(This review contains mild spoilers about the game’s story prologue.)
Encased is a post-apocalyptic, tactical turn-based RPG, developed by Dark Crystal Games and published by Black Tower, which later was bought by Koch Media who republished the game under the Prime Matter label. The game was Kickstarter-founded and had its first early access release in September 2019, and is set to fully release on September 26, 2021. This review was written while playing the official preview version of the game on Steam, a few months before the planned full release. The preview version contains the prologue and act one, out of three planned acts, plus an epilogue. This review material was produced from experiencing difficulty 2/4 (Journey AKA Medium). Things I point out in this review may very well be fixed before the full release in a few months. For example the introductory movie has fast auto-changing text without voiceover. That makes it difficult to follow, but voiceover has already been confirmed as an included feature at release.
While the game has taken clear and outspoken inspiration from titles such as Fallout, it brings a somewhat new setting to the genre, being experienced in an alternate post-cold-war 1970s. Mankind has discovered a huge Dome in the desert, and combined their efforts to explore it. The problem? Living things can only enter, never exit. The operation is being overseen by the CRONUS corporation, sending in new candidates to contribute to mankind’s greatest discovery. You happen to be such a candidate.
The inside of the Dome contains the remnants of an old civilization, referred to as “the Forefathers”. However, as you are far from the first on the scene, it also contains many humans and modern-day structures with research labs and the like - modern-day in this sense being sci-fi toned architecture that seems to be stalwart and monolithic, perhaps inspired by real-world Russia. At this point one starts to wonder, where the apocalypse in all of this is. That’s the other thing about the setting of Encased. The disaster has yet to happen when you begin playing. The Dome seems to react to the presence of humans, and it has started to produce anomalies. During the prologue, one such anomaly causes disastrous damage to the workers and cities inside the Dome, and while not being an apocalypse in the full sense, this is what I interpreted as the incident warranting the description “post-apocalyptic”.
Before you begin your journey throughout the Dome, however, you of course have to create your character in old RPG-fashion. You can create a character from scratch, choose one of the presets or edit a preset. You will also be choosing a “Wing” which is basically your assignment within the CRONUS corporation, or “class” as some games would refer to it. When it comes to gameplay options for your character, you can build it with attributes (e.g. strength, charisma), skills (e.g. light weapons, speech), traits/perks and abilities.
I chose to explore the character creation system fully, and found that there were often not enough options to make your character look quite like the profile picture in all cases. There may of course be more options added later. It would also be neat if it contained a zoom function when changing facial features. A big plus is that all skill point calculation methods are presented, but a few of the attribute references are to an inexistent attribute, for example “Looks” is stated, when it is actually “Charisma” which is the name of the attribute. References are also incomplete sometimes, for example the “Psyche” attribute fails to point towards the “Science” skill even though it’s clearly affected. Finally, it would be nice to see how the current skill value is calculated from all sources, for example perks, equipment, allocated skill points, tag skills and so on, not just the base. I like that skill points not only add to proficiency in performing certain actions, but also add active and passive abilities to your arsenal. There are a LOT of abilities to unlock, and this provides endless ways to progress and develop your character. Personally I’m also excited by the fact that the skill point icons and descriptions include many references to modern day memes.
After finishing the character creation, you descend into the Dome, and the prologue and tutorial starts. The tutorial consists of getting five tasks done, including gearing up and trying out a combat simulator. At this stage the game does a good job of teaching you the most basic elements and mechanics, while not having to worry too much about what to do next, since the path is very linear and labelled. After the prologue, the world becomes infinitely more open, and you are free to explore almost anything, while the main quest is kept quite linear in act one. The tutorial may feel a bit short to some. For example, the game does not teach you about upgrading equipment, or everything you can do in the inventory. Personally, I am happy to discover this myself without being handheld or nagged all the time. However, I do think the game could benefit from a bit more explanation of the CAERUS (in-game menu and databank).
Combat is tactical and turn-based, fueled by action points. A difference from similar games is that you can bank action points to the next turn, and even improve this ability by gaining more points in the “Saved AP” skill. Interestingly, there is also an optional trait that can remove this skill altogether, to get more “initiative” as compensation. You will be using your action points to perform anything imaginable during combat, including movement, opening your inventory, and using skills. Skills provide another layer to tactical combat, because instead of being overpowered and overcosted, they are often weaker than regular attacks, but provide other types of advantage, for example an enemy debuff. Otherwise, there is not much to say about this well-established concept, and why change a winning formula?
The main menu gives off a good first impression. It contains futuristic sci-fi music enhanced by some crisis radio chatter in the background. It sets the mood for what you are about to experience. Otherwise the music is mostly ambient and applies well to the atmosphere of the game. Music and sound effects will be more prevalent during “cutscenes” than anything else. I call them “cutscenes” because they are still images with text, being presented in novel-style, rather than live-action, which is a pretty awesome concept in a game. Graphics are decent for a top-down, they could be better but also much worse, however, I noticed that my GPU produced abnormal amounts of heat when trying to run the game on “High” or “Ultra” setting. I’m no expert but it seems like a thing or two could be optimised to save some hardware. I also have a few quality of life issues. Notifications (quest updates etc.) often come up during dialogue, in which case they are blocked from view and clicking, which kind of defeats the point of having notifications. Finally, why do I need to exit to the main menu before exiting the game?
The game is quite dark and serious, and not much is offered in terms of comic relief, except the meme references already mentioned, or well-written stupidity here and there. Speaking of well-written, the game consists of very vast lore and dialogue. Tooltips and data are readily available by hovering the mouse over words in dialogue, Wikipedia style. The majority of NPCs in cities are named and interactable. If I would change anything about the story or pacing, I think it would be nice to have a bit more pre-incident insight before finishing the prologue. It’s hard to get a grasp of how much actually changed under the Dome while you were ethereal, since you barely spent a couple of days there beforehand. Then again the game does emphasise this fact during act one, so it’s clearly intended and well-written.
The game does a very good job of reenacting the feeling of the post-apocalyptic RPGs of around Y2K. One can tell that the developers have quite a bit of nostalgic love for these games, love which they carefully put into their own creation. I’m looking forward to seeing the finished product and full story. Encased is definitely an exciting and overlooked title that deserves more attention. If you are a fan of turn-based RPG and dark futuristic/sci-fi settings, then Encased is definitely for you, and CRONUS is always hiring!
Victor’s (early access preview) Rating: 4 relics out of 5.
(with a definite 5 out of 5 potential for the finished game).
Many thanks to BopePR for supplying the review code.