Title :Ecco the Dolphin
Platforms :Sega Dreamcast, Sony PlayStation 2
Publisher :Sega
ESRB Rating :Everyone
Game Rating :6.5
Review by :Ken Gagne

You can go to a water park and spend too much money to swim with nature's gentlest creature, the dolphin. Or, spend a whole lot less and be a dolphin in Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future. But between this Sega Dreamcast/PS2 game and Seaworld, the latter is probably the better deal. [DC version reviewed here] 

In Ecco the Dolphin's futuristic world, humans and dolphins — supposedly Earth's two most intelligent animals — live in peace and harmony. When mankind left to explore the universe, the dolphins were left open to attack from the Foe. "The only hope and champion of Earth" is the dolphin Ecco. He does this by… well, swimming around, exploring, eating fish, and uncovering ancient runes. 

Ecco is published by Sega and developed by Appaloosa Interactive. Appaloosa is known for their share of video game atrocities, including the PlayStation games that call themselves "Contra" but don't deserve the name. Ecco may be the first truly beautiful game they've ever created. Now they just need to work on the gameplay, which is on par with Appaloosa's other efforts. 

The graphics bring to life the king of the sea's world with startling clarity. Ecco swims and spins to reveal gorgeous surroundings, both above and below the surface. Sharks cast shadows on the sand below before making a threatening advance on our hero. Such lighting effects and other extras convey the sense that you really are moving through water, and not just a mass of blueness. 

Anyone who has ever been underwater or watched a Jacques Cousteau video will be familiar with the game's aquatic sounds. The thick, echoing nature of underwater sound is captured perfectly, as demonstrated by chirping dolphins and bubbling air. The music is calm and peaceful – unless Ecco is nose-to-nose with Jaws. 

Controlling Ecco is a breeze, though sometimes defining "up" can be challengiing. Ecco can swim and charge, and cast sonar to talk to other creatures or display a localized map of the area. His most fun function is being able to leap out of the water and perform aerial acrobatics (which sadly does not advance the game's plot). All the while you must keep your eye on Ecco's health and air meters; he'll need to either catch fish or return to the surface to replenish either. 

Ecco's repertoire of moves and songs increases as he finds crystals allowing him to enter previously inaccessible areas. This often involves backtracking to earlier levels and trying Ecco's new techniques on that puzzle you couldn't solve before. 

Once you get past the presentation and into the gameplay, you'll find Ecco to be a frustrating experience. The hoops he must jump through to advance are nebulous at best. Fishy friends and ancient crystals give clues in riddles, leaving Ecco to wander the level in search of something to do. Until the task and method are determined, you're stuck. Even once you know what to do, executing the task can be a boring series of trial and errors. Many tasks involve running a gauntlet of underground tunnels, or fetching items to bring to someone. There's the occasional boss-type figure (giant sharks and octopi), but it'll be awhile before you see any sign of " the Foe." 

It's a shame to see such an attractive display wrapped around a totally uninteresting game. You'll want to play Ecco just to see what he can do and where he can go, but the goals and levels are confusing and uninspired. The game just has no porpoise — ah, purpose. 

This article is copyright (c) 2000, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 11-Sep-00