Review: Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future

So you’re picking through old games at the local shop, or you’re clicking through the bargain pages of a web site.  Either way, you come across Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future (this review is primarily for the PS2 version, though it was also published for the Dreamcast; there are some notable differences, particularly in level structure), and you’re pondering picking it up.  Sure, you can go off of reviews written when the game was new—but what was cool as kimchi then may be trifling better than used tissue now.  So how’s one to know? That’s what I’m here for.

Box art for the PlayStation 2 version

Published for the PS2 in ‘Oh-Two by Acclaim in North America and Sony Computer Entertainment Europe in Europe, it was developed by Appaloosa Interactive, who haven’t been the most prolific of developers, and who haven’t really developed any “big name” games.  After Defender of the Future, they developed Jaws Unleashed.  Before that, their most well-known game would have to be C: The Contra Adventure, back in ‘Ninety-Eight.  Defender of the Future was originally developed for the Dreamcast, and on that system was published by Sega in Two Thousand for both Europe and North America, ‘Oh-One for Japan.

Box art for the Dreamcast version

With the developers not really being very prolific nor really having developed anything too “big” before, plus with the PS2 version being a port of the Dreamcast version, I was understandably cautious about loading the game up.  I hadn’t played much of Defender of the Future before setting out to write this review, but I loved the first two outings for Ecco on the Genesis.  The stories were interesting and engaging, and the game play was different but well-implemented.  It was time to see if a new developer could bring that feel to a three-dimensional game.

Game Play
When you first start up the game and every time you load it up thereafter, you’re asked to pick a language.  The options are: English, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Italian.  It’s an interesting choice that is rather rare for a North American game.  Most of the time, it’s the PAL versions of games—the PAL region being mainly Europe and Australia—that have such a thing.

The first thing you’ll want to do is create a save file, which is done easily enough.  You select three letters, ostensibly your initials, and the game creates the relevant “player data” on your memory card.

One interesting thing is that you can go to the level select menu and see all the chapter titles right from the start.  You can’t, of course, select any but the very first chapter, but it’s still interesting.

Once you’re done looking through the options and start a new game, you start off with the prologue.  It sets up the story of the game, then you head into the first level, which is basically a tutorial level.  You can swim around, talk to other dolphins, and engage in a couple of missions.

Ecco tail-walking along the surface

You’re first taught how to swim, which is more than just going “forward”.  You have your pitch and yaw controls, you have a “charge” which is basically a forward dash, and you have a few other things.  One nice thing the “teacher” teaches you is how to tail-walk.  You’ve seen dolphins do it; everyone has.  It’s where most of their body is out of the water, and they kind of wiggle around.  You’re taught how to do that.  It’s handy for getting a look at the surface, but it’s also just neat.

Thinking about being above the surface, if you leap into the air, you can do a few tricks.  They’re not all that intricate, but you’re a fish-like mammal, not a spider-monkey.  You can twirl, do somersaults, and other such things you’d see at Sea World.

Once you’re done playing around, you can go after the two missions.  One is to bring a fish back to a certain dolphin, which teaches you how to charge into a school of fish (after this mission, primarily used to feed and regain health), and the other is to free a baby whale trapped in some rocks.

That last, that one right there, is the first inkling you’ll get of how the rest of the game is going to go.  If you’ve ever played the previous two-dimensional Ecco titles (not counting Ecco Jr., which is a fantastic game to play with a young-ish child if you have the Wii and eight hundred Nintendo Points) then you know that, aside from being a good bit on the difficult side, the in-game help (given from crystals, which do appear here and we’ll get to them momentarily) can be inscrutable to the point of making a large team of cryptologists scratch their heads.

Here, it cranks that up to eleven.  You get crystals (here shards of the crystal-machine-thing that was keeping a forcefield up around the planet—we’ll get to that in the Story section) that you can talk to for hints.  The PS2 version gets an additional crystal-type, which will play a short video ostensibly to give you another hint.  The crystal shards come in different colors, with each color having one specific “job”.  White ones will give text clues, lavender ones show the aforementioned video, and so on.

