Chained Echoes is deceiving at first glance, making you question whether you remember it when its seeming contemporaries, like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, were making a big splash. Of course, the reality is that this gorgeous and imaginative RPG is brand new, mostly crafted by the same developer, as both an homage to and celebration of those older games, even That while also injecting a healthy dose of new concepts. The resulting adventure may seem out of place 30 years ago, but it plays with a sophistication that commands the attention of any genre fan.
The developer is happy to play with your preconceived ideas. Sometimes, both in story and gameplay, it’s subverting those expectations at exactly the pace and moment you’re most ready for them, and other times it’s about subverting them. Ready for a new twist in the war? Here’s a new addition system in which you control mechs in an engaging alternative combat style, recalling classics like Xenogears. Think you understand the story arc of the runaway hero? Things may be more complicated than you first guess.
Along the way, staples of classic JRPG-style adventures appear in a balanced and rewarding loop. The thoughtfully designed combat system falls back on clunky, repetitive battles. Instead, every battle demands your full attention, taking advantage of enemy weaknesses, character abilities, on-the-fly party formation changes, and a unique overdrive mechanic to keep your party in the sweet spot of dealing damage Picks up The party heals fully in the middle of combat, so it’s always about throwing everything you have at the enemy. Even regular fights sometimes reduced to only one hero standing to strike the last blow. I found the high challenge enjoyable, especially as bad decisions and a game over led to the immediate option to replay the fight, so the penalty for failure is negligible.
The upgrade, gear, and leveling systems are all engaging and filled with compelling decisions. Wearing a class symbol can enrich your chosen skills for each character, allowing you to specialize each hero in powerful ways. Weapons and armor can be upgraded and upgraded with gems that apply new bonuses, encouraging players to spend time in the customization game play menu. There’s even a fun “Reward Board” that awards precious materials and leveling up options for completing specific tasks throughout the world, encouraging extensive exploration and discovery.
Playing within the genre’s established constraints, Chained Echoes also tells a mature and nuanced story, touching on themes of fate and free will, recovery from trauma, and the weight of guilt. There’s plenty of room for exploration in those and other tropes with dozens of hours of available stories and sidequests. Thankfully, it’s an enjoyable fantasy world, filled with unusual species and monsters, intriguing biomes, and a complex geopolitical structure. At times, that last component of the political elements can be heavy and difficult and distract from the more compelling character drama. But give the chained echoes enough time, and everything starts to make sense.
A beautiful throwback musical score accompanies pixel-style visuals that relay unabashed nostalgia from games you’ve played before. Still, the scope of the narrative and maturity of character interactions sometimes feel at odds with the retro aesthetic. That inconsistency can be a plus, emphasizing moments of terror, war crimes, or betrayal. But in some dramatic moments, the visual constraints hold the narrative back.
While Chained Echoes has the benefit of decades of distance from the games it looked to for inspiration, it is in many instances a better experience than the awful games from which it originated. I prefer this approach to combat, storytelling, and progression and exploration to many JRPGs I’ve become so enamored of playing. It’s the highest praise I can heap on a game so removed in time from the game that it can be compared. Whether you currently consider yourself a JRPG connoisseur or simply miss the genre’s 90s heyday, Chained Echoes is well worth your time.