Back in March Gaugepunk Games released Frontier VR, an experience that I really took a liking to. Though small in scale, the three environments it immersed you in were wonderfully realized and served as a fitting reminder of the power of presence at a time when I’d done just a bit too much archery and wave shooting in VR. Six months later and Gaugepunk is back with Echo Grotto, a similarly essential VR exploration piece.
Echo Grotto trades the magic of snowy forests and open plains for the curious mysteries of exploring caves. It’s a game in which you’re propelled onward by your own sense of discovery, dying to see what’s around every corner and down every drop. Using a host of caving equipment, you venture into the darkness with the sole purpose of discovering what lies beneath (and the promise of finding better gear). And that’s pretty much it; there’s no story to it, no secret objectives, just that pure VR promise of uncovering some amazing locations.
I love Echo Grotto’s mechanics, providing a sense of authenticity even when using unrealistic features like teleportation (other movement methods become available). At the start of a trip you grab whatever equipment you want, starting off with a belt that can carry two items, a torch, glowstick, and a teleporter. To move, you have to throw the teleporter off to where you want to travel next.
There’s an essential sense of labor to this kind of movement. Obviously you’re not clambering over rocks and jumping off of ledges for yourself, but the act of having to scan the environment and then throw your teleporter to where you want to move next adds a necessary element of work to the proceedings. Indeed, the experience feels robbed of that somewhat when you discover a grappling gun that can warp you around with ease. Brilliantly, each teleporter remains in place once thrown, so you can look back at any time to see the path you’ve already traversed. Not only does this keep you from retracing your steps accidentally, but you can easily warp back to previous locations, removing much of the headaches caused by getting lost in VR.
That said it’s not always successful; sometimes I’d get stuck down holes and could see the teleporter I needed to travel back out, and couldn’t throw another one back up, so I had to restart with some frustration.
As you explore, you’ll find new gear like better torches, headlamps, and even scuba masks that allow you to move through water. It adds a little more purpose and progression into the game; once I’d gathered more powerful lighting gear I was eager to head back up to the top and rediscover paths that I might have missed the first time around. That said, a currency mechanic that has you gathering crystals to buy equipment you’ve already discovered at the start of new trips feels a little unnecessary. Fortunately, you can opt to explore in a free-play mode with all equipment unlocked at any time.
Unlike Frontier VR, then, Echo Grotto has systems in place that gamify the experience somewhat, which is bound to delight certain players. Crucially, though, the game hasn’t lost any of that core thrill of VR exploration in the process.
Journeying through the game’s dank caves is, quite frankly, a fascinating experience. The cave twists and winds with multiple paths that will have you excitedly seeking out new directions. At times its caverns will become cramped and narrow, and I found myself naturally crouching to avoid hitting my head on the walls, feeling pushed in by the small gaps I was squeezing through. There’s plenty of hidden eye candy to explore, but also a welcome element of nature at its most squeamish. I jumped in surprise as I discovered bugs running around my feet, and full-on squealed when an eel slithered around my ankles in shallow water.
Built in Unity, the game carries the same animated art style as Frontier, which works wonders for truly immersing you in the environment you’re in. After playing for around two hours I carried more memories out of the cave than I have done in most other VR games, like daring to plunge my head into water where creatures stalked around me, or uncovering a spectacular light show that I just sat and admired for a moment. At one point I even called out to someone in the real world and expected to hear my voice echo in the virtual caves. That tells you a lot about just how immersed I was.
There might not be much of a “game” to Echo Grotto (though there’s a lot more to it than its predecessor), but it’s the type of VR experience that proves you don’t always need objectives and plot twists as motivation to push on. This is an experience where your own sense of curiosity and discovery is all you’ll need to keep going, speaking to the power of VR’s immersion. It carries a rare sense of authenticity that really makes you feel like you’re descending into the depths, and the deeper you go the more engulfed you’ll become. This is a great example of what really makes VR tick.
Check out these official review guidelines to find out more about our process.