However—both of those are bunk.  The text-giving crystals are next to no help for all their indecipherable “hints”, and the video-givers aren’t any better.  For example, in that baby-whale mission, you’d almost never know what you were supposed to do, which is to enlist the help of two other dolphins and push a certain rock out of the way.  You know the rock’s important, but you have no clue whatsoever why, or how to deal with it.

Sadly it only gets worse from there.

Once you save the baby whale, you can talk to its parent who will open the way to the next level for you.  That next level kicks up the difficulty to incredible degrees.  Keep in mind, as we go through a bit of it, we’re talking about the second level of the game, the first after the tutorial.

While there were sharks in the tutorial level, you were kept from going anywhere near them by a strong current, and they seem to have been scripted to ignore you, anyway.  In the second level, however, you have to start dealing with them, either by fighting them or trying to zip past them.  The sharks are fast; not quite as fast as Ecco, but they can reach their top speed faster than Ecco can.  While you can use the Charge to get up to top speed, it’s difficult to control, especially if you’re using it to get away from sharks.

You attack by using the Charge to smack into things, and these sharks take three hits.  That’s not terrible on the face of it—but if you hit them head-on, you’ll take damage.  It’s not much—but then you don’t have much health at this point, either.

Speaking of health, you get more by collecting “vitalits”, which are little, eh—swirly energy things obtained by completing optional tasks, finding where they’re carefully hidden, that sort of thing.  There are five vitalits per level, and some—well, in the second level, there’s a race you can enter.  It’s completely optional, and the only thing you get if you win is a vitalit.  Not a terrible prize, really.  However, the race is not easy, not in the slightest.

In the same area as the race is a lavender crystal.  Talking to it gets an overview of the race, starting with the two stalagmites that mark the start and end point.  It follows the circuit around the area, coming back to the start point.  Talk to a dolphin and it will only mention the race, asking you to join.  If you do, the other two line up between the two stalagmites, and on the third “whistle” (it sounded more of a chirrup to me, but I suppose that’s an issue of semantics), they take off.  There’s nothing you can do to keep up with them.

Leaping into the air with the greatest of ease

You can talk to the dolphins, hunt around for more crystal shards (there aren’t any), or anything else you like, but nothing gives a concrete answer on what you’re supposed to do.  The closest you’ll come is an off-hand comment by one of the dolphins after you lose, asking, essentially, if you’re afraid of the red fish.  Whether you intuit the answer from there or hunt around on the Internet, you eventually get that the solution is to talk to a dolphin to start a race then go grab a red fish from the school nearby.  That little video clip the lavender shard gives you doesn’t always show the school of fish, since they tend to wander a little and aren’t always in the shot when the video starts.

So you talk to a dolphin to start the race then go after the fish.  Once you grab it, the game takes over and moves Ecco into position.  There are two more problems, here.  For starters, it takes over control from wherever you happened to be when you got the fish, moves you into position, and leaves you in the direction you were facing.  So you could end up facing a different direction than the other dolphins by a rather large angle.  Secondly, the course isn’t that long, and eating the red fish didn’t give you much of a boost to anything.  You’re still going to struggle to finish first.  After twenty minutes the closest I’d come was a little over half a length behind the lead dolphin.

That leads to another issue.  When enemies get killed or fish get eaten, they don’t come back unless you exit to the main menu (or go on to the next level) and come back to that level.  There are only so many red fish to eat, and the other two are eating them before each race, too.  As such, it won’t be long at all before you simply run out of fish, which makes the race potentially unwinnable.

The game never really lets up in how difficult it is or how nearly useless many of the “hints” are.  Soon you start facing hammerhead sharks who require five or six hits to take down, an octopus that damages you if you get too close (but you have to get close to complete the level), and more.

One of the things that may be a hindrance is the camera.  It’s a good example of camera control from that era of gaming in that you control it with the shoulder buttons.  On the Dreamcast it’s the two triggers, and on the PS2 it’s L2 and R2.  Hold one and you look in that direction; hold both and you look behind you.  It’s not too clunky of a system, but coming into it from more recent games where camera control is usually mapped to one of the thumb sticks, it does require some adjustment.

