There was a time in my life where all you had to do was say “beautiful platformer with a cute main character” and I would drop everything to buy it. Today it takes a lot more than just a pretty face to keep my interest, and nothing made me realize this more than Fossil Echo. Puzzle platformers are a dime a dozen these days, and after games like Braid and Inside, you have to do something new to get people to care. Unfortunately, Fossil Echo delivers on the pretty part, but not really much else.
Fossil Echo tells the tale of a young boy setting out on a larger than life adventure, to climb a seemingly endless tower reaching far into the clouds. Equipped with only his wits and two mystical feathers, the boy must make his way to the top of the tower, where the answers to his questions lie. The game’s narrative feels a lot like a children’s fairy tale, which is complemented nicely by a hand drawn aesthetic that evokes Studio Ghibli.
The game gives you little backstory at first, simply dropping you in a boat heading towards an island, but as the game progresses you learn more of the boy’s backstory and his reasons for being at the tower. The backstory is told through flashback sequences at fire pits, where the boy dreams of his adventure so far. This process of storytelling works well, as it keeps the player invested to progress through the game to see the full story. Now with that being said, oh boy this story has problems. Fossil Echo spends a lot of time setting up ideas, characters and plot points, but ultimately fails to tie any of them up in a satisfying way. Part of the problem is the nonlinear narrative, as there are intriguing ideas at play here, but they are either over simplified or just never mentioned again. For example, the idea of having a girl who is also climbing the tower at the same time you are, adding a sense of mystery and agency to your climb is a great idea and adds a fun rival aspect to the game. The issue is she ends up being sorely underutilised and only has about two scenes, one of which comes out of nowhere. The same goes for the titular character of the Fossil Echo, a giant mysterious bird that at first seems to have a connection with the young boy, however not a single story beat is made between the two and the bird ends up seeming like it was added because a concept artist thought it looked cool.
As previously stated, Fossil Echo is a puzzle platformer, a genre that has basically been perfected at this point. With that being said, there are a few problems with Fossil Echo‘s design that become immediately apparent. First off, the movement of the boy feels incredibly sluggish due to a slow run speed and some wonky animations. The reason for this speed issue comes from the game’s hand draw art style, as while it can be visually striking, it does not perform well during certain character animations, like holding onto ledges or wall jumping. This slower movement speed would be fine if the game’s levels were more realistic and required a more weighted feeling, but most of the levels are built in an almost twitch like Super Meat Boy style, clashing drastically with the delayed movement speed, leading to a lot of frustration in later puzzle rooms.
Fossil Echo is split between two recurring themes; first set in the present day as the boy climbs the tower, the other in the boy’s dreams. The tower climbing segments see you making your way through puzzle rooms where you must sneak past guards using stealth and platforming techniques such as wall jumping, hanging from ledges for cover and jumping from high ground to take out enemies. While new obstacles and enemies are gradually introduced, these sections never prove much of a challenge. Other than these puzzle rooms, there are occasional auto scroll segments towards the end of every floor, where the boy runs after his feathers after they are blown away. These sections work well to serve as a break from puzzle rooms, but due to the awkward movement of the main character, at times these sections can’t go by fast enough.
The same can be said for the dream sequences, which are spent exploring the boy’s past and clearing special challenge rooms. These challenge rooms are where the game’s real difficulty lies, forcing you through elaborate twitch based jumping puzzles to get to the exit. These sequences are as difficult as they are frustrating, as a mix of poor collision detection and a stagnant movement speed turns these well thought out challenges into unfair nightmares. On the other hand, the exploration sequences do a good job of fleshing out the world outside the tower, allowing you to see the towns and areas of the world outside the tower. Most of the times these locales are more charming and memorable than the tower itself, due to some funny moments with NPCs and a more varied setting. These areas of the game also have the best music in the game, offering up fun tropical themes that stand out in an otherwise uninspiring score.
Fossil Echo is a game that wears its influences on its sleeve, but never comes close to the quality set by its inspirations. It lacks the detail of Studio Ghibli and falls short on story, something Team ICO hit out of the park in their first title. Now while it is unfair to completely compare Fossil Echo to the greats, the game doesn’t even stand out as a basic platformer either, a genre that is already jam packed with better titles. While Fossil Echo does look great, its frustrating platforming, underdeveloped narrative and forgettable setting leaves me to think it deserves to stay in the ground.
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