Chained Echoes
Image: Matthias Linda

Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they've been chewing over. And with Chained Echoes finally releasing in December, Alana is begging you to consider it as a GOTY candidate despite its late release...

I'm about two-thirds of the way through Chained Echoes, and I think this is maybe the first retro-style RPG to truly capture that magical feeling I get when playing a SNES game for the first time.

I'm talking about the warm, cosy feeling I still get whenever I sit down to play a 16-bit JRPG on the Super Nintendo. I'll wrap myself up in a blanket, grab a warm drink, and lose myself in the blocky kaleidoscope of colours. I didn't have a Super NES until the early 2000s, and because many games didn't get released in Europe, I played lots of classics like EarthBound, Chrono Trigger, and Terranigma years after they first launched. Yet these games make up some of my favourite video game experiences ever, even ignoring all the baggage of history and high praise. The fact that Chained Echoes comes close to echoing (pardon the pun) those feelings is pretty amazing.

Note. I'll be discussing some minor gameplay spoilers and other things such as the people you meet and tools you unlock, so watch out if you're sensitive to such things!

There are plenty of totally brilliant RPGs — indie and otherwise — that take inspiration from the classics out there, but whenever I see "inspired by Chrono Trigger" or "it's like LTTP" or similar, I get a little bit concerned. Square Enix's Tokyo RPG Factory sort of flopped because of this precedent — I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphear are fine, but they're missing that special something and feel like they're just copying homework.

Matthias Linda, the sole developer of Chained Echoes, gets what makes the classics tick. And while Chained Echoes clearly wears its inspirations on its sleeve, it balances both that '90s pixel RPG feel, contemporary turn-based RPG mechanics, and the exploration of current-day favourites like Xenoblade Chronicles to create something that feels like it is entirely its own thing. This is a game that feels like it could've come out 30 years ago and had a real impact.

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You can even pet the dogs (and cats!). — Image: Nintendo Life

If you've played a lot of the classics, or just know a little bit about them, tons of little references will tickle you. The intro, where your mum is calling out to you to get you out of bed, is straight out of Chrono Trigger — until it isn't, because your mum then slaps you around the face and you (Glenn) wake up in an airship. Another section early on, where your party of six is split up into three teams and you get to select what order you play through each 'set' and find out more about each character, is just like Final Fantasy VI. But again, it feels like its own thing because they're snappy, short sections where the aim is to be reunited with the team.

This isn't just a game for 16-bit RPG fans, though. Chained Echoes has so many little touches and conveniences that make the whole experience feel 'modern'. No random encounters certainly help (honestly, who's nostalgic about being randomly pounced on by a group of rabbits or goblins), with a more 'scripted' encounter system borrowed from Chrono Trigger that places enemies on the map in particular locations. You can avoid them by hugging the walls, but you always know they're coming.

Why would you want to avoid the combat in Chained Echoes, though? Turn-based RPGs of ye olden days have a reputation for being slow (and sometimes a bit too easy), but Linda keeps battles both snappy and challenging. Health and TP (technical points) are restored between every fight, and while that might sound like it makes this easy, this is the rare RPG that consistently encourages you to use every single tool you have in your box, and it's all because of the Overdrive Gauge.

Stay in the green and you do more damage, but Overheat and go in the red and you take more damage. It's a risk vs. reward system that's incredibly fun to balance and adds an extra bit of challenge to some otherwise standard fights. The Press-Turn battle system from Final Fantasy X is here, as is the ability to swap between characters in battle, but restricting this to pairs and also knowing which character is next to go means you might consider whether you want to risk going into Overheat to let the next character bring it back down, or just swap one person in for another to stay safe.

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Toot toot. — Image: Nintendo Life

Grinding has also been stripped out thanks to 'levels' being tied to Grimoire Shards, which you get from beating bosses and throughout major story events. And you can even adjust the Overdrive Gauge settings to make things easier or harder. While Chained Echoes appeals to us long-time RPG fans, it's also a streamlined 'classic' JRPG-inspired experience for those who have trouble getting into them. Some of the least appealing aspects of the SNES and PS1 era — random encounters, grinding, slow battle systems, and movement — have been stripped out and tossed aside, and it's a much better game for it.

Another huge aspect — literally — that feels fresh for a retro-style RPG is the game's large environments. SNES towns are often broken up by a huge world map where your character walks around a shrunk-down version of the world with miniature towns, forests, and dungeons dotted around. There isn't a proper world map for nostalgia-hungry fans (you eventually get an airship where you can travel around a world map), but the connecting environments in Chained Echoes are hugely varied and pretty darn big. Your movement speed is buttery smooth and lightning fast, meaning it's never a chore to return anywhere or explore anywhere. Despite the huge maps, you can get from one side of the map to the other in no more than a few minutes.

