OPUS: Echo of Starsong Review

September 20, 2021
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Echo of Starsong marks the third entry in the OPUS series, but only the first I’ve played. I find many Japanese visual novels to generally outstay their welcome by around 30 to 40 hours, so when I learned this one could be completed in less than fifteen, my interest was immediately piqued. A concise story? Set in space? With RPG elements? The guy with limited free time and a love of space opera says “Count me in!”.

One of the rejected lines from Terminator 2

This one deals with an old noble named Jun, recounting his younger days in flashback. As an asteroid miner, he — like much of the galaxy, it seems — was searching for a precious material called lumen, buried in caves. One fateful day he detonated a cave belonging to another faction and was exiled. His guardian Kay is his only companion, until he meets another lumen runner named Eda and her witch Remi. Witches act a little like water diviners, except with lumen and without the weird stick; unfortunately, witches were also blamed for a devastating war that ravaged the galaxy so are pretty much persona non grata outside of black market trading. 

The plot thrusts you forward rapidly, but never overwhelmingly so. While the novel elements account for around 75% of the game, you also have planets and asteroids to scan, loot to scavenge, and decisions and trades to be made in outposts. It’s like Mass Effect without the god-awful Mako sections and dull planet scanning. Your ship requires fuel and shielding to get you to the next destination in one piece, both of which can be restocked for reasonable prices. Upgrades can be made once you’ve collected enough parts from the wreckages and celestial bodies you come across.

Music puzzles involve lining up notes to a door pattern - simple, but fun

When you land on an outpost, asteroid or cave, you’ll take direct control of Jun. The navigation is mostly horizontal scrolling, but there are occasional ladders to move you between levels, items to scan and collect en route, and doors to bypass using your sceptre. This is where the titular starsong comes into play — each song is a music puzzle which requires you to attune a series of lines on the door with the notes of the song in order to harmonise and open it. It’s far simpler than it sounds, but still satisfying to complete. 

You’ll experience random encounters as you travel across space which are usually enemy vessels trying to suss you out. You’ll be given a base number to beat and if you decide to bluff your way through, you’ll need to roll higher to succeed. Failure will usually mean losing ship armour. Similarly in outposts you may come across traders hawking “rare” goods or civilians asking for money; donations may result in an item or nothing of worth. Since Jun is recounting his past, the element of surprise is removed. A wrong step resulting in death is clearly incorrect — a misremembrance on his part rather than an actual catastrophe — and one which puts you back at the last autosaved point rather than the title screen. 

Decisions can be skewed your way by items you collect and upgrades you make to your ship.

Mechanically, then, it’s a hotchpotch of disparate gameplay elements: a sprinkle of light RPG here, a smattering of resource management there, and a solid layer of visual novel split over five chapters. The world’s lore is fleshed out wonderfully; recurring characters will run into the party in surprising locations, and even the small stories encapsulated in a couple of paragraphs can have an emotional impact. As the crew traverse the galaxy deciding who to trust or avoid, the decisions you make can open or close doors. Story items retrieved from a settlement can prove to be fundamental hours later in a completely different locale. The choices may seem simple but Echo of Starsong has such a weird charm about it that any missed opportunity to learn more about the different cultures in the game world feels devastating.

That's nice of him.

It might not be a huge looker, but even its art style feels at home with the setting. Minimalist, blocky illustrations and simple colours highlight the alienness of space travel without pomp or flashy gimmicks. Jun’s ship, The Red Chamber, is equally stripped down but as a home for the mismatched crew it feels like a perfect example of function over form. This isn’t a game of frantic laser battles, quite the opposite. I’d go as far as to say it’s one of the most relaxing titles I’ve played all year. Bimbling around space, buying and selling goods, investigating unknown signals and solving the occasional puzzle all make for enticingly cosy wind-down gaming in the evening. 

Mary's podcast budget skyrocketed in lockdown.

Yet it’s the story that will captivate the most. I really wasn’t expecting much; most visual novels are simultaneously on-the-nose and hideously overwritten. Echo of Starsong manages to pack an astonishing amount of heartfelt story beats across so many delivery systems — whether you’re picking through emails, watching black-and-white flashbacks, or witnessing arguments among the crew, there’s always something human underpinning it. Jealousy, anger and sorrow all eventually give way to true growth for each of the passengers, and it’s all delivered by concise text rather than stilted voice acting. You may wonder as the credits roll whether the story actually delivered on its grand promise, but a few days of reflection will likely still see it kicking around your mind. The greatest stories are the ones that show a character’s development, warts and all. OPUS takes that challenge and delivers one of the most unique and moving gaming experiences of the year.

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Equal parts captivating and chill, Echo of Starsong is a wonderful hybrid of visual novel and adventure underpinned by a remarkably human story. 
Rob Kershaw

I've been gaming since the days of the Amstrad. Huge RPG fan. Planescape: Torment tops my list, but if a game tells a good story, I'm interested. Absolutely not a fanboy of any specific console or PC - the proof is in the gaming pudding. Also, I like cake.