Version tested: PSP
Not so long ago, during a friend's ill-judged stag party in Keswick, I met a chap who helps to manage Piccadilly railway station in Manchester. Honestly, I know nothing of what his job involves - but I imagine that, in between motivational speeches to the chaps who pick the crusted vomit off the night trains, he spends a lot of his time doing the sort of thing which would make him rather good at echoshift.
A sequel to 2008's classy puzzler echochrome, echoshift continues the trend of non-capitalisation and mannequin heroes, but adds a splash of colour to the original's world along with the new mechanic of 'casting' (which replaces echochrome's Escher-style distortion of 3D space). Casting is a concept which players of Braid or the more recent The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom will probably be familiar with.
Each level is a puzzle, the solution to which is to reach the exit door. In between your entry point and the door out are various flavours of switch, barrier, enemy and moving platform - negotiate these and you're home free.
Except, generally speaking, they can't be done in a single playthrough. Often a gate is opened by a switch far away, closing again as soon as the pressure on it relinquishes, or by two switches which need depressing at once. So it's over to the new enfant terrible of platforming: that temporal trickery which records your actions and replays them, and their consequences, for you at a later point, allowing you to be in more than one place at a time.
Using as few 'cast members' as possible is the ideal, with stars being awarded for efficiency. These stars unlock further bands of the 56 levels, introducing new mechanics, traps and enemies as they go, as well as opening two new takes on the puzzle you've just completed: key and illusion. Key levels feature, incredibly, a key, which must be picked up by your final cast member on his way to the door. Illusion levels allow you to stop time for 3 seconds per cast, pausing playback of previous casts and maximising potential efficiency.
Because each level has a time limit of 30 to 50 seconds, co-ordinating your various casts to be in the right place to open a gate for an as yet non-existent future you is initially a confusing business. Time pressures are tight, with very little room for error, and often you'll find yourself estimating the progress of several paths in your head at once as you try to timetable your actions effectively. Trying to remember at what stage three or four other independently timed activities are, and to co-ordinate them with the actions you're currently making up as you go along, is quite the tough cookie.
This is where my Piccadilly-managing acquaintance would probably feel at home.
echoshift certainly isn't afraid to make you think. A gentle start quickly escalates into multi-stage problems with multiple routines to consider, along with dead ends and traps. Even though many levels are, after a bit of experimentation, actually far easier than they may first appear, there are real challenges here which require planning, forethought and great concentration. Despite each level giving you nine cast members to play with, highest honours are usually reserved for those who use three or four. echoshift encourages such a meticulous nature that even the slightest portion of non-optimal play usually saw me restarting from the beginning rather than muddling through with a less-than-perfect run.
Progression is well judged and there's little frustration as you work your way through the game. Levels are divided into bands with nine events apiece, each of which features at least one new mechanic such as the deadly papier-maché geometry or the pressure pad switches. This means there's always a bit of variety in the challenge, and room to change it up if the old cogitator starts to grumble.
Wonderfully polished and consistent design and presentation combine with the well judged and executed puzzling to create a very solid game, but echoshift falls prey to one of the main criticisms of its predecessor: a simple lack of charisma.
Unique and classy it may be, but after a while it tends to feel like a sterile chore dressed up as entertainment - like a maths test which you fill in with crayons, or a teddy bear designed by Steve Jobs. That said, it's hard to get a puzzle game to engage in any more meaningful way than a sudoku without jazzing it up with brightly coloured characters and flashing lights, and Artoon deserves credit for having a stab at the sophisticated approach. It's not quite there yet, however, and sometimes starting a new level feels a bit like staring at a blank page in Excel, knowing full well that you have to have a complete Christmas staffing and cover rota with at least 14 colours on it finished by lunchtime.
Perhaps it's because of this slightly enervating aspect that both echo games work well on the PSP. Playing the original in short bursts on the handheld felt much more natural and enjoyable than in sofa sessions on PS3, and PSP was certainly the right choice here. There's probably a good chance it will see light of day as a PSN download, along with plenty of new levels as DLC, but for me echoshift is very much a portable game.
There are some incongruities here which fracture the mood a little, such as having to hammer the X button repeatedly to shake off obstacles, a strange addition to such a purportedly cerebral title. Surprisingly imprecise controls grate in times of tension too, especially when exiting or passing stairs. One or two rage quits during my time with it can probably be assigned to that fault, rather than my usual lack of cognitive ability.
If you can stand a bit of trial-and-error though, and feel like taking your brain on a bracing walk once in a while, echoshift is a very well presented, well thought out and enjoyable piece of mental exercise.
7 / 10