Strange Loop Games
February 6, 2018 (Early Access)
Sidequest was provided with a copy of Eco for PC in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Welcome to The Eco Diaries, an ongoing series in which Melissa Brinks and Joesph Langdon explore the possibilities of Eco, a survival civilization-building game with an emphasis on ethical decision making. We’re joining the game in its Alpha state and tracing its evolution throughout Early Access to give us a deeper insight into the changes that are being made, the growth of its various systems, and just because it’s fun to see a game grow.
If games that encourage exploration and settlement, like Minecraft or No Man’s Sky, were interested in the effects of colonization, you’d get Eco. You’re dropped into a wide open world where people may or may not be living, and told immediately that a meteor is going to hit your planet in a certain number of days. If you progress enough, you can stop it.
But progression is hard, taking strategic skill-building and cooperation between multiple players to pull off. While you can play alone, in theory, the number of resources and skills you need to advance seem insurmountable for just one person.
Instead of being entirely about acquiring things, the game explores the backlash to hunting, gathering, and building, such as decreased animal and plant populations and pollution, and forces you to consider your place and impact on an area rather than just mindlessly pursuing a ‘win’ state. Does stopping the meteor mean we’ve won if the earth is so polluted that we can no longer live there?
Mechanically, the obvious comparison is Minecraft. You gather materials, then you make things out of them, which can be used to make bigger, more impressive, and more useful things. But despite that, the feel is quite different; even with the meteor visibly orbiting the planet, the tone is much more Stardew Valley than you’d expect. There are no enemies trying to kill you and no way to die. You do have to eat a balanced diet to keep your strength up, but the only thing that’s going to kill you is the aforementioned meteor. Instead of grappling with enemies, you’re focused entirely on acquisition, production, and progression in an increasingly complex system of skill trees and materials. Advance far enough, and you can destroy the meteor in orbit around your planet before it strikes.
How exactly you spend your time is up to you. You can gather as many resources as possible and sell them, or build yourself a nice isolated commune and go it alone. You can team up with others and focus your energy on stopping the meteor, or just build giant, gorgeous structures and fill them full of furniture. The meteor gives you a conflict, but whether or not you care about stopping it is really up to your personal play style.
For being in Alpha, the game feels pretty good. There are quite a few glitches to contend with, as well as some nonsensical rules (why can I only carry one dirt when I pick it up from the ground, but ten when I pull it from a stockpile?), but it seems as though Eco is already well on its way to being a solid, intriguing entry in the civilization-building, resource-gathering, survival-ish genre.
As in Minecraft and other games of its ilk, progression is fairly opaque. While the game might tell you what ingredients you need to create a new object or skill book, it quite often won’t tell you what you need to craft said ingredients—for example, farming iron for iron ingots (after you’ve already made the blumerie, of course), using those ingots to make an anvil, then using that anvil to craft a cast-iron stove, then discovering lumber to craft a room capable of containing a cast-iron stove, all to make some fruit salad. It takes an endless series of hovering over links within the game to discover that path, because most people would assume a kitchen, even without a stove, is sufficient to make salads.
To figure out the path to crafting, the Wiki seems like it’d hold all the answers. Unfortunately, it’s sparse in detail and outright omits a lot of crucial information. Links don’t work, things aren’t where you expect them to be, and there are no detailed guides to walk you through advancing a particular tree. While the thrill of discovery can be fun, you often end up with so many various crafting tables (masonry table, farming table, butcher table, tailoring table, carpentry table, et al.) that sifting through all of them to take a guess at which you need to use to work on a skill is an exercise in frustration. A little more guidance would go a long way.
Even though the community-driven encyclopedia may leave you wanting, Eco is not without community. With all the skills and time required to achieve the win state, it seems impossible to do on your own—which is why there are servers with anywhere between two to 40 members open and available for anyone to play. There may be only a couple of people online at any time, but you are still able to interact with the players that aren’t there by visiting their homes, patronizing their shops, and affecting the environment around them.
But instead of waxing poetic about the mechanics, let’s give you a taste of what it’s really about.
After some server issues, we finally settle in a raven’s roost of sorts. We clear out some trees and build a small commune by the beach. Roles form in our society. Joesph takes hunting and masonry, Melissa cooking and farming, and her husband, Josh, carpentry. It quickly becomes apparent Joesph cannot use a bow. Luckily, Melissa has begun gathering tomatoes. Joesph builds a little hut and some research supplies.
Melissa discovers a fun little bug: sometimes she can only carry one item at a time. There’s no reason given for this, and she has to quit and come back to pick things up. As the only female avatar of the group, her need for others to pick things up for her becomes a running joke.
Joesph really liked building our house. They love working within the environment to produce something beautiful.
We hunt for coal to get the campfire working. Melissa discovers windows and stairs through an experimental push of the tab key. The world is forever changed. We really start expanding, building a second story and a shed for our home.
