The secret lovechild of Under the Dome and Roadside Picnic, Encased is a flawed gem.
Perhaps it could benefit from some extra polish, but there’s still an awful lot to love in Embraced, a sci-fi turn-based RPG that’s just about to release out of early access on PC. The premise alone is hugely intriguing, and I’m not just talking about the existence of a massive desert-spanning dome or the strange anomalous artefacts discovered within. But that’s still a solid start.
What really stands out is that once someone has entered Encased‘s huge dome, they can never leave. So your protagonist, and the employees working for the artefact-gathering Cronos corporation, entered knowing they’d spend the rest of their lives in there. Sure, the area that Encased takes place in is 30 miles across, but that’s still a small world to end your days in. The opening chapter lets you put forward a reason for your character’s decision, but I found myself dwelling on what really made them commit to dying under the dome.
In fact, Encased is full of similar food-for-thought. It’s not post-apocalyptic, it’s mid-apocalyptic. There’s a massive event which ravages the world beneath the dome, but it doesn’t just wind down; there’s the very real possibility it’ll expand to obliterate everything. A significant chunk of Encased‘s entertainment factor is seeing how individual characters handle it – whether they’re chasing riches, turning to religion, trying to save the world or simply not giving a toss.
Encased is set during the 1970s but the dome is very much its own world, so it has its own aesthetic and an uncharacteristic lack of racism. Naturally, a lot of people you meet will end up being shot in the face but the character creation system is flexible enough that you can minimise that and, if you’re willing to spend a ridiculous amount of credits on sleeping darts, avoid murder entirely.
At the other end of the spectrum, you can murder everyone you encounter, a la Fallout New Vegas, which I was sorely tempted by. But I found Encased‘s unfolding story so engaging that I decided I’d rather talk to live people than plunder the corpses of dead ones.
Encased‘s faction system means you’re bound to piss someone off, but what really stands out is how companions (you can have up to two at a time) will get disgruntled each time they “die” in combat. It’s one thing to watch your words, it’s another to consider just how your failures as a leader will impact them. That brings us neatly onto combat. The wealth of skills available to you, including a neat stealth system, means you can tackle encounters in your own way, but you’re going to get into a brawl eventually. And that’s where Encased could do with more polish.
It’s not that there’s anything awful about the turn-based combat system; 75% of the time it feels entirely fair. Yes, you’ll die horribly, but a lot of that is down to getting to fights you’re not prepared for. The foes you face range from mutated cockroaches through to people who’ve been mentally and/or physically warped by the dome’s anomalies. Encased doesn’t coddle you like the Fallout series; you can end up seriously outclassed and that’s fine. I also appreciate being able to swap weapons without being charged action points for it.
The cover system, however, can be a little flaky. Developer Dark Crystal Games confirmed to me it should take object height into account (and it does factor in ground height). But on several occasions I had my line of fire blocked by an item I could clearly see over; one ridiculous fight saw me stand on one side of a car bonnet, an enemy on the other. Could I shoot at them? Nope, I didn’t have line of fire.
And while your foes are pleasingly challenging, every now and then you’ll be fighting alongside NPCs you don’t control and their battle tactics need a little work. I witnessed a gun-toting, allied NPC walk right up to six cockroaches, blasting them at close range, then getting gnawed to death on the next round. Another idiot used a flamethrower on a foe that was surrounded by his fellow settlement guards, setting fire to them all.
Like the cover issue, these are things that can potentially be fixed and doing so would certainly elevate Encased. The same is true of the game’s survival mechanics that are compulsory, even at normal difficulty level. Having to remember to eat and drink doesn’t serve any useful purpose; it’s just a nuisance, and being able to turn it off would be a real boon.
The subtitles could also use a little work. Having a narrator relay what you’re seeing works extremely well, akin to Disco Elysium. Not all the dialogue is voiced, but the lines that are are spot on. But then, every so often, you get see a subtitle like “I’ll poke you my shank in the eye.”
And yes, I grumbled when Encased wouldn’t let me shut off the turrets by shooting the generator, and I still maintain that’s a significant oversight. But five minutes later I’d discovered that, thanks to my faction and specialism, I could kick down locked doors and all was forgiven.
Despite these flaws though, Encased remains an engaging trip through a bizarre but rounded world. Everyone has their own, believable motivations and the lack of an overwhelming, evil presence is refreshing. When someone does screw you over, there’s not a hint of moustache twirling.
And while there are a finite number of endings (14 in total) you’ll have the nagging feeling that your decisions are going to come back to haunt you. Throw in a wealth of side-quests, some creatively odd dialogue options and and you can spend hours playing and replaying Encased – a single run is likely to take you at least 18 hours, probably more.
If hard sci-fi sends you to sleep, you might want to give this a miss, because every now and then, the story be can a little dry. But for everyone else, if you’re prepared to give Encased your time and attention, and overlook what are mostly fixable flaws, you’ll discover an engaging, compelling and pleasingly deep RPG.
Encased Review: GameSpew’s Score