I just can't sleep nights. I work hard, I live a clean life (at least, clean compared to some) and when I get home at the end of a long day, there's nothing I like better than a good night's rest. I'm denied that peace, though. In fact, I wonder how anyone can sleep with videogames in the state they are. One factor more than any other has led them down a sad, downward spiral into the funk they've been in for years. It's the elephant in the room that nobody talks about. It's the dark, sinuous root feeding an industry's worth of ills. Of course, I'm sure you're already aware of exactly what I'm referring to, but for those that continue to deny there's a problem, I'm going to spell it out for you. The issue of course, is a serious lack of game environments made from living, organic tissue.
Resident Evil had its share of underfed cellular masses, and a few scenes in Extermination were nice, but those were small potatoes. The ancient classic Splatterhouse put in a decent shot with its "Womb" level, but that was hardly bigger than six or seven whale uteruses stitched end to end. The last major attempt I can recall was Konami's venerable shooter Life Force. Of course, the Nintendo Entertainment System technology at the time couldn't do justice to internally invading a creature the size of a small planet, but its multiple, oozing hearts were in the right place. After all these years, this longstanding oversight has been corrected thanks to the ooey-gooey Alter Echo. I, for one, will be sleeping easier tonight.
All kidding aside, Alter Echo is particularly interesting not only for its wet, squishy levels, but because of its release date. Like the way Hollywood often has competing films with similar content, Alter Echo hit the streets just after Capcom's Chaos Legion this past August. They each attempt to revitalize the dormant beat-'em-up and hack-'n-slash genres, and though the two are vaguely similar in a number of ways, Alter Echo's incorporation of varied elements gives it a different flavor than Capcom's effort—and more successful results.
Starring a young psychic "Shaper" named Nevin, the premise of Alter Echo centers around a highly valuable substance called Plast. Organic in nature, Plast can be shaped by these psychics into anything imaginable, so a whole planet of it would offer limitless power. An insane renegade Shaper has discovered such a planet, so Nevin and team go after him in an effort to end his interplanetary conquest, enslavement of the universe, drilling in wildlife preserves, and failure to implement comprehensive healthcare—you know, the usual evil badguy routine.
With a combo-heavy combat core, Outrage's Alter Echo builds and enhances the familiar "kill enemies to advance" formula with several twists borrowed from other genres.
Starting with a mild sauce of low-impact platforming and puzzles, nice bits of sizzle come from Nevin's ability to change shape and stop time at will. With a versatile supersuit given by the planet itself (it's a long story), Nevin can instantly go between three forms: a humanoid swordsman, a hulking gunner, and a gecko-like stealth mode crawling on all fours. While attack options are initially limited, players can purchase new moves and upgrades as the adventure progresses. Going a step further, the supersuit has a time-dilation ability that looks similar to something you'd see in a music or rhythm title. When surrounded by overwhelming odds, Nevin can cause the game's world to come to a standstill while you maneuver an icon around a field representing the number of enemies around you. If you can move the cursor in time with the "beat," you immediately destroy all opposition with a few flashy maneuvers. It doesn't play a major role in the game, but between that, the transformation, and the upgrading, the numerous fights stave off repetition and remain ziploc fresh.
From an aesthetic standpoint, I found Alter Echo's semi-psychedelic motifs to be refreshingly different. Because the world and all its areas are alive, the game has a very unique, flowing appearance. Quite consistent throughout, I don't think I saw a single right angle in the game. Most of the architecture is rendered in nonstandard palettes of pink and purple. Avoiding any suggestion of metal or concrete, this offbeat artistic vision further promotes the concept of the planet as a natural, growing thing. Some might find it a little unsettling, but I had no problems embracing it at all. I guess all those years of reading fantasy adventure novels finally paid off.
The final elements putting the finishing touch on Alter Echo were the plot and scripting. I appreciated that things leaned more towards levity than hard Sci-Fi, since nothing's duller than a thin story taking itself too seriously. Though there were a few groaners here and there, dialogue was above average in general and kept me chuckling with the cast's quippy repartee. Fans of good voice acting should be aware that Michael Bell of Soul Reaver and Transformers fame delivers his usual excellence, but really, all of the roles are pulled off satisfactorily.
Alter Echo manages to hit all the crucial areas with good accuracy. Though it doesn't bring much new content to the table besides a progressive fusion philosophy and its unique setting, the only significant fault I found was the totally insane camera. Tripped up by being intertwined with the lock-on system, it's a near-constant problem. Wildly swinging as it orients on enemies you're not targeting, it constantly leaves you struggling for a decent viewpoint. Acclimating to it comes with time, but it's one of the more annoying cameras I've seen in a while.
Besides that, there's little to complain about. It's obvious that the game didn't have the biggest budget in the world, but the general production and quality is respectable. Some will find it to be on the short side (clocking in at around seven hours) but I felt the length to be just right. I reached the story's final scenes still engaged, which is exactly how I like my games to end. However, it's worth noting that there are no options to go back and revisit levels you've already cleared, and you can't restart the game with your final stats. It would have been nice to be able to continue playing and max out the character, or have some other extras to play around with. Sadly, Alter Echo forgoes such amenities. This omission was definitely unusual and a little disappointing, but not enough to sour the experience overall.
In comparing Alter Echo to Chaos Legion, it's clear that Alter Echo's variety is its strongest asset. Both games draw from the same heritage, and each has an arguably equal amount of inspiration. Where Capcom's disc failed was the narrow focus on improving combat mechanics at the cost of all else. Due to its severely limited sophistication, Alter Echo easily outpaces it with a willingness to blend old-school concept with new-school diversification. Such a feat pulls off the biggest challenge for brawling games of this type: escaping the jaws of monotony. A light and breezy Sci-Fi romp, it has enough juice to occupy anyone in need of a good weekend diversion. It won't start trends (and I doubt it will set sales records) but there's something to be said for a project that's as solid and sincere as this one.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.