The camera stays behind Ecco unless you use those buttons, and there’s really not much control over how far the camera turns; it’s either ahead, to one side or the other, or behind you.  So if you want to keep an eye on something at your ten o-clock, or if you want to look at something above you, you’re out of luck.  It’s either try to learn enemy path-wandering patterns or point Ecco right at them or precisely perpendicular to them.  The time this really bites you in the tail-flipper is when you have a few sharks in the area and you’re trying to pick them off one by one.  You’ll be fending off one, only to have one you didn’t see coming try to bite off your dorsal fin.  If you could swivel the camera around to keep an eye on everything else, you’d suffer a lot fewer deaths.

The closest you come to fiddling with the camera is the Triangle button for the PS2 and the D-pad for the Dreamcast.  You can, on the PS2, change between the camera sticking directly behind Ecco and keeping up with every turn he makes, to a more languid movement as if a human diver with a camera were trying to keep up with him, to a fixed position.  Neither of the last are all that useful, honestly.  For the Dreamcast, you have the same options as with the PS2 with an addition.  If you hold the D-pad in any direction, the camera will “break away” and float above the water.  That might sound more useful than it is; trust me, it’s darn near useless.  Playing around with it in the wrong levels will result in death very quickly.

Speaking of death, when you die you’ll be given a count-down screen (interestingly reminiscent of old arcade games) and a crystal shard saying, essentially, that you can’t give up because it’s your destiny.  You’ll be seeing this screen quite frequently.  Quite frequently, since it’s far too common to be given the worst-worded clue possible, which is your only clue to how to beat a particular objective and you’re basically expected to blunder around until you figure it out.

That’s not so bad (it’s more game padding than anything else), but then you have, say, four sharks tightly packed together that you have to get rid of to proceed.  Then there’s that fifth one you didn’t see because it was very close to the mouth of the tunnel you just exited, and takes a nip at you before you realize it’s there.

Then there’s the air meter.  Being a cetacean, dolphins breathe air.  Much of the game is set in open environments, but even in those areas there are occasionally long strings of caves without air pockets.  If you’re the slow-and-cautious type when exploring dark areas (and at least a good two-fifths of the game is near-complete darkness), you’ll find it difficult to balance caution with your air meter ticking down.  In some places, you have to rush through blindly, not knowing what’s around the next corner, because your air meter is about to run out.  Then there’s an entire level that’s nothing but a near-labyrinth of tunnels, with air not freely available.

On the other hand, though you will die numerous times, if you choose to continue you’ll usually respawn not too far away, which is mostly good.  There is the occasional time you’ll respawn and be attacked by something nearby, however.  It gets old.  Quickly.

Then there are the puzzles.  Most are “simply” difficult as heck to figure out, but a few are downright counter-intuitive.  There’s one where you have to use a stealth power-up (more on power-ups a bit later) to pass through an object—but up until that point, all the stealth power-up did was make you invisible; you still bumped into objects and enemies as normal.  There’s really nothing that tells you that in this case you can use it to pass through an object.  There are other weird, counter-intuitive puzzles, which obviously get worse the further in the game you go.

A hammerhead shark is just one enemy to face

Further, the puzzles don’t really require much in the way of creative thinking.  There is one way and one way alone to complete a given puzzle.  All you have to do is figure out what that way is, which is really not “figuring out” as much as either stumbling about blindly or trying things at random.  Since many involve specific power-ups, all you have to do is find where they are.  Conversely, if you see a power-up but haven’t needed it yet, odds are good it’s the solution to an upcoming puzzle.

Another issue concerns the hit boxes and collision detection. Suffice it to say, hit boxes are invisible constructs that more or less exist in the same space as your avatar and, when penetrated, count as a “hit”; collision detection is the code that handles all of that, whether it “hits” or not, and such.

The issue is one small in terms of how often it appears, but major in how it affects you.  For most of the game it’s not a concern.  However, one type of “hazard” is, basically, poison bubbles.  Certain stalagmite/stalactite-vent-things release bubbles of whatever color.  You know off the bat something’s up with them since air bubbles are, well, mostly clear.  The problem is that you can be a good half-foot away from the poison bubbles and still have them hurt you, yet you sometimes have to struggle to get air from a stream of air bubbles.  It gets especially annoying as there’s an area with a current pushing you quickly ahead with little maneuverability through a maze of the poison bubble-spewers, and you can see that you’re not touching them yet you still get injured.

