It might not be the franchise’s best moment, but it certainly is its most elaborate and foreboding instance
Released three years after Metroid Prime had jolted the franchise back to life by turning a series born in the sidescrolling days into a first-person adventure, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes knows how to play the role of a sequel to a game that was universally regarded as a masterpiece. It offers little to no reinvention; after all, a brand new kind of gameplay that had only been implemented once – to great success – did not call for such extreme measures. Its freshness was still palpable and fans claimed for more. Instead, it opts to apply sensible shifts in theme and gameplay in order to build an adventure that has the same look and feel of its predecessor, but that does enough to find characteristics it can claim for its own.
Echoes’ victory lies in the fact that it does achieve the full construction of its own character. As if knowing that those tackling its quest would come in with a bag full of experience acquired during the course of the original Metroid Prime, it ends up playing as a harder and more demanding version of that game from the very start. Moreover, where its predecessor derived its ominous soul from the franchise’s long-established basic premise that Samus stands alone on a huge hostile and mostly unexplored planet where obscure and dangerous threats are looming, Echoes takes that preexisting sinister vibe and builds on it through touches of death and darkness.
Echoes’ failures, however, lie in the fact that most of its additions do not fully work. Metroid Prime, much like Super Metroid before it, was game design perfection; a title that did almost everything as well as it could have possibly done. Echoes, meanwhile, fumbles some of its good ideas. Although none of those bungles completely undermine it thoroughly, they unquestionably hold it back, which makes it blatantly come off as a step back.
Samus jumps back into action when the Galactic Federation sends her a report on a squad with which they had lost contact a few days earlier; the group of marines had been stationed on planet Aether. When entering the world’s atmosphere, her ship is heavily damaged by an unusual purple storm, forcing her to crash land it. Upon further investigation, she learns that the soldiers were attacked and brutally murdered by dark creatures that seem to be alien to Aether itself, bearing clear biological and visual distinctions to the planet’s other lifeforms.
Soon, she discovers the reason behind the unusual happening: long before her arrival, Aether was hit by a mysterious meteorite of such power that it ripped the world into two, creating a dark alternative dimension filled with Ing. These creatures soon began invading the original planet through portals, waging war on the Luminoth, the original inhabitants of Aether who had built a relatively advanced civilization, which were driven to near-extinction. Samus’ initially straightforward quest, thereby, quickly grows into an impressive narrative that involves two parallel worlds; a peaceful race in such deep mortal danger that its surviving members are held in stasis, waiting for salvation; the inevitably present Space Pirates; and a dark version of herself that wreaks havoc wherever it goes.
Given it holds a plot of higher complexity than that of Metroid Prime, Echoes features a larger number of cutscenes. However, the approach to storytelling remains minimalistic and proactive: the game only gives players basic intel on what is going on, leaving the extra layers of the story – which are intriguing, intricate, and well-developed – to be unearthed by those willing to use the scanner mode of Samus’ visor. As it had happened on Metroid Prime, that feature – which is one of the game’s very best – lets players tackle the story as they see fit, as it can be used to extract extra information from environmental details, catalog enemies, and glimpse into the data stored in the computers of the Space Pirates, which happen to be the source of most of the plot-relevant tidbits.
All of that plot setup transforms darkness into Echoes’ core theme. Just like the Ing used portals to travel between Aether and Dark Aether, Samus will be forced to do the same in order to recover her missing pieces of equipment, which will allow her to reach new places, and restore the light energy that was stolen from the Luminoth by the Ing. Consequently, since Metroid Prime was a game that took place in one vast world composed of distinct areas and Echoes does the same but in a planet that has been split into two full versions, it can be stated that Echoes features twice the complexity of that title, which is saying quite a bit about its scope and difficulty.
The environmental puzzles, which involve figuring out how in the world Samus is supposed to get to her current destination, are usually stretched between the two dimensions. Although that scenario does cause some of the level design that Retro Studios pulls off to be utterly impressive – reaching levels of intricacy that few other games have touched on, it also raises a few issues. The backtracking, for instance, is taken to new heights, as Samus is dealing with a map that is twice as big. More backtracking, though, is not inherently bad; the problem is that the portals that link Aether to Dark Aether tend to be one-way links, not allowing the hunter to go back the way she came in and forcing players to make trips that seem unnecessarily long.
Moreover, despite the technical prowesses of Echoes, which looks even better than its already beautiful predecessor – fully taking advantage of the Gamecube’s hardware, and which packs an immerssive soundtrack that is just as good, Dark Aether is visually dull. Aether itself is a beautiful world where unique lifeforms live in varied scenarios that mix alien architecture with organic environments that go from simple beauty to extravagant otherworldliness. Dark Aether, on the other hand, is a huge mass of purple and black, a needless move to produce a sinister atmosphere, since Metroid tends to achieve that on its own thanks to its immerssive ways and its overall feeling of isolation.
The final issue found in Dark Aether lies in the fact that its atmosphere is so poisonous that, while in there, Samus will constantly – albeit slowly – lose energy. Truthfully, the whole planet is filled with numerous and well-placed safe zones where her energy tanks are refilled, but that whole quirk ends up being a bit annoying, as the game already packs a considerable challenge due to its difficult bosses and mini-bosses – which are perhaps even more spectacular and well-designed than those present in Metroid Prime; its demanding and very engaging puzzles and exploration; its enemy encounters, which require Samus to use her brand new, highly effective but limited Light and Dark beams to dispose of foes according to their nature; and its somewhat scarce save points, whose occasional poor placement can be rather frustrating, as gamers will sometimes be forced to walk a whole lot to get to the place where Samus originally fell.
With all of that in mind, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes is, overall, an ambivalent package. While it is impossible not to rank it among the Gamecube’s best efforts, it is also a title whose problems are bound to turn a few people off. It is the original Metroid Prime with the same solid control scheme, the same overwhelming feeling of immersion and tension, the same non-linear structure of exploration, and the same power-ups (with a few new creative visors added for good measure) and extra collectibles (the always present missile, power bomb, and energy tank expansions). However, it is a title that amplifies its predecessor’s complexity, length, difficulty, storytelling degree, level design goodness, and thematic darkness through measures that sometimes work, but that also fail at certain points.
Including a multiplayer mode that is a brief fun distraction but falters due to the locking mechanism, which turns it into a mindless affair of shooting and jumping around, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes is certainly not an equal to the series’ original installment. However, it is built on such a spectacular basis and it does so many things well that it is hard not to qualify it as an excellent entry on the Metroid franchise. It might not be the property’s best moment, but it certainly is its most elaborate and foreboding instance.