Opus: Echo of Starsong questioned me: “Is it enough to be human?” Unlike other science fiction games, which ask me what it means to be human. This philosophical space opera is a harrowingly emotional experience that belongs alongside indie storytelling classics like Transistor and What Remains of Edith Finch.
Opus: Echo of Starsong is an intriguing mix of a visual novel, a two-dimensional side-scroller, and a musical puzzle game from a mechanical standpoint. In the same vein as Oregon Trail, it’s also resource management and exploration game. Despite this, I feel like I’m underselling the game when I enumerate these numerous features because each one is very ordinary on its own. The story, on the other hand, seamlessly blends these many gameplay elements, and I frequently forgot I was playing a puzzle game.
A spectacular story about three teenage adventurers who face a hostile galaxy to claim caves of divine petroleum, a very precious resource, weaves together every element of the game. Jun is a disgraced noble heir who is attempting to bring his family’s money back to them. Eda is a witch on the lookout for something significant. Remi is a pilot whose sole mission is to keep Eda safe. These individuals fight pirates and a hostile mining corporation on a regular basis while simultaneously trying to find their place in an indifferent galaxy. The game is currently available for PC and Mac on Steam.
Opus is a narrative game with choices, despite taking place largely in the narrator’s recollections. You are constantly forced to examine various fatal hazards in the game. Do I, for example, seek government employment to supplement my income despite the fact that I have a bounty on my head, or do I try to stretch my gasoline budget? I’m starting to feel exhausted after calculating the hazards of dozens of random events. Making decisions isn’t the only thing that requires mental effort. It’s the persistent feeling of distrust. I tried to assist the first time I came across a stranded ship. The occupants, however, turned out to be pirates who stole a large portion of my goods. I still wanted to help people, but I couldn’t get away from my paranoia completely. I carefully guarded my heart, and I only gambled when I had enough supplies to spare.
During the brief time I spent playing the game, it felt awful to have no faith in anything or anyone. This was their entire life for these characters. These youngsters had been handled so badly that I couldn’t understand why they continued to believe in distant friends and family, even if it meant risking their lives. But, after a few hours into Opus, I realized that being alone is considerably worse than being hurt.
The game has a main plot, but I was free to go around the cosmos as I pleased (as long as I had enough fuel). This would convey a sense of complete freedom in most space exploration games. But what does freedom mean when it can be stolen away at any time by corrupt local governments, private militaries, and strong criminals? Can ordinary people be free when they live in non-free systems? Or when they are unable to look after the weakest among them? Opus never says yes or no explicitly, but its answer is unmistakable “no.” I had a lot of questions concerning the cosmic pantheon, and the game wouldn’t answer any of them. This game is continuously allergic to handing out answers, whether in discussion or in its codex of galactic knowledge. At first, I was irritated by the fact that so many riddles remained unsolved. However, the game only gives you a limited view of three characters who are always on the run. By making information widely accessible to you, Opus refuses to expose its own limitations.
Despite this, Opus manages to alleviate the severity of its setting in the places where it can. The Thousand Peaks galaxy is made more pleasant for me as a player by the use of gentle colors and music, however, the characters are never given such a break. The awful loneliness that formed these talented, self-destructive youngsters is never forgotten by Opus. “You were able to face these tragedies because they weren’t your tragedies,” says another critically praised graphic novel, The House in Fata Morgana.
The game’s strength derives from your detachment from the story. Opus is set in the past, with Jun, one of the adventurers, as the narrator. Instead of immediately experiencing the story, you effectively pick at an elderly man’s wound. Only by relaying its story via the twisted kaleidoscope of Jun’s memories can the game feel gentle. Opus is a master at insinuating the presence of stories that take place outside of the realm of “play.” I couldn’t help but wonder whether the narrator had witnessed bigger atrocities that he didn’t want to recall.
This ambiguity was created on purpose. The Red Chamber, the main ship that transports you between space stations, is a clear homage to the Chinese literary classic The Dream of the Red Chamber. The lines between reader and participant, truth and fiction, are blurred in both the novel and Opus.