To move away from that, let’s go on to power-ups.  You get powers which do things like make your sonar powerful enough to break rocks, lengthen your air or health meters considerably, and a few others.  They come as little crystals which you swim through, but in order to use them, you kind of first have to learn how.  To do that, you have to find other little crystals.  Some are hidden well and one is given to you as a freebie.  On the bright side, you only need to find those once, then you can use the powers whenever you find the relevant power-up.

The last thing to mention would be the sonar.  Like in previous games, you can hold the button down to get a map of the level.  That was perfect in the earlier games, but in Defender of the Future it’s much more awkward.  It’s a top-down view of a three-dimensional area, which means you’ll have difficulty discerning just where this enemy or that objective-giver will be, in terms distance relative to the bottom of the level.  Further, it only shows pre-determined sections of the level, but not, as has been seen in previous installments, sections with Ecco in the center.  It just shows static sections, which means that you could be trying to get a sense of an unexplored area, but as far as the game’s concerned you’re still in the previous section, so that’s all it will show you in the map.

The first thing to say is that Defender of the Future is a reboot of the franchise, though it does retain a few very broad elements.  Aliens, humanity and dolphins working together, time travel, that sort of thing.

For five hundred years before the start of the game, humanity and cetaceans lived together in a harmonious utopia.  They decided to explore space together, so did so—in golden bubbles.  It seems that the developers at Appaloosa Interactive were inspired by the “space fetus” idea from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  While certainly not a bad thing, it is a little odd to see dolphins and naked (and bald, interestingly) adult humans floating through space in, again, golden bubbles.

A race of aliens known only as “The Foe” hated humans and cetaceans for reasons that aren’t really made clear, so, as they had done apparently before, they ravaged the Earth, devouring everything in their path.  This time, however, they were finally driven back by the combined forces of humanity and cetaceans.

After The Foe were forced out, the united Terran species set up the Guardian, their greatest creation, which was basically a positively enormous sentient crystal structure, to protect them by throwing a force-field over the planet (it’s one of those things where you can just imagine the developers winking and saying to just go with).  The Foe are relentless, and attack the field constantly to look for a weak spot.  When they finally find the weak spot they break through the field, which somehow makes the Guardian fracture and shatter.

The Foe open a “time vortex”, so they can go back in Earth’s past to, basically, wreck things.  They started by going five hundred years into the past, to the moment when humanity and dolphins came together to form a new civilization, and they corrupted the dolphins by “draining them of their most noble traits”: Compassion, ambition, wisdom, intelligence, and humility.  Ecco, of course, is going to stop them.

He has to go through three dystopian futures—one where dolphins rule without humanity, one where humanity rules without dolphins, and one where The Foe rule.

Those futures actually make some sense in how they come about, but they’re almost the only things that make sense.  On the whole, the story is meant to be enjoyed, not dissected.  It doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny, but then, it’s not trying to, either.  It’s trying to be an enjoyable story that serves as a reason for Ecco to be where the game puts him.

If you can keep Bellisario’s Maxim in mind, you’ll enjoy the story.  It has an interesting science-fiction theme blended in with its message of working for a better future, and what may happen if we may forget our own “noble traits”.

There’s no way around it—the game is pretty.  It’s simply a fantastic look at a world under the water.  Everything is beautiful, from the dolphins to the jellyfish to the anemones to the rocks to the coral—everything is simply beautiful.  It’s a genuine pleasure just to idly swim around and look at things.

Even the jellyfish are breath-taking

Everything moves with a mostly great fluidity, beyond what was generally thought possible for games of the era (remember that in general, the most popular games for the Dreamcast were things like fighting and action-adventure titles; Defender of the Future was one of the first games geared more toward exploration in a three-dimensional environment and going from one end of an area to the other and back again to solve a puzzle.  As such, there wasn’t much precedent for such attention to detail in such a wide variety of models).

There are a few instances of jerkiness in motion, but that’s forgivable as the game is old as it is.  On the other hand, Defender of the Future really puts the Dreamcast’s G.D.-R.O.M. system to the test.  Everything looks like how you would expect it to; the different species of flora and fauna are immediately recognizable, and rendered incredibly well.

