A captivating fantasy world meets tense turn-based combat in this love letter to the golden era of 16-bit RPGs
In the land of Valandis, two kingdoms stand at the brink of war a centuries old conflict is about to bubble over and forever change the fate of dynasties and empires.
Caught in the middle of this conflict is a scrappy band of unlikely heroes: a would-be skyarmor pilot; a princess who ran away from her duties; a thief with a heart of gold; and a famous minstrel and playwright.
It all sounds a bit familiar doesn’t it? A classic SNES-style JRPG complete with a kingdom-spanning tale of intrigue and heroics.
Several games have been mining this nostalgia pit lately, but with mixed success. Square-Enix’s Octopath and Bravely series both had deep combat systems and addictive gameplay, but fell short in areas of storytelling, repetitive grinding and random battle encounters.
Thankfully, Chained Echoes hits the ground running and never lets up.
The one person passion project from German developer Matthias Linda re-works and banishes some of the genre's more frustrating staples and presents an exciting, fleshed out fantasy world meshed with some of the best strategic turn-based combat the genre has seen in years.
Chained Echoes is told through an ensemble cast, with its narrative constantly swapping perspectives and shifting focus.
At the heart of this tale are two core characters: Glenn, a young sky-armour pilot and Lenne, a princess who longs to see the world and have agency over her own destiny. The rest of the ensemble are caught in the wake of these two, dragged into the currents of a much bigger story about fate and destiny. That doesn’t mean they’re ignored though.
Side characters get good development in Chained Echoes, with Sienna (the thief with a heart of gold who fights with a samurai sword) having multiple story moments of her own that give her room to grow as a character.
Gameplay, just like the plot, is fast and furious. After a fast tutorial sets up the story and connects the crew together, you’re dumped out in a big wide world to explore.
Most of Valandis is broken down into different zones; each brought to life with the game’s lush 2D artstyle.
You’ll explore winding, wooded wilderness, breezy springtime fields and even a fetid, putrid mushroom swamp filled with slime and goo.
These zones are brought to life with a rich score from composer Eddie Marianukroh that harkens to the best of the JRPG genre, with a particular standout being the lush, orchestral arrangement that plays in the Flower Fields of Perpetua that could easily find itself at home in NieR: Automata’s soundtrack.
Each zone is peppered with secrets to uncover with hidden chests, loot-filled caves and secret treasures that can only be found by deciphering symbols in the environment encourage careful exploration.
There are also optional one-off monster hunts and mini-boss battles that are well worth hunting out and by completing these challenges and finding secrets out in the world you’ll quickly fill up a special challenge/achievement board that rewards you with exp, currency and even level ups as you complete more and more zone-based challenges.
Hidden throughout Valandis as well are Warrior shrines, special locations you can pray to by using a rare resource called ‘sacred waters’.
By activating these shrines you’ll be pulled into a combat challenge arena - survive and win and you’ll be rewarded with a ‘class medal’, an item that characters can equip that will boost certain stats and allow them to learn new abilities.
Early on, the ‘cleric’ class medal provides characters with the ability to learn important group healing support spells.
Take your turn
That brings us to combat and system mechanics and Chained Echoes is overflowing with well thought gameplay design ideas.
There are no random battles here - instead, you’ll encounter enemies on the field and be thrown into battle with them.
Characters regenerate all their HP, their TP (turn points for special abilities) and other resources after battle, which encourages you to use all your abilities to their fullest with each fight.
Combat is turn- based (think Final Fantasy X or the Trails Of… series), with a clear turn-list available that you’ll be able to manipulate by using abilities that stun, slow and delay enemies from attacking but there’s a crucial twist thrown into the mix - the overdrive bar.
This meter sits at the top of the screen and needs to be factored into every decision you make in combat.
As you take damage, use abilities and take turns in combat, you’ll build up overdrive charge which pushes the meter from a ‘warm up’ zone into the sweet spot of ‘overdrive’ in the middle of the bar.
When you’re in overdrive, you’ll take less damage and all your abilities cost less resources to use.
However, if you build up too much overdrive charge - you’ll hit an ‘overheat’ mode and suddenly all these bonuses become penalties - your abilities will cost more and you’ll take increased damage from enemy attacks.
Combat then becomes a very delicate dance of managing your overdrive bar and also manipulating the turn-system of your enemies to capitalise on delaying attacks and taking out enemies before they can hit you.
Overheat is managed by a system where certain types of attacks or abilities (i.e debuffs, heals, physical attacks, magical attacks) will randomly go onto ‘cooldown’ mode - meaning if you use them at certain times during fights you’ll lower the overdrive bar instead of raise it.
This encourages some very interesting RNG into the mix and makes fights tense and challenging.
Chained Echoes also ditches the traditional EXP system of JRPGS - gone is the endless grind for levels and experience, instead it’s replaced with the ‘grimoire shard’ system.
By completing certain side quests, challenge board milestones or big story events in the main plot you’ll be rewarded with a ‘grimoire shard’ for every character in your party.
These shards can be exchanged for skills in combat, passive abilities and stat bonus boosts for characters and with each one used, characters will also ‘level up’ and receive a boost to their base stats.
This means that every fight and battle in Chained Echoes is balanced around an average level that you’ll be at - it’s hard to grind to overpower a challenging foe or boss battle and there were moments where I found myself stuck in very complex boss fights (one boss, a Djinn who shifted elemental alignments when attacked comes to mind) and had to try several different strategies before I was able to succeed.
Mobile suit (of armor)
Finally, there’s the skyarmors.
Yes, Chained Echoes has mech combat too. Quite a while into the main plot, you’ll unlock the ability to pilot big flying mech suits, that have their own unique combat system in battle.
Gone is the overdrive mechanic when you’re in a skyarmor - it’s replaced with a ‘gear shift’ system that encourages quick shifting between high damage/TP regeneration modes for your suit.
Sky armors open up new possibilities for exploration in maps, and are quite stronger than your on-foot characters in combat and have their own deep, involved customization and builds centred around the weapon types they use in battle.
There’s just so much to do and see in Chained Echoes.
The game continually surprises with plot twists (some earned, some not), surprise boss battles, challenging nail-biting combat and interesting RPG system after system.
You’ll be blacksmithing, crafting, piloting a mech, building up a party of up to 8 characters on foot who can tag-team with each other mid battle, completing challenge fights and whole lot more.
That being said, there are flaws, occasionally the story moves at such a pace that particular plot events don’t feel entirely earned.
It also trips into some unwelcome and outdated fantasy tropes: one character being pinned as a female seductress archetype.
Another character discusses the sexual assault of a family member as their ‘driving motivation’ to make the world a better place left a sour taste in my mouth.
If you can look past some of these fumbles then Chained Echoes is an instant classic in the JRPG genre.
It has it all: a rich combat system, an intricate story filled with world-building and lore, some stand-out characters who steal the show and none of the grinding and tedious random battles the genre is known for.
If you love this genre, Chained Echoes should not be missed.
A copy of CHAINED ECHOES on PC and Nintendo Switch was provided to SIFTER for the purpose of this review.