In which Matt fails to empathize with an emotionally scarred child.
OPUS: Echo of Starsong opens with an old man named Jun arriving alone in a wondrous cave. He explains to a colleague that, despite the risk, he must explore the cave himself in order to atone for how he failed someone named Eda many years ago. Music swells as the game flashes back sixty-six years ago to a post-war interstellar civilization, promising to tell the story of how Jun met Eda and why he wishes he could hear her voice one last time.
From there we meet a younger Jun and his guardian Kay as they try to talk their way into a well-paying gig. Soon after they meet a strange woman named Eda and a young girl traveling with her named Remi. The two pairs compete to get the job, and several mishaps lead to them needing to work together when they are ambushed by a band of pirates. The game’s first chapter ends in an exciting scene where they successfully escape and fly off into the stars together.
These events—which are comprised almost entirely of linear, scripted cutscenes—make up roughly the first hour of the game, and I had begun to assume at this point that Echo of Starsong would essentially be a visual novel. However, the beginning of chapter two introduces the primary interactive element of the game. The adventure takes place mostly on an interstellar navigation map where you fly Eda’s ship, the Red Chamber, between points of interest. Each space station or planet you can stop at features some flavor text and maybe a quick dialogue event with very little else going on.
Upon arriving at a location for the first time you will usually be prompted with a problem and a choice. A local could ask you for help with some task, or you may get harassed by the border patrol. All of these events occur quickly with maybe two or three lines of dialogue and then one or two paragraphs of narration explaining how things went. There isn’t a lot of story to get attached to in these events; many of them delve deep into the sprawling political and religious backstory of the world the game takes place in with very little time dedicated to seeing characters interact with each other in any meaningful way.
These events are made worse by the fact that most of them boil down to the same two options: either roll the dice to see if you happened to succeed or simply run away. If you succeed then you’ll probably be rewarded with some extra fuel or money, and if you fail then the event will simply end with a generic blurb that adds a “tale of failure” to your inventory. Because of the repetitive and underwritten nature of these events, the majority of time between major story scenes is really just a glorified fuel management simulator.
You need a certain amount of fuel to get from one point or another, and if you don’t have enough you’ll need to explore abandoned caves (which is also usually just a random dice roll) to gather treasures that can be sold to buy more fuel. If you happen to run out of fuel, then your only option is yet another dice roll that will determine whether you are rescued and returned to the nearest space station or if you receive a game over and have your save file automatically load at the nearest space station.
I don’t believe that a story-focused game needs to have exciting or engaging gameplay to be good, but roughly one third of the game’s runtime is spent on the navigation screen. If the gameplay of this section is going to be as boring and repetitive as it is, then I think it would have been much better if they cut it out entirely and let the narrative carry the experience on its own as it did in the game’s opening chapter.
The remaining two thirds of the game are dedicated to story, and this is where it becomes difficult to judge the experience like I would any other game. At a surface level, Echo of Starsong touches on themes and story beats that many video games rarely bother to tackle. Feelings of loss and the need to find your identity and purpose in the world are a big part of the narrative, and the game’s tragic ending—which is foreshadowed so heavily in the opening scene I can barely call it foreshadowing—casts a looming shadow over the entire story. This is a story that is not meant to be exciting or bombastic, but rather one that is meant to be melancholic and emotional while focusing on themes of compassion and perseverance.
To that end I want to praise Echo of Starsong; so many games dismiss themes as something meant for eighth grade book reports that it is nice to see someone actually care to focus on them. Unfortunately since the story is such a huge focus in a game that spends half its time as a visual novel, I cannot help but to examine the execution of that story critically. This is an area where I felt Echo of Starsong failed so significantly that I was unable to find the game as emotional and memorable as many people did before it ever came to Switch.
Although the game opens on a moment that shows how deeply Jun cares for Eda, there are very few times in the game where we see them actually care about each other very much. There is one scene halfway through the game where they bond over shared feelings on the beauty of flowers, but besides that their interactions are pretty strictly business. Eda primarily acts as a mediator between Jun and Remi, who argue often. Right up to the very end of the game as we are seeing their final moments together, precious screen time is spent on Eda and Jun struggling to work together and having petty arguments over whose plan is better. Because of this, the resolution of the story ends up feeling abrupt and out of nowhere. It’s only minutes after we see Jun and Eda barely managing to cooperate that Big Emotional Moments start to occur that imply their relationship was much deeper than we ever see on-screen.
The characters end up feeling under-written, and a large part of this is because the majority of the game’s emotional moments all occur in the past. Frequently throughout the story the camera will flash back to events earlier in the lives of Jun, Eda, and Remi, revealing details of their backstory and motivations to the player. These scenes could manage to reveal hidden depths to the characters and add new meaning to what is happening in the present, but there is often very little development hidden in these glimpses of the past. Instead flashbacks are just Big Moments where the player is expected to feel something not because they are attached to the characters or relate to what is happening, but because we instinctively know that we are supposed to Feel Something at Big Moments.
This problem is at the core of each character’s arc, but it is most evident—and most damaging—in Remi’s character arc. Remi is introduced as someone who is abrasive and selfish, and she makes it clear immediately that she hates and distrusts Jun. She is verbally abusive towards him, actively scams him out of money, and at one point muses to herself that she should engineer a situation where he ends up arrested and they can leave him behind. When, maridway through the game, the crew of Red Chamber ends up in a situation where Jun is nearly arrested and they almost leave him behind, it is left ambiguous whether she actually caused this—Eda ends up lashing out at both of them when they begin to argue afterwards.
It is eventually revealed that Remi has a Sad Backstory. I don’t want to spoil everything in the game, but I will be clear about this: Remi’s backstory depicts her going through genuine hardship that would rightfully make anyone distrusting or hostile, but it also ends up having absolutely nothing to do with Jun. Her hatred of Jun is never actually given a reason, and she continues to verbally abuse him to the very end of the game as she refuses to apologize for any of her actions. Remi’s arc gives the illusion of growth and development because we see her sad backstory late in the game, which is meant to make the player feel bad for her. The problem is that her backstory is the beginning and end of her growth, and the entire game—along with all of her abuse of Jun—occurs afterwards.
Remi is the easiest of the game’s problems to point out, but she is by no means the only issue. The story, from beginning to end, lacks any sense of growth or forward momentum as the player is strung along from Big Moment to Big Moment, expected to Feel Something every time the music swells and we learn another reason that a character is sad. It was frankly frustrating to sit through the game’s tedious navigation sections knowing that the story events waiting on the other side would likely be just as hollow, and I never felt like any of the Big Moments—especially the extravagant one the game ends on—were earned.
I do not quite understand what it is I didn’t see in OPUS: Echo of Starsong that so many others do. I normally believe it is bad form to talk about other reviews in my own review, but I cannot help but feel awkward and a bit guilty when I see the universal acclaim this game has gotten. Between a 90 on Metacritic and an ‘Overwhelmingly Positive’ rating on Steam, it would be dishonest for me to say that I think you will not enjoy Echo of Starsong. However, it would also be dishonest for me to pretend that I did. Basic probability says that you will likely love this game, but if the game’s random dice roll events have taught me anything, it’s that even the highest chance of success can still lead to a hollow tale of failure.