Even so, I spent about three hours just wandering around the Rohlan Fields, fighting enemies, finding treasure chests, and finding every little secret. Some things I couldn't even reach until I got my Sky Armor (mechs), but I could spot these collectibles from a distance, teasing me, tempting me to come back. And when I returned, even though I thought I'd been thorough, I kept uncovering new things — a house in the middle of a lake; different characters; different kinds of chests. This is Xenoblade levels of backtracking and exploration, just shrunk down to a 16-bit style.

So far, I've gone through an open, luscious field full of ponds and waterfalls, a prehistoric mountain range home to a misanthropic mining community (and bandits), a once-gorgeous field of flowers now filled with fungus and other parasites, and The Hooge, an artificial island run by female pirates. The towns are multi-layered with balconies, hidden doors, and roofs to walk through and across. And you can pet the dogs and the cats — sometimes they'll love you, and sometimes they won't. Such is life.

The game is just set on one continent, too, leaving a lot to the imagination. Valandis is a sprawling landmass that hides treats around every corner, but there's also more out there — an extra carrot dangling for some future content or a sequel, perhaps?

Another thing that keeps me coming back is the Rewards Board, which gives you little prizes for completing small tasks. We're talking things like opening every treasure chest or killing a unique monster, but also amusing tasks you'd otherwise never do, like paralysing the same enemy five times or never entering Overdrive. They're challenges that encourage you to play differently by using everyone and everything. Hidden treasures, secret caves, and hidden items all take up slots on the board, and all give delicious rewards. And you can get Grimoire Shards for more skill points and Sacred Waters, which you can use to pray at statues to get new Classes (which come in the form of an Emblem that you can equip on anyone at any time).

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Filling out this is my new obsession. — Image: Nintendo Life

Going back to the mechs for a second, can we talk about how cool it is to have a mech that you can ride around the world? It'll take a minute before you get a mech (around a third of the way through the game), but once you do, the entire world opens up. PlayStation RPG Xenogears had mechs but they were limited to use in combat and dungeons — and if you've played that game, then you know how clunky some of those dungeons are in mechs. But Xenoblade Chronicles X also comes to mind here with just how you can fly around the environments and even fight enemies. There are even Unique Monsters in every single area, so going back to each location in your mech makes backtracking and exploration even more of a joy.

There are plenty of reasons you'll want to go back other than filling out that Rewards Board or getting every single chest. You'll be going around recruiting characters for your clan (think Suikoden's army and base building), and each one has a different role to play. Some familiar roles like blacksmith and fortune teller take up residence inside your base, but you also get an insurance man, a rock band, and a monk who meditates atop a tree all the time. What you eventually get is a delightful and varied community that gives your party buffs, resources, and also more reasons to dig deeper into the world. And nothing is missable in the game, either, meaning you don't need to pore over a guide meticulously and plan every single move you're going to make — just play the game at your pace.

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Pacific Rim? Pacific Rim. — Image: Nintendo Life

Of course, no RPG is complete without a story, and Chained Echoes' also manages to defy and embrace expectations in the same way as its visuals and world. We've all played a tale or two where your job is to stop a world-destroying (or similar) weapon from getting in the wrong hands, but how many times can you say that you have (accidentally) been responsible for wiping out a whole army? The opening hour of the game was far from what I was expecting, and even if the large majority of the plot follows familiar character tropes, threads, and story beats that I've seen elsewhere, there are still some surprising twists that kept me coming back for that nostalgic comfort food.

Even the slightly clumsy dialogue, in its way, is charming. Out-of-place F-bombs aside, some moments remind me of Ted Woolsey's work on Secret of Mana or Final Fantasy VI. It's definitely not perfect, and it might not even be deliberate, but crude and reference-laced exchanges definitely made me chuckle, and they show a heart. If anything, this style of humour — while not always effective — helps to balance some of Chained Echoes' heavier themes. I love a serious JRPG that deals with heavy topics involving grief, identity, and religion, but I think it's all the more effective when you can walk the tightrope between lighthearted moments and mature discussions.

So yeah, I'm a tiny bit obsessed with Chained Echoes. Linda does more than just iterate on the classics and polish up the formula — as we said in our review, the game exudes confidence. It shrugs its shoulders and acknowledges that, yes, it is taking ideas from classics like Final Fantasy through to modern-day genre staples like Xenoblade. And that's okay because Chained Echoes also does so much differently by using these inspirations as foundational building blocks rather than tickbox touchstones. Every single aspect of the game that's been inspired by the past has been altered or improved in some way or given its own flavour, so even if you don't recognise the reference, it won't affect your enjoyment. And if you did, you'll be consistently surprised by just how Matthias Linda twists these inspirations to create something that decidedly has its own identity.

I was pretty confident I'd already played all the best RPGs on Switch in 2022, and then Chained Echoes comes in at the last second and ties me down to say, with confidence, that no, I haven't played all of the best yet. Not until I've beaten Chained Echoes.