Then calamity strikes. The server mysteriously goes offline. We become nomads, searching for our newest home. We find it in a server run by some sort of sloth demon, which rapidly advances skill production. We climb a mountain and settle at the top.
It becomes abundantly clear that, while picturesque, our mountaintop home has some disadvantages. Namely that there are no trees, and everything requires wood. We spend much of our time carrying 20 logs at a time up our mountain and wish for a way to plant them ourselves.
While undertaking this quest, we end up exploring our surroundings, including visiting the settlements created by our neighbors. They’ve progressed to the point they could be called small towns, except for the fact that they are all run by a single person. Our community-owned home looks like a patchwork quilt by comparison.
In order to improve our diet, Melissa has to learn to hunt. That means turning view distance all the way up, dragging the framerate down and making it obscenely difficult to hit the three small, quick rabbits she needs to kill to advance her cooking skill. She does it, but her curses ring from the hillsides.
We log in to 400+ skill points. We max out everything. Now we can really try the game.
Joesph designs a house for crafting and replaces half the walls with windows. They build Melissa a food-crafting room—not yet a kitchen—entirely out of windows. Josh sets to work claiming a small hill for his woodworking studio and apartment. We all build separate structures for ourselves as well as our communal crafting buildings to appeal to our separate design sensibilities.
Life is good, but we never have enough wood. At least we can cook now. Coal is in abundance.
Melissa is able to start a small farm now that she has animal corpses with which to purchase a book. She discovers that if someone places a block of dirt on her head just so, she will fall endlessly through the earth into some kind of horrible black vortex and need to quit and reload. This becomes important later.
We strike gold and Joesph can’t wait to reform the currently broken global economy like the digital capitalist they are.
We discover mortared stone. It fucking takes forever to make. We all settle into a comfortable rhythm of acquisition and production. As we try to advance, we each help each other find what we need to build skill books. In the meantime, there’s always someone trying to find more logs. Josh finished a beautiful staircase up the mountain the previous night and now our home isn’t hell to get to.
Now that we can smelt ore, we have to deal with pollution. Joesph fills Josh’s house with tailings while he’s logged out, and promises it will be dealt with later.
Melissa attempts to build a hobbit hole, but has nothing to put in it. It’s just some logs with dirt on top. She is nonetheless proud.
A sudden turn: we have a visitor to our mountain commune, an avatar named Komodo who seems intent on obscuring our beautiful view by building dirt staircases and giant dirt dongs just outside of our claimed property. We mock him and attempt to drop dirt on this head to make him fall through the earth until he logs out, but the damage is done: our mountain peaks are marred by a giant dirty phallus. Melissa attempts to remove it, but ends up leaving the levitating tip as a reminder.
With Komodo gone, Joesph tries to fix the pollution situation by building a pollution-containing basement underneath their house. During the lengthy excavation process, the tailings pollute the ground nearby, turning the grass brown and making us all panic a bit. Together, Melissa and Joesph excavate the basement and she uses the dirt to build terraced gardens around her hobbit hole, which now contains a single, unlit candle floating in the air.
Tailings dealt with, we turn to progress yet again. Melissa wants to cook the meat she’s been hunting, and therefore needs a real kitchen. To build a kitchen, we need lumber. To make lumber, we need a sawmill. To run the sawmill, we need power. For power, we need a windmill. After chasing these threads down for roughly two hours, we get all the materials together and prepare to have a kitchen, only to find out it’ll take an additional two hours to craft. We log the heck off at a reasonable hour, for once, eager to see what the next day will bring.
Our Lord Sloth logs on to tell us that he’ll be doing server maintenance on Monday in an attempt to fix the Mechanics skill. Joesph informs him that we are nothing but humble farmers, and he leaves us be. We hope for another season free of heavy taxes. Afterwards, a mysterious piece of coal is discovered on Joesph’s house.
Also, Melissa finally gets the kitchen working after building a stove and a couple additions to her house, and Josh begins mining stone to build roads and a tailing containment facility that might actually work. Our storage chests overflow with fruit salad. Soon, we will turn our attention to financial domination and, eventually, the destruction of the meteor. Probably. Provided the whole thing doesn’t get reset, because the game is still in Alpha. Please, Lord Sloth, we worked so hard on our homes, have mercy.
In conclusion, it’s clear Eco is still in alpha. Some of its progression paths wind up in dead ends, and a lot of its mechanics are still unclear. That being said, we had an incredible amount of fun playing it and can’t wait to see where it goes in the future. With a Steam release available today, we have high hopes for an update that will bring even more to the game. Check it out; there’s enough meat there to make the game feel lively and fun, even in Early Access.
Read the rest of The Eco Diaries series.
A genderless eldritch beast bound to mortal flesh. Interests include games, gardening, magical realism, and the complete restructuring of America’s political and economic systems. Once designed their own Full Metal Alchemist style transmutation circle for the weeb cred.