It took a long seven years for solo dev Matthias Linda to put his debut game together, and – after playing it over the Christmas/New Year 2023 break – I can safely say that every last day was worth it. At least from a player’s perspective. Chained Echoes ran a successful Kickstarter campaign way back in 2019, where Linda managed to capture the imaginations of a bunch of 30- and 40-something players that had been craving a return to the likes of Breath of Fire, Final Fantasy 6, and Chrono Trigger for generations.
But this isn’t a simple retread. It’s not an Octopath Traveler-like checklist of nostalgia, assembled cynically and clinically. No, it’s better than that; Chained Echoes observes the tropes and tricks that make the genre great and tinkers with the formula – much in the same way the first 10 or so Final Fantasy games did. When you’re not ogling the gorgeous 16-bit inspired pixel art, you’ll be beavering away in a battle that’s all about flow.
You’ll need to scroll through your commands and pop-out menus as you usually would, attacking with weapons and magic and selecting items as is likely second nature to you at this point, but you’ll also need to be aware of your flow and rhythm. Once you get into a torrent of attacks, you’ll be able to achieve Overdrive, where you’ll start dishing out more damage and attacking with more zhuzh. Over-reach and over-perform, and your party will leave itself vulnerable to crits from whatever oversized enemy you’re facing.
It’s a formula that comes tantalizingly close to fulfilling the promises of the active-time battle mechanic from Final Fantasy 7 and 8; a union of turn-based tactical forward-planning and the thrill of real-time action, realised with aplomb. You can’t go too slow otherwise you’ll debuff, you can’t go too fast otherwise you’ll leave yourself wide open. Already, it sits alongside the Press Turn system from MegaTen and Persona as my favourite way of doing JRPG combat – high praise, indeed.
Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 6 are the most obvious comparisons you can draw to Chained Echoes, but if you want a slightly deeper cut, you’ll probably see more of Xenogears in there. Per an interview with Linda from our colleagues at RPS, it was games like Xenogears that Linda has tried to copy – but not copy in terms of code, pilfering encounter ideas and mechanics. Instead, Linda tried to build what he remembers; and that might be why Chained Echoes feels so much like one of the golden era RPGs, spiritually.
Better yet, for me, Chained Echoes demonstrates one thing a lot of the 90s RPGs sorely lacked: a sense of humour. The game is genuinely funny, and ribs the conventions of the genre in the same way Garth Marenghi's Darkplace ribs horror, or JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure ribs… anything. There’s even a baffling cameo from British mathcore outfit ZILF, and it lasts about 10 seconds in one of the most obtuse cutscenes I’ve seen in years. It was at that point that I knew this game was special; it wasn’t just another cookie-cutter cash-in tumbling, unfinished, off the JRPG production line.
If you’re already a subscriber to Xbox Game Pass, I implore you to play Chained Echoes. If you’ve been stung by the eye-roll genre damp squibs of the last few generations (I Am Setsuna, Monark, even as far back as Infinite Undiscovery), this could be the game that reignites a spark inside you and makes you remember why you fell in love with RPGs all those years ago. It certainly did for me.
Chained Echoes is out now on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Cloud Gaming, and PC (and is available at no extra cost on PC and Xbox console via Xbox Game Pass).