Whether due to being a port from the Dreamcast or the PS2’s own hardware limitations, however, there are a few negatives to note.  There’s noticeable fade-in, as the draw distance is very small.  On the other hand, that actually helps you, in some ways, since there will be more than a few times of going through pitch-black tunnels, and the only way you know where to go is you can see the white-ish haze at the end of the draw distance, so you can actually see the tunnel ahead and such.  In lighter areas, which is to say pretty much every part of the game that isn’t in a cave, it’s not noticeable.

That fade-in affects enemies, too; you could be zipping along and think you’re in the clear, only to have a shark suddenly fade into existence and head straight for you before you can do anything about it. That’s rare, but it does happen.

In a word—beautiful.  In two words—very beautiful.  The music, composed by Tom Follin, is simply wonderful.  When appropriate, the music is soft, light, and relaxing.  Then it swoops into an upbeat suspenseful theme when in a dangerous area.  The transitions are mostly smooth.

There is, however, some bad looping for the music.  Sometimes there’s an awkward pause between loops, and sometimes it takes a moment for the game code to “catch up” and play what should be playing; E.G., you’ll start with the “relaxed” theme, enter a dangerous area, and it will be a moment or so before it switches to a more suspenseful track.  That’s not a huge detraction, but it’s noticeable.

The sound effects, by Brian Coburn, are almost unnoticeable—but that is a compliment, it truly is.  Everything sounds like it does in real life (or what we think it would sound like, in the case of fictional elements).  From the “squeaking” when Ecco is above-water, to the many different kinds of splashing, to the roars of certain enemies, it’s all “unnoticeable” in the sense that everything “fits” and immerses you in the setting.

Over the course of beating the game, you can go back and replay any chapter you’ve unlocked.  This is pretty decent if you want to try and complete the optional objectives or just swim around and goof off.  One problem is that save for the tutorial level there really isn’t much room to goof off.  It’s all about getting going on completing the objectives.

Taken from Caverns of Hope, a great web site

The gallery with low-res images on the walls

From a design standpoint that makes a bit of sense; Ecco is more concerned about figuring out what’s going on and what to do about it, not slacking off to see how much hang time he can get when he leaps from the water.  To that end, the levels are somewhat streamlined, in the sense that there’s really no unused space.  Everything has a purpose, you’re going to go through every bit of each level to complete objectives.  Further, given the limitations of the era, there wasn’t much room to make unused space just to exist and look interesting.

That leaves little to explore, little to just muck around with.  For the time—and hardware—it was produced, however, that is perfectly understandable if disappointing.  However, that doesn’t leave much reason to want to pop it back in.  By and large, you’ll have completed at least most of the optional objectives by the time you beat it for the first time since you’ll have no idea what’s really necessary to move ahead and what isn’t.  Further, some of the optional objectives are so obscure, either in how to obtain them or, more often, how to complete them, that you’ll have as little luck—or patience—the second and third time around as you did the first.

There is the gallery, where, as you unlock them, things like cut scenes, information on enemies, and so on are available.  That sounds great—but it really isn’t.  Save for the cut-scenes, it’s all rather bland.  The bits on enemies and such are just things like concept art and such, with absolutely no context.  And because the “gallery” is an actual rendered level you maneuver Ecco around, they tend to be rather low-resolution, so it’s not like you can see them all that clearly.

The age of the game is an important factor—there’s no multi-player, no on-line capability, no humorous alternate plot, almost nothing of interest to unlock aside from the gallery, and it’s just so difficult you’ll not likely have the desire to create a Let’s Play out of it (though a good few have tried, interestingly enough, if none were complete that I could find).  There is one little extra to unlock, “Dolphin Soccer”, which is you playing against one dolphin.  It’s not the most robust mini-game, but it’s something.

Final Recommendation
The Ecco the Dolphin franchise, as a whole, always existed in that area of video games labeled “indescribable”.  It’s not like there are a lot of video games set underwater, nor is there exactly an abundance of cetacean protagonists.  The game play mechanics have never been easily qualified, and the plots, while mostly intriguing and engaging, usually defy terse description.  It’s always been a franchise where almost the best you could do is physically hand a game to someone and get them to agree to try it for a little bit.

