Chained Echoes review: a deeply charming take on classic JRPGs

Believe it or not, it’s really tough to find a solid retro-inspired Japanese role-playing game these days. With the exception of the Dragon Quest series, most games have moved beyond the active time battle system, chibi-looking heroes and classic tales of good versus evil. It’s to be expected, because much like everything, the genre had to inevitably evolve. When I do see independent or even middle-of-the-road publishers try to capture the magic of the 16-bit era, they are mechanically mundane, lean too heavily into anime tropes and are, for lack of a better term, utterly soulless and devoid of charm. And then this lone German guy named Matthias Linda rolled up and made the thing I was looking for. Pretty much all by himself, at that.

Everything about Chained Echoes harkens back to something familiar; the plot points, combat system, Easter eggs and soundtrack all remind me of a more magical time in the genre, when these types of game would send my imagination soaring. That’s not to say it doesn’t try to do its own thing; as I’ll get to in a moment, the combat provides a nice layer of depth above and beyond your traditional battle system, among other things. You just don’t realize it most of the time because it’s so engaging that it just melds into the familiar, as if it’s been there all along.

The only weakness in the entire experience is actually the plot the game wraps itself around. A fragile peace has finally been achieved in a world full of war, and someone wants to nix it all because that’s the way any culture works, it seems. You’ll bounce around between a handful of protagonists at first as their individual stories bob and weave into each other and you inch closer to the climax. Even though it is stock standard, it’s still an enjoyable romp that’s just bereft of any true surprises. The dialog tends to be a little dry and lacking in enough personal heft to make the characters truly lovable beyond their combat prowess, which takes it down a notch. But when everything else about Chained Echoes is so spectacular, it’s pretty easy to overlook the less polished parts.

For me, the most important element is the wonderful world Linda has crafted for players to explore. It’s full of this heavy attention to detail that late-era Square games like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI had that made them so memorable. Cities are busy and packed with people, lush parks and dingy alleyways; forests have swaying trees and meandering wildlife. For the most part, running around the world is a linear thing, but there are plenty of hidden paths and crannies you can poke into to find far-off treasure that just sits there, begging for you to figure out how to reach it. I find it both charming and exhilarating.

In between those moments of gawking at landscapes are some of the finest RPG battle systems I’ve delved into in a long while. It’s a turn-based affair, where speed stats dictate which player or enemy takes their turn bashing at each other until one triumphs. The curious thing is that everything gets reset after each match, which turns off the mindset of hoarding powerful moves and whatnot, and instead lets you focus more on the battle at hand. Everything has its own traits, so there are a variety of strengths and weaknesses you can freely exploit without holding back. Furthermore, as you continue battling you’ll find that your party will synch into a Zen mode where as long as you keep an arbitrary meter leveled, everything you do has an increased effect. However, you can overload the system, so you need to use moves that will “cool down” the effect and keep you in the sweet spot. I can’t remember the last time a combat system like this has been so engaging that I even maintained my focus on battles against grunts, so kudos to Linda for making it so.

There’s more minutiae that I could ramble on about, from the occasional mech battles to the wonderful homages to classic JRPGs. But I’d rather just sell you on Chained Echoes being an extremely solid experience that will simultaneously remind you of games of yore, while adding enough new ideas to make it feel exhilaratingly fresh.

Chained Echoes was developed by Matthias Linda and Deck 13 Spotlight, and it’s available on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series, Nintendo Switch and PC. We played the Switch version.

Disclosure statement: review code for Chained Echoes was provided by PR Hound. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.

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