Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful games I've ever had the pleasure of playing. The colors are vibrant, the environment is startlingly detailed for having been developped on such an early console, and the sounds are clear and distinct. As you play through the game, you find yourself wondering, in all honesty, how Appaloosa managed to pull so much out of the Dreamcast. The console works as long as you play, drawing every polygon and mapping it just as it reaches the edge of its visual mapping, and never suffers from any sort of lag or slowdown, even when five or six enemies are in drawing and visual range.
The storyline fits right with the graphics and gameplay, starring the eponymous Ecco, distinguishable from his comrades by his melon decorated with spots in the shape of the constellation of Delphinus, as he travels through four different alternate timelines to defend the Earth against the Foes, agressive aliens who want to take control of the Earth's ressources and use it to further their own goal. As the greatest threat to their dominion is the spacial exploration coallition with man and dolphinkind as its lead, they try to disband it by first breaking through the defense system that shields the Earth from attacks, and then robbing dolphins of all their noble traits by disempowering their early ancestors.
Ecco, caught in the wake of their time machine, decides to restore the dolphins' traits by travelling and conquering the Foes' dangers. He travels through a world where the dolphins, defenseless and naive, are enslaved by man and used as nothing more than workforce, and where the oceans are polluted and filthy with man's machines. Ecco, learning of the lore passed down between the three dolphin castes, understands that men are now extinct and their last creation, a weapon, is coveted by the Foes, and takes back the traits of intelligence and ambition. With these traits, however, dolphins instead banish mankind from the seas and the Earth, never to return, and build their own society under and above the waves. With compassion and wisdom restored, Ecco found a new future where, heedless of the danger of the Foes, the society of man and dolphin was defeated and destroyed. Bravely, he charged right into the Foes' stronghold and inside their queen, and defeated her to regain the final trait of humility and regain the Earth's freedom and future.
The gameplay itself is impeccable, although most casual gamers with butterfingers might prefer only seeing the playthrough or unlocking all levels immediately1 to train their reflexes on levels such as Aquamarine Bay, Atlantis Lost, Shrine of Controversy, Anguish of Dearth and Hanging Waters, where you can for the most part play through without having to fight enemies and your mission centers around solving puzzles.
- Play Control
- The play controls are simple, and pretty intuitive. Ecco controls much like a car that can move in three dimensions, with the analog stick moving him left, right, up and down, and dash and accelerate buttons to help him. Tapping the accelerate button repeatedly makes him swim faster, and holding it allows him to maintain his speed. The dash button lets Ecco do a charge, which can be used to suddently gain speed, bash enemies and other objects, or leap higher out of the water. The sonar button serves as Ecco's "action" button, and sends out a wave. If the wave hits an object it can affect, the interaction is triggered. It serves to complete puzzles and talk to other marine mammals, mostly, but if held down, it brings out a translucent white map of the area on the HUD. There are other tricks that can be done with the right analog stick or the Y button and D-Pad, but they mostly serve to do simple stunts.
- The graphics are fantastic, to put it simply. The levels are incredibly detailed in their textures and level mapping, and the models themselves fit the realistic, sci-fi look remarkably well. The most graphically-stunning level is, by far, Hanging Waters, set in a series of water tunnels and rocky basins high in the skies and overlooking an island overgrown with lush vegetation and sparkling-clear, clean blue water. Another level that leaves you stunned and quiet is Atlantis Lost, where you can inspect oddly-shaped, half-submerged buildings and see how much work goes into the textures and little details. A very good detail is how you activate several prism-like "glyphs" to see their contents, and there is the same level of work going into these tiny switches that you wouldn't even normally see for more than half a minute, like the frosted-over glass or the soil and grass patch.
- The music, while quiet, is complex and has many fitting noises for each different level, helping to set the mood. Hanging Waters has a soft, soothing melody that lets you appreciate how gorgeous and challenging it is to navigate the pathways, and incorporate flowing water, waterfalls and bird cries into its ambient sounds. Atlantis Lost has an exotic, ancient-sounding track that fits the strange, charming dolphin architecture, and also has chattering dolphin sounds, especially easy to hear in the shallow waters full of green kelp where four younger dolphins are playing to take their mind off their worries. The Shrine of Controversy has a low, mournful song and absolutely no ambient sounds, except for the wind blowing if you break the surface of the water, creating a lonely atmosphere and appropriately sharp contrast against the first levels, something suitable to the filthy waters and old, broken machines you encounter in the Dolphin's Nightmare. There are some times where the mostly instrumental soundtrack bows down, and they usually signal a "boss fight" and substitute the normal music for one that heavily uses low, loud and short interludes with string instruments interwoven with a percussion-rich pattern.
- I won't lie to you, this game is hard. The learning curve is atrociously steep when you go from Aquamarine Bay, the tutorial without any kind of battle against foes, to the Perils of the Coral Reef level, where you have to fight three sharks at once, more of them throughout the level, and then finish it off with a boss that you need to defeat with the Power of Sonar and Power of Vigor after luring him to temporarily get stuck in a hole in one of the rock formations. From then on, the learning curve generally stabilizes, although the shark basin you have to swim through in Roaring Forces, only to have to THEN evade a giant electrical eel by racing through a tunnel strewn with piranha, stinging jellyfish and large sea urchins while evading its brutal jolts of electricity… But, by far, Hanging Waters is the very worst level for a learning curve. All through the level, you're suspended above a bottomless pit, and you have to jump from water tunnel to water tunnel with accuracy, while fighting against currents that push you backward or forward, and dealing with water bubbles that bounce you off of them. And did I mention the level is long, full of temporary water tunnels that dissipate into water particles in the air and sends you plummetting to your doom, divided by three bosses, and featuring a puzzle centered around making a giant squid fall to its death by closing the water tunnels it's clinging to?
- Replay Value
- There's not much replay value, but the levels are unlocked once you "beat" them, and you're able to replay them and look at the amazing graphics once more. In fact… Even if it's insanely hard, Hanging Waters is still my favorite level to replay, along with Shrine of Controversy and Atlantis Lost. You might also enjoy the secret levels that consist of Dolphin Soccer and two 2D levels modeled on the Genesis games, Pathways To Nowhere and Passage From Genesis, only unlocked once you beat the game in the PS2 version, or once you access them (respectively, from Powers of Levitation and Four Ways of Mystery).
- Neat Details
- This game is chock-full of them, from ancient murals to crystalline contraptions and from webbed-glass tunnels to complex floating water basins. The sea turtles' shells have small gouges on them, from shark attacks, and moss growing between the scales. The Clan Dolphins' spikes protude out from their skins more like calcified stalagmital growths than bony spurs, and the Outcast Dolphins' bodies bear darker and lighter stripes together, like gill flaps. Ecco can nuzzle and thrash over the ground to lift up sediments and, when he goes into the Crimsons' staining pool at the Shrine of Controversy, a viscous sound plays and he lifts off red plumes and chunks of red goop. Bioluminescent jellyfish, fish schools, and corals appear faster and from farther away than the rest of the objects, if they are in plain view of the player. The dolphin houses in Anguish of Dearth are constructed from hollow, calcified coral colonies, and surrounded by "fences" built by weaving strings of kelp and seashells, and tied around pointy ribs from whale carcasses sunk into the ground.
A YouTube playthrough by BlueDemon106. This is the source of the screenshots for this review.