a status effect after you’ve had it once; after that, the effect needs to be re-applied an additional time each subsequent time.
In any case, Chained Echoes follows the usual RPG tradition; random mobs aren’t so bad, static mobs (like the ones from the statues) can catch you off guard, and bosses are where you’ll be put to the test. Due to how leveling up works, there is no such thing as grinding; so you really, truly need to git gud for this one. There are both story bosses and optional Unique Monsters straight out of Xenoblade. Unfortunately, there is some RNG-based difficulty, since the Overdrive bar can ask for a skill that is not AT ALL what you want to perform (including healing skills when I don’t need it and attacks when I DESPERATELY need healing). Switching out partners and defending can reduce it briefly, while Ultra Moves reduce it by a lot. Glenn eventually learns skills dedicated to manipulating the Overdrive meter, and they become very useful. Otherwise, stock up on the special consumable items that activate the corresponding skill type that the Overdrive meter wants.
The Steam Page says thirty to forty hours of playtime. If the higher estimate was to account for completion, then it’s grossly wrong. In fact, the website How Long To Beat puts a completionist playthrough at fifty-three hours, and I’d say it’d be longer if you don’t already know what to do. While there isn’t any such thing as grinding to level up, there is a lot of grinding to get everything. Some of the later Deals require rare drops exclusive to Unique Monsters, which will need to be fought repeatedly if you aren’t lucky. There is also an unrealistic need for money late in the game: to buy expensive cosmetics for your airship, and the need to have one hundred thousand moneys on hand in order to spawn a particular Unique Monster. You will also need to grind Sky Armor proficiency to get the achievement for mastering all weapons (although that honestly goes by really fast if you fight the right mobs). Last but not least, you will need to fight with the annoying crystal mechanic to build the perfect setup for the superboss. Fortunately, one of the recruits can help manipulate the RNG of the Crystals to a decent extent.
Final Verdict: 9.5/10
Chained Echoes is a phenomenal game, definitely up there with the best retro-style JRPGs. While it does take a few too many pages from Square Enix’s current storytelling philosophy for my liking, I still found it worth playing. I highly recommend it to any fans of the genre.
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