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Encased is an Early Access RPG that's worth starting right now

Totally rad

Featured post My character isn't called John! It's a John in the game, I swear.

I have a healthy hesitation when it comes to Early Access RPGs. It almost never seems like the right method to deliver the genre. And then along comes Fallout tribute, Encased, and I’m pretty well converted. While this first playable release of the game certainly has bugs and issues, it offers a hefty chunk of a completely absorbing and intriguing RPG world, that is quite astonishingly deep. And while future updates promise to maintain your progress, I’ve finished the ten or so hours of game on offer here with a desire to start it over anyway, to see how else it could all play out.

I have some hesitations too, and we’ll get to those, but I want to begin by celebrating the setting, with which I’m absolutely taken. It’s 1976, and a mysterious and massive dome has been discovered in the middle of a desert. Seemingly alien in origin, word quickly spreads of a utopian idyll being developed underneath, thanks to the discovery of mysterious relics and other-wordly technology. A corporation – Chronos – forms to take charge of exploration and development, who then begin recruiting people to work within its tiered class system. Which is about the point that new employees begin to discover how much of the previous claims are wild propaganda, and just how out of control the situation really is.

This alternate-world 1970s is such a splendid setting. It usefully limits human technology, while allowing an uncanny atmosphere for both what should be there, and what shouldn’t. With vibes of movies like Logan’s Run and The Andromeda Strain, it captures that peculiar mix of ambition and failure, science fiction optimism versus grim, broken-down reality. The Dome, in its promotional material, suggests this wondrous potential. But when you get there, you find defective bureaucracy, crumbling infrastructure, and a colour-coded class system that is barely holding itself together.

I opted to play as an Orange – the criminal class, required to perform menial tasks in the Dome as an alternative to prison punishment. But I could also have been a Blue, aptly doing blue collar work; a Black, perhaps in security or more middling managerial positions; a White, in scientific research; or a Silver, essentially the upper class. And it’s this that means I’m most intrigued to learn how differently I might experience the story, since so much of what happened to me was dependent upon my being this criminal underclass. Such things can of course end up playing out very similarly, with a few different lines of text, but it feels worth finding out.

The “Fallout tribute” thing is no mere handwave. This is wearing its mutated heart on its sleeve-based computer screen. So while it usefully differentiates itself with its ‘70s time period, it then throws caution to the nuclear wind with giant mutant cockroaches to fight, radiated sections of the landscape, and the might-as-well-be-post-apocalyptic setting of the anomaly-ridden wasteland aboveground, and wild-eyed mutated human threats in the underground domains.

Yet, it works. That’s what’s most key here. The overarching narrative is enticing, entertaining and intriguing. The conflation of propaganda and brutality, the confliction of aspiration and corruption, all makes for classic sci-fi surroundings that feel perfectly out of the last century.

And I especially loved that my character is not the last hope for humanity, or the Chosen One sent to rescue the inhabitants. I’m just some other schmuck, muddling about in the mess, trying to get by. That I’m gradually drawn into the mysteries of the relics and anomalies is not because I’m the only one who can, but because it’s interesting, and it’s there, and no one’s stopping me.

Playing as an Orange also especially helped with that perennial RPG oddity of everyone asking you to do their odd jobs or rescue their loved ones. I was the menial gal, there to fetch people’s missing items, lug laundry around (as part of a drug-dealing network, naturally), and help get cars fixed. It also made more sense of my being willing to get my hands dirty in less than legal activities, and again I’m very interested to find out whether things might be different had I played as, say, a Silver. (Which, it’s worth noting, Sin did, and her perspective is here.)

This remains Early Access, and it does show. Of the skill trees, many branches are listed as “not available in this version”, while plenty others are in. Crafting, which the game clearly wants you to do given the skip-loads of trash and scrap you find in every cupboard and locker, isn’t really there yet. You can make bullets, simple weapons and clothes, and do a bit of cooking – but these don’t use the vast majority of the rubbish you’ll find filling your inventory. Oh, and that inventory – it’s awful, horrible to juggle, and can’t be sorted by weight. And perhaps most significantly, combat isn’t quite there yet.

While the bulk of the game is played as a modern 3rd person RPG, combat is Fallout-style turn-based, as well it should be. But it’s not enormously interesting at this point, not least because the game’s lengthy prologue doesn’t offer you much in the way of weaponry. When the game’s psi powers are properly included, and the more interesting skill options are available, this will all improve. But it still feels too clunky, the technical side not nearly as smooth as during exploration. Plus, the balancing is all over the place, the prologue not offering nearly enough XP from its very many quests to level up to fight some of the enemies.

Indeed, once the ten-ish hours (and this could be an awful lot shorter if you weren’t thorough, and I was super-thorough) are over, you can continue playing in the Wild West of its very empty open world, but I had no desire to because of said combat issues. Guns are far too weak, far too likely to jam, and for some reason my character is embarrassingly incapable of hitting a giant mutated rabbit with a shovel when it’s stood right next to her. Even I could do that. The story-driven elements already shine brightly here, but without those there’s little compelling reason to continue on before the next significant update.

I have a couple of other things I want to raise. Encased makes this odd mistake, and it’s one I can imagine their throwing up their hands at when it’s called out, because at least they tried? In its attempts to include a diverse cast of NPCs, it rather shoots itself in the foot by constantly observing perceived ‘otherness’. So there’s a “Hindu” guard, there’s an “Asian” security officer, there’s a scientist with “dark skin”. But white characters are never labelled as such. They are skinny or muscular or chubby… It has this awkward and incessant effect of declaring by omission that white is “normal”, anything else needs to be labelled. It’s not a big deal, but it really awkwardly stands out, and can be easily fixed by just allowing our eyes to see what colour people are, or calling some of the white people white!

Amongst a fair few typos, there are also a couple of other cringe-inducing moments, like when a drug addict character refers to the possible creators of the Dome, the Forefathers, as the “fag-fathers”. A teeny thing in a huge, otherwise fine bunch of writing, so let’s not overblow it, but there all the same.

Meanwhile, I especially enjoyed the line near the start, that set the tone for an un-Bioware approach:

“Whaddya think, I’m gonna ask you for help and you’re gonna go, ‘Yessir, right away!’ and fix everything? Well, fuck you. Fuck you twice.”

What’s perhaps most impressive is that the bulk of what’s here takes place in a six-storey underground complex, and yet despite the contained setting, feels as rich and deep as any great RPG. Every NPC feels deliberately crafted, and engaging with them is like talking to people, rather than quest-giving robots. In fact most of them have no quests for you at all, but are given colour and detail anyway. The Russian studio is said to be formed by ex-Larian devs, and the impact of this does appear to show on the effort that’s gone into building a world through its inhabitants, as well as its locales. (It’s also nice to note that Larian is mentioned as one of the highest tier Kickstarter backers for the project.)

The plot trundles along at a good pace too, considering this is supposed to be just the beginning. By the end you’re in a completely different area, facing a fresh threat, based on events alluded to beforehand, and it feels like a strong, cohesive RPG world. One I can’t wait to play some more, especially if the combat can be made more interesting.

I went in with no expectations at all, other than a fear that it would be too faithful to the 20 to 30-year old Wasteland/Fallout franchise. I’ve come out of it with a new RPG I feel like I’m in the middle of enjoying, that takes solid inspiration from one of the most loved game settings of all time, but modernised in sensible ways. There’s a great deal of work yet to be done, not least – you know – adding in the entire rest of the game. But this is an Early Access RPG I’m very happy to have started already.

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I tried to leave, but they won't let me. If anyone reads this, please send help.

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