If someone asked me what I like most about video games, I would probably answer that I love how some of them can play with our minds and emotions, but in a good way. The former probably explains why I’m so obsessed with puzzle games, and the latter explains why I constantly feel the need to finish my horror games, despite being completely terrified by most of them.
I guess it’s no surprise that games that mix these genres naturally grab my attention. Therefore, I was immediately inclined to play Dark Echo, from the Canadian studio RAC7 Games. The game’s prototype was made for Ludum Dare 26 back in 2013, which was themed on Minimalism. The early version of the game was called You Must Escape, where it placed 2nd overall on the jam. Later, the game was polished and released for iOS and Android devices, and only recently on Steam as well.
Dark Echo presents a very fresh and interesting puzzle concept. You must find the exit to 40 rooms in complete darkness, from a top-down view. The character is represented by two footsteps, and each step taken generates noise that reverberates through the room and bounces off the walls. This noise is represented by straight white lines and is created in a circle around you. As the lines bounce on the walls, the outline of each room becomes visible for a period of time as short as the sound echos, and when the echo is done, the darkness takes place again, but the noise can last longer if you stomp the floor. You have to try to memorize and understand the edges of each room in order to walk around and find the exit, which is represented by stronger white lines. Walking nonstop helps to highlight this outline.
The horror elements of the game are different from anything else I’ve seen so far. What’s familiar is that, like in most horror games, there are monsters hunting you and it’s certain death if they touch you. Where it differs, is that monsters are represented by pulsating red lines that move to the source of a sound once the lines reach them. They’re only visible during this period, meaning you can’t see them until they can hear you.
You might be asking yourself the same question I did: How can a minimalist game be scary? Being visually simplistic, the game must rely on sounds to convey horror. The awful sounds of ripping flesh and loud screams when you die are likely made more terrifying by the fact there is little visual aid to accompany them. The fact that you cannot see, only hear, gives the game a touch of psychological horror. Every time I started a level I would carefully walk around the room, but I couldn’t avoid the panic that somewhere in the corners, or even in front of me, a monster or a giant red bubble could hear me once I took the next step. It’s the kind of horror that makes Steven Spielberg’s Jaws so frightening, leaving a person’s own imagination to fill in the blanks for much of the experience.
The level progression adds interesting new obstacles that go beyond bigger rooms or labyrinths. Moving obstacles and walls that can crush you make the game a lot harder, challenging, and claustrophobic. Whenever I died out of nowhere, I’d go back near the obstacle and try to understand what was happening. It encouraged a playstyle of thinking before acting, not thinking while acting, and in my opinion that’s the difference between a good and an ordinary puzzle. There was no trial and error, or guessing what could happen while I was playing, it was either 0 or 1. There was no way to understand how some of the rooms worked without really stopping to think strategically about what I could do to find the patterns.
In addition to the moving obstacles and monsters, Dark Echo also features other mechanics that can help (or hinder) the escape, like walls that crumble when you stomp the floor near them, keys to open hidden doors, stones that can be thrown to distract the monsters, and puddles that produce an unnecessary amount of noise when you walk through them. There are 15 hidden treasures to uncover in the game, though I only found one of them. The hidden passages and items seemed very difficult to find, which may frustrate some players, and it would have been nice to have something in the tutorial section to at least explain their existence.
After you finish the game’s 40 stages, the Light World is unlocked. It presents the same levels in a much higher difficulty level with inverted colors. The monsters are more frequent and spawn from the very first stage. In this world, they are also able to walk through walls and obstacles, significantly raising the panic level. I tried to play it, but the added difficulty wasn’t appealing enough on its own to make me play through the same stages again.
As someone who is an experienced fan of puzzle games, I feel safe saying that Dark Echo is one of the best puzzle games I’ve played this year. Seeing a minimalist game convey such genuine horror while innovating within the genre at the same time is amazing. Dark Echo is available for $2,99 on Steam for PC, Mac, and Linux, and for $1.99 on the Play Store and the App Store.