Eko: Strange New World - Episode 1 review
Space can be cruel at times, especially when you’re repairing your spaceship and the cruiser you’re travelling on accidentally ejects you and your craft mid-flight, crash landing you on a peculiar world. This is your starting point in the debut episode of Eko: Strange New World, the first in a planned series of episodic adventures by indie developer Sin Ars Studios. All alone on this strange planet with a battered ship now even more in need of repair, a stubby, green-skinned alien is forced to make his way to the nearest settlement in search of spare parts. The result is a short and simple, lighthearted journey through a world controlled by a tyrannical dictator who doesn’t take kindly to visitors. Its limited interactivity and straightforward plot prevents Eko from ever really gaining much momentum, but there’s a certain amount of fun to be had in this colourful cartoon universe.
Eko is a very basic adventure in many respects, and doesn’t really provide much in the way of backstory. After the opening cinematic, you’re launched almost immediately into a small settlement to start looking for parts to repair your craft. Here you’ll encounter some of the local residents, made up of a variety of unusual humanoid creatures who all speak your language and don’t seem bothered by the fact that you’re wearing a space suit, or that you look entirely different than them. In conversation you’ll learn that space travel has been banned on the planet and that most of the ships have been impounded by a new government, who are holding a tight grip on the population through high taxation and some liberal use of brute force. These facts hold little sway with Eko, as he’s only interested in getting off the planet as fast as he can.
That’s what you spend most of your time doing throughout the adventure, although with this knowledge in hand you can expect some twists and turns towards the end of the episode. Eko has you exploring several different environments during your travels, as you wander through forests, underground caverns and secret alien hideouts. As a protagonist Eko appears to be a little… well, opportunistic in his approach to life; if it suits his cause he’ll do whatever it takes to get the outcome he requires, and maybe only feel a tiny bit guilty about affecting someone adversely (usually when he gets caught or ends up in trouble). He’ll ask questions in dialogue, but otherwise he seems relatively polite and quiet for a spaceman, not wasting time on words when not needed.
Eko is a partly beautiful game, with lovely visuals done in a minimalist cartoon style that focuses less on detail and more on strong lines and bold colours. The downside to the lack of detail is that many areas look overly sparse, like a bar with only the most basic features and characters to look at. Some additional background would’ve added a lot to this scene, but instead it just looks and feels remarkably empty. There are a couple of scenes that stand out as exceptions, such as a dimly-lit nighttime forest that makes clever use of shadows, but these are few and far between. The one area where the visuals falter most is in the animation. Rather than fluid, cartoon-like animation, motion here is pretty much lacking across the board. Beyond the main characters talking and walking, you’re lucky to get a slight twitch or a few basic movements anywhere else.
Sound is another element that is very basic, with no effects to speak of and no voice acting for any of the characters. What’s left are intro and outro tunes and about four different musical tracks that play on a loop, changing when you enter certain areas. The music itself is good quality and nicely varied, with tracks ranging from reggae, subdued operatic ditties, big band and jazzy rock. The opening piano-heavy music, unfortunately, is something of an industrial track that sounds a bit like a hammer repeating, causing a degree of distortion that made my speakers complain with the odd pop and hiss.
The game’s simplicity carries over to its interface, which is well designed and easy to use. Holding a left-click on an object or person presents the option to look, use or talk. Right-clicking calls up the inventory, in which you can combine items or slide them away from the inventory box to use in-game. That’s pretty much the entire spectrum of controls, but it’s all you need for the puzzles, which mainly consist of straightforward inventory application.
Objectives are mostly set out in the form of quick road blocks, as you don’t really have any narrative direction for why you must overcome each, beyond advancing to the next area. A few scenarios you’re tasked to solve include motivating a drunk guy in a bar to stop blocking the back door, serving a hungry homeless man some less-than-appetizing vittles, and escaping a rebel base that you accidentally discover but can’t leave, having ruined the exit route on the way in. Such linearity keeps you on track, which can be helpful given the sometimes random nature of the puzzles, like the not-so-obvious use of a giant screw lying on the ground.
Whilst some of these puzzles are fun for a while, it doesn’t really require much thinking about logical solutions, as it’s more of a case of trial and error with your inventory items. Some do manage to provide a degree of satisfaction when solved, particularly a couple of larger puzzles towards the end of the game, but most are a breeze to get through. There are a fair number of items that go in your inventory, but you use them quickly and once used they are immediately discarded. There are no red herrings to speak of, nothing to confuse you or put you off, as you’ll make use of every hotspot no matter how seemingly random objects seem when you first encounter them.
The lack of optional hotspots or notable commentary on your surroundings provides little in the way of exploration, continually guiding you to the next puzzle solution with so little else to try. All told, you can easily finish the game in less then two hours – possibly much less unless you encounter some technical difficulties. During my initial play through, I encountered some random bugs, ranging from slowdowns to sprites randomly flickering and mismatches in animation, but a new version of the game has been released since the game was first launched, so perhaps some of these have since been addressed. (Just be sure to have the latest version downloaded when you begin.)
The ending comes about very swiftly, with no real suspense or even much build-up to the next game. Needless to say, things don’t quite work out like our little alien spaceman had hoped, but as endings go – even episodic ones – this one feels entirely anti-climactic. Overall, the first episode of Eko: Strange New World is an enjoyable enough diversion, but noticeably lacking when it comes to substance, even for its budget price. The lack of puzzle and story depth, compounded by the serious corners cut on production values, make this a difficult game to recommend, feeling more like an oversized tech demo (in fact I’ve played demos that have been longer than this), and an under-polished one at that. As a series debut, it might’ve stood out had it been released as a free indie teaser game, but as a commercial title in its own right, it certainly seems to be missing some of its parts.
The colourful, cartoony Eko initially showed some promise as a series debut, but it’s seriously compromised by its lack of depth, polish and ease.