Though I often appreciate them, I don’t typically play horror games. ECHO isn’t exactly a horror game, but it’s easily the most terrifying game I played this year. Developed by a small team of alums from IO Interactive (the studio behind the highly-regarded Hitman series), ECHO delivers a brilliant stealth experience that leverages the full range of gameplay the genre has to offer. On one end of the spectrum is ponderous puzzle solving, where enemy patterns can be observed and epxloited to stay unnoticed. On the other end is the desperate, reflexive adaptations that follow when cover is blown, and the player is forced to act on instinct. Not only does ECHO excel at both of these, but it strikes this balance with clever level design and an ingenious AI design gimmick: any actions you take, your enemies will learn use against you.

Your Own Worst Enemy

In ECHO, the player controls a mysterious woman named En on a quest to discover an ancient secret. Throughout the game, we explore the “palace”, a seemingly endless underground vault styled in gaudy baroque architecture (read more about it from Heterotopias, a cool zine about virtual architecture). While En explores the palace, it begins to power up. Lights flare into life, and the scenery changes. Every so often, sudden power surges trigger a “reboot”, in which new elements of the palace come online bit by bit.

Among these is an army of strange automatons, doppelgangers of En herself puppeteered by the palace’s enigmatic AI. During each cycle, every action that En takes is observed by the palace itself. When the reboot triggers, there is a brief period of darkness, in which En can act without being noticed. After the reboot, her hunters will be able to do everything the palace saw her do in the previous cycle.

ECHO stretches this conceit into a gauntlet of challenging and tense interactions. En has enough verbs at her disposal that players must be hyper-conscious of what they’re doing. Should I really vault over that railing? Maybe I’d better not run here… One cycle’s actions set up the stakes for the next, creating a phenomenal push and pull between stealth and action. When enemies notice you, you need only survive until the next reboot. But which actions will you be forced to take in order to evade them?

The Uncanny

I said earlier that this wasn’t really a horror game. But it kind of is. ECHO is carefully crafted to be uncanny; not “scary” or “grotesque”, but specifically “uncanny”. The enemies are erratic, vacant versions of En herself, familiar and yet viscerally wrong. The palace’s interior is a bizarre labyrinth of recognizable marble and gold, but ripped out of context and tessellated infinitely, empty and endless.

Cycles and repetition are a recurring thematic element of the game; the palace areas become increasingly elaborate geometric sprawls, surrounded by infinitely repeating scenery. The outer areas of the facility, through which En descends while conversing with her companion through her earpiece, are a never ending downward climb. All of this makes the palace feel surreal and unsettling, feeding into the feeling of wrongness.

These details heap tension upon an already intense gameplay loop, making the cautious stalking and desperate escapes all the more heart-pounding. ECHO wields the uncanny masterfully, keeping the player always unsettled always on edge.

ECHO is a stressful game, to the point that I could never play it for more than an hour at a time. But it’s an absolutely essential experience for fans of stealth games. Though the studio behind it is no more, I hope ECHO‘s legacy will ripple through the stealth design space. There’s a lot to learn from the deftness with which it provides thrilling, terrifying, and varied encounters.

I came to this game in 2020, having only heard about it in passing back when it released in 2017. Learning as I wrote this that it was a flop, and that the studio sunk a couple years later, has been heartbreaking. The tragedy of ECHO‘s singular existence somehow makes it feel even more unique, and all the more worthy of the #1 spot on this list. I truly hope the developers find new footholds and keep pushing the envelope.