“Truth becomes fiction when fiction becomes true; Real becomes not-real when the unreal becomes real,” said the spaceship’s namesake. Despite the fact that the story takes place in the past, it is unimportant what happened to the narrator. The way you create his story with your decisions is what the game accepts as truth. Despite Opus’ lore’s traditional European aesthetics, the plot is unabashedly Chinese. The game’s Chinese influences aren’t hidden by the Taiwanese developers. Opus’ finale may be perplexing to individuals who are unfamiliar with the novel. However, I find it refreshing that the game adapts a science fiction novel that players outside of Asia are less likely to be familiar with.
It’s no minor achievement that I felt motivated to finish the game. By starting at the end, Opus prevents us from being surprised, but also makes the journey enjoyable. The writing is so good that I couldn’t stop reading even though I knew the ending wouldn’t be nice. When a faceless NPC told me, “The hull of this ship was cast from the souls of my brothers, and yet it’s on the point of collapsing,” I had to pause and take a breath. I’m not sure if this is a beautiful or terrifying statement. Is he implying that his companions died in the grueling construction of the hull, or that it was just imbued with their sweat? Whatever the reality was (and here Opus comes in with its infuriating contempt of truth), they only had one destination.
With all of its complex paradoxes, the writing is vivid and efficient. The world of Opus is lovely, but the effects of its resource battle haunt it forever. Beauty and cruelty are expertly woven together, resulting in a fictitious universe that feels more real to me than any open-world setting.
This is convenient because the game alternates between being a resource management simulator and a 2D side-scroller for the majority of the game. The game occasionally departs from 2D and alters the angle to reveal that the environment was created in 3D. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it gives tense plot moments the right amount of dramatization. The puzzles are quite self-explanatory, and I appreciate that they don’t try to put anyone’s intelligence to the test. I didn’t want or need to be thought-provoking. It was enough to take part in the characters’ adventure by assisting them. To locate the caves, listen to each star in the region and choose the most powerful song. Once you’ve arrived at the caves, you’ll need to match sound frequencies to the patterns on the major doors in order to progress. While it is possible to speed through the caves, these audio puzzles encourage you to take your time and think about what you’re doing. Opus’ beautiful soundtrack echoes this delicate, careful pace. The piano tracks vary between sorrow that sounds like falling dewdrops and a triumphal refrain that sounds like a magnificent adventure. In addition, rather than realism, the painting style surrenders to emotion. The images are made up of solid blocks of color. The underground sceneries’ limited palette is alienating and dreary, but the greys are typically gentle and warm. Opus is quick to remind me of space’s isolation. It requires me to recall why its heroes are willing to put their lives on the line. The most moving scenes are shot in black and white, which is a common cinematic technique for flashbacks, but it works particularly well in this visual novel.
Many games with full voice acting and dramatic sequences have more evocative speech, and the emotions coursing through the scenes successfully carry those aesthetically plain moments. To better convey its emotional undertones, Opus eliminates needless details. These design choices took a chance on my ability to feel exactly what the game wanted me to feel, and it paid off every time. Before I finished my first playing, I sobbed no less than eight times. Opus would never have done this if it had been a less focused game.
It also features a codex that contains some of the most beautiful writing and thoughtful worldbuilding I’ve ever seen in a video game, but it’s hidden from view from the main menu. It’s also impossible to access after the credits have rolled unless you delete your hard drive and start over. I can’t help but think that this was done on purpose because save files are so common in video games. Everything that occurs in Thousand Peaks is fleeting and ephemeral. When nothing else is permanent, there’s no need for my save file and collections to be. Opus: Echo of Starsong is a strong contender for game of the year in my opinion. While the gameplay and narrative are simple, the game’s execution is ambitious, and it stays true to challenging emotional themes until the very end. If you’re someone who eats Destiny lore for breakfast, Opus’ world will most certainly satisfy your hunger. Even if none of these things appeal to you, Opus has the potential to convert you to a believer.