It’s festival day in the idyllic trading town of Farnsport. After years of war, the people of the town are finally able to come together in celebration of the tenuous peace. Ser Victor of Arkadia – a well-meaning and strangely long-lived playwright – is here to enjoy the celebration and win a few prizes at the game stalls while he’s at it. Before long, Victor has a hefty pocket of tokens and is ready to trade for some ludicrously powerful items. With relish, our bard approaches the prize kiosk. However, as he goes to make the trade, he realizes something dire has happened: he’s been robbed.
At this point, our perspective shifts. We are now Sienna, the opportunistic thief who parted Victor from his well-earned prize tokens not moments ago. As our perspective shifts, so too does our objective. Authoritative text at the bottom right of the Nintendo Switch screen informs us to use the cover of the fair to “look for things to steal". With a single line of text, Chained Echoes has reframed the entire festival. To Sienna, this is an opportunity to make a quick buck – a world apart from Victor’s light-hearted goal of a nice day out. With text alone, Chained Echoes has framed two wildly different characters with a precise storytelling economy.
Chained Echoes is a well-oiled machine, dispensing dialogue, world-building, and characterization with impressive precision. The RPG features a cast of memorable characters set against a nuanced backdrop of geopolitical intrigue and high-fantasy melodrama. From the opening prologue depicting Glenn’s past as a mercenary to princess Lenne’s high-minded geo-political quest for peace, developer Matthias Linda never fails to use Chained Echoes setpieces to diligently realize its world.
Yuji Horii, the creator of Dragon Quest, famously ascribed the success of his long-lived series of JRPGs to an ironclad commitment to “making the game world feel real” (via Forbes). This quality is a hallmark of what I call the era of “classic” 16-bit JRPGs in the tradition of the early Dragon Quests as well as Final Fantasies 1 through 6. Through its mechanics and writing, Chained Echoes not only faithfully recreates this quality in its writing and game mechanics but also iterates upon them in a meaningful way.
Despite the difference in scale and production value, Chained Echoes put me in mind of imminent blockbuster JRPG Final Fantasy 16. Cards on the table: Final Fantasy 16 is one of my most anticipated games of the year, but Linda’s bold indie offering affirms the notion that an RPG absolutely does not need cutting-edge graphics or modern prestige trappings to immerse and compel its players.
Chained Echoes proves that, even in 2023, an RPG does not require 3D graphics or voice acting to deliver a top-notch experience. What it does do, however, is take the old-school formula and refine it for modern sensibilities. In the past, turn-based combat systems have often suffered by encouraging us to mindlessly repeat sequences of attacks. Why make an interesting choice from a varied buffet of different attacks when you already have an optimal move that you know works?
Linda sidesteps this problem in Chained Echoes with the Overdrive system. During combat, on the top left-hand corner of the screen, you’ll see a gauge, representing the party’s cohesion in battle. Most attacks cause your Overdrive level to rise. After a few moves, you’ll find yourself occupying the sweet spot in the middle of the gauge, and you’ll benefit from powerful party-wide buffs. Go too far, however, and your party will burn out and suffer a nasty debuff.
To keep your Overdrive low, you’ll need to use a certain type of move as denoted by the symbol on the bar itself. Once you use a move of that type, your Overdrive level will decrease, but the sort of move you have to use to get this benefit will also change. This gives battles a satisfying ebb and flow, forcing you to thread a needle of varying attacks to keep your Overdrive gauge in that sweet spot, while also concentrating on the traditional melange of elemental weaknesses and resource management.
Far from being a gimmick or an afterthought, the Overdrive system offers a fundamental shift in the turn-based JRPG gameplay loop. To get the most out of your party in Chained Echoes, you’ll need to be mindful of the Overdrive bar’s surprisingly treacherous rhythm. It ensures that every decision you make comes with an opportunity cost. However, unlike the traditional action economies of the likes of Tactics Ogre, Chained Echoes ensures that the exact cost changes from turn to turn by making varied demands of the player.
Though we’ve had our fair share of recent RPGs that use turn-based mechanics, very few modern titles outside of Octopath Traveler and Bravely Default 2 have recreated the halcyon charms of “classic” Final Fantasy with gusto. What separates Chained Echoes, however, is the extent to which it offers immersive story setpieces in the old-school tradition while also meaningfully iterating on “classic” mechanics to create something new.
Contrary to the likes of Xenoblade Chronicles 3, the mechanical sections that intersperse the game’s story are just as thoughtful and rewarding as the narrative. Chained Echoes has a healthy relationship with the past, appropriating the qualities of classic JRPGs while improving upon the weaker areas of the formula to create something unashamedly modern.
It is gratifying to see that, in 2023, the traditional formula of the “classic” 16-bit JRPG is not only a viable basis for an excellent game but can be meaningfully improved with meaningful mechanical tweaks. It will be interesting to see if upcoming JRPG giant Final Fantasy 16 will be able to capture the genre’s magic with the same efficacy.