Defender of the Future is no different.  Any attempt to be succinct when describing it to someone would end with them looking at you with an arched brow and an air of concern for your mental health.  Think about it: “You play a dolphin a millennium in the future fending off aliens that threaten to destroy the peace between humanity and dolphins by stealing their personality traits.  Oh, and they ran into these aliens because dolphins and humans started to explore space in golden bubbles.”

It doesn’t help the fact that the game is hard as heck.  It brings back memories of games from the N.E.S. days—but not just the bad ones.  There was a certain sense of wonder when you played those games, especially since at the time, there was next to no precedent for many of them.  Defender of the Future has that same wonder, for that same reason.

In the nine years since it was released on the PS2 (eleven for the original Dreamcast version) the only game that really comes close is Jaws Unleashed which, by all accounts, was received poorly compared to Defender of the Future.  Jaws, reception aside, is really the only thing you can lump together with the Ecco the Dolphin franchise, particularly this latest outing, but that really doesn’t mean much.

That fact serves it well—you don’t know what to expect, not really, and everything is new and exciting.  Even something as simple as leaping out of the water is interesting, different, precisely because there really hasn’t been anything like it outside of the franchise.

The problem is that it seems to do its best to turn you away.  It bears mentioning yet again that the game is very difficult.  You will die plenty of times as you try and figure out just what it is you’re expected to do, especially since the game does its best to obfuscate goals.  It’s a guarantee.

Ecco Jr.

Image via Wikipedia

Over all, Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future is a game of contradictions.  If you want to tell a friend about it, the most common word you’ll use is “but”.  For its time—and even now, to some extent—it was a very innovative game that does things few others have even tried, but many of those innovations are hurdles to be overcome, not concepts to be enjoyed.  The story is very interesting, definitely somewhat different, but it’s not very “deep”, nor is it as cohesive as it possibly could be.  The puzzles are interesting and sometimes promote lateral thinking, but you’ll have next to no clue outside of a walkthrough on how you’re supposed to complete some of them.

Another issue with the game is that it’s rather lengthy.  It will take you quite a while to beat it, and while normally that would be a good thing, with the difficulty cranked as high as it is here it eventually gets to the point where you’re more wondering just exactly what form of death awaits you around the next corner instead of truly enjoying yourself.

Ultimately, it’s a good game for what it is, but what it is could have been better.

Game Play: GOOD
Ecco moves as you expect a dolphin to.  You go to Sea World and see the tricks they do, you can actually do most of them here.  The controls take some getting used to since there aren’t many other games that feature a protagonist that stays underwater, but once you do it’s fun to just move.  The lack of good camera control—especially the lack of a lock-on feature—means you’ll suffer quite a few deaths, but then you’ll suffer plenty of deaths anyway.

It doesn’t really make a lot of sense, but it isn’t designed to, either.  It’s designed to just be enjoyed, not thought about too much.

Graphics: GOOD
It just doesn’t get much better-looking than this.  Everything moves well and looks better.  It’s a genuine joy just to look at everything.

Sound: GOOD
Another true pleasure.  Everything sounds “real”, and the music behind it all is wonderfully atmospheric without getting in the way.  The only things that keep it from a nine are a few small aural “hitches”.

Replayability: BAD
There are things to unlock in the gallery, true, and the “Dolphin Soccer” mini-game, but you’re going to have to slog through the chapters to unlock everything, and occasionally go back through them if you want to try and get optional objectives you missed.  Trust me, you won’t want to.  On the other hand, it’s fun to just goof off in the tutorial level and see how many tricks you can do in the air, how many fish you can grab, and such.

It should almost have a higher rating, but the incredible spike in difficulty combined with it not exactly being a game well-suited for playing for an hour at a time then putting it down for a few days, then picking it up again for an hour or two—it’s hard to recommend it.  On the other hand, there are plenty of interesting things to unlock in the Gallery, if you’re into that sort of thing, but that may not be enough.  It’s a good game, and by no means handled poorly—but it may not be one for the modern casual gamer.

As this site is semi-focused on the types of gamers who don’t have the time to play all day, every day, as well as the gamers who may not be all that well-skilled, I just can’t recommend it.


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