Encased: A Sci-Fi Post-Apocalyptic RPG (PC) Review

Encased: A Sci-Fi Post-Apocalyptic RPG invites you to take a trip beneath the dome from which you may never return. Does it possess the gameplay complexity and divergent narrative to stand alongside the best in the genre?
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Encased: A Sci-Fi Post-Apocalyptic RPG – developed by Dark Crystal Games and published by Prime Matter – is an isometric, narrative-heavy, choice- and skill-driven RPG made for fans of classic CRPGs. That said, it’s not without modern sensibilities and impenetrable for new players. The Fallout inspirations are obvious, but the gameplay experience is closest to 2014’s Wasteland 2 or 2020’s Wasteland 3, with elements of both the narrative and gameplay inspired by the Roadside Picnic novel and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games. You could argue it sticks too close to its inspirations, but it nonetheless provides a complex gameplay experience and a new world for fans of the genre to explore.

Encased begins in the alternate retro-future of 1976, as your character – ideally customised from scratch – descends into “the dome”, a mysterious object discovered 5-years prior. The multinational CRONUS Corporation has developed research laboratories and workforce towns beneath the dome to collect “relics” with inexplicable powers that are brought to the surface. However, leaving the dome is lethal to any living thing, so people go in with the knowledge they’ll never come out. As you’d expect from any power-hungry corporation with total information control, the snazzy brochures that lead your protagonist and many others to enlist gloss over several caveats.

Those who sign a contract are assigned to one of five “Wings”: scientists and research assistants make up the White Wing; those with a military or security background, the Black Wing; those with managerial or leadership backgrounds, the Silver Wing; engineers and construction workers, the Blue Wing; and finally, the Orange Wing consists of convicts trading jail time for a life under the dome as labourers. The Wings represent a gameplay preference but the levelling system is still flexible.

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This will not end well.

Your arrival at Concord Station beneath the “Spire” – the only link to the surface – kicks off a lengthy prologue that serves as a microcosm of things to come. You’ll be assigned a priority task and head north towards one of the most secretive research stations. Without spoiling too much, you’ll get a glimpse at corporate bureaucracy, the tension between Wings, the true state of settlements within the dome, and the threat of poorly understood hazards. Despite the best attempts by corporate PR, CRONUS clearly has little understanding of the dome and the relics within it.

Your early journey ultimately puts you into contact with a previously unknown “mega-anomaly”, triggering a massive maelstrom that cuts the dome off from the world. Two years and several weird dream sequences later, you emerge from the ruins into a very different world. Any semblance of order has collapsed, the Wings have fragmented and incorporated into new factions, animals have mutated, and it’s now clear the dome is no passive, inert phenomenon.

Chasing unclear visions, you traverse the wasteland, looking for a way to control the maelstrom and possibly escape the dome. This kicks off a multi-part quest that’ll take you to all corners of the dome and put you into contact with the new factions. How you chose to interact – assuming you have the skills, of course – could involve bringing them together, picking a side and wiping out the others, or simply turning them on each other and picking through the scraps for what you need.

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The dome is a big place, with multi-zone faction settlements, simpler secondary quest locations, and plenty of random events to stumble upon.

When it comes to the basic gameplay loop, Encased doesn’t deviate wildly from genre norms but it offers up a degree of complexity that places it among the best. The mostly linear prologue is a great example as you could invest anywhere from 3-6 hours getting through it depending on your character build and approach (and discover a half-dozen entertaining ways to perish within the first hour). There are unique reactions and dialogue checks dependant on the Wing you’ve chosen, side quests that highlight the importance of attribute and ability scores, basic survival meters to manage (think fatigue, hunger, radiation – their intrusiveness dependent on difficulty), and a primary quest that typically presents three or more ways to progress each step.

As would be expected from any good CRPG, this opening sequence immediately gave me choice-based FOMO. I went back and spent an hour with the character creator, marvelling at the number of interconnected, attribute-based skills, the numerous milestone abilities, and the massive perks list. Ultimately, I decided to create a charismatic and intelligent Silver Wing candidate – a morally flexible, jack-of-all-trades with a preference for non-combat solutions and reliance on companions to do the dirty work (I’d recommend investing in one combat skill to minimise frustration in the early game).

With that done, and the prologue behind me once again, it was time to traverse the sprawling dome. You move from location to location across the map, following primary and secondary quests, helping out or dooming communities, dealing with random encounters, and keeping everyone rested, fed, and hydrated. Encased does a great job of ensuring events offer plenty of variety. Some missions require combat, others can be solved through exploration and stealth, some are best tackled with dialogue checks, while others still are brief text-based sequences that feel like a choose-your-own-adventure book (especially when your choice leads to your unexpected demise).

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So many skills, all of them useful, yet so few skill points…

Aside from your starting attributes – which affect genre staples like maximum health, resistances, carrying capacity, initiative, action points per round, and skill points gained per level – you can put points into “combat” and “applied” skills every time you level up. Combat covers your different weapon types and contraptions (powerful, single-use items you can find or craft), while applied covers your proficiency in medicine, science, tech, influence, criminality, survival, and piloting (which includes the ability to wear servosuits a.k.a. power armour).

In Encased, each milestone you reach in a skill unlocks up to four passive or active abilities. These could be new combat, dialogue, or situational abilities; a passive buff to another skill tree; a perk that makes companions more effective in combat; or a flat bonus to faction reputation. However, many are dependent on multiple attributes and previously selected perks, so it’s rare you’ll have access to all of them immediately.

This combination of skill checks, abilities, and perks, and how they affect your progress through the world, enemy encounters, and quest objectives, are the lifeblood of any good CRPG.

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The lengthy prologue does a great job of demonstrating how many solutions there are to any given quest objective. This degree of complexity and freedom persists throughout the adventure.

Looking beyond your starting build and level-up choices, you can equip gear, weapons, and consumables that provide a boost to attributes, resistances, and some skills. However, these are often pricey or come with negative effects (like chemical addiction). With the right skills and plenty of scavenging – and there’s an absurd amount of junk you can collect – you can craft and improve your own gear instead.

The aforementioned artefacts are rarer than gear, but they provide much larger bonuses if you’re willing to deal with the negative effects. You’ll find many of these relics off the beaten path, but to get close you’ll need to circumvent or discharge – with a bolt, of course – deadly small-scale anomalies.

If that all sounds overwhelming, you’ll be happy to know there’s still the opportunity for basic role-playing – no skills or perks required (and, if you’re hoarding cash, bribery is often a convenient “skill”). There’s even a toggle to hide unavailable options during dialogue if you find the constant reminder of alternate possibilities too much. How you respond to other characters, which objectives you prioritise, and decide who to help, all have a big impact on the narrative and there are several mutually exclusive quests. Even the short prologue sequence gives you the chance to establish first impressions with several important characters – influencing their future responses – and you alter the state of a few future locations.

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Returning to places you visited in the prologue or meeting up with characters from Concord Station highlight the impact of your earliest decisions.

When faced with openly hostile characters or mutants, stealth is a powerful ability all players have access to and can be used to avoid combat or commit crimes like theft and hacking. Enemy vision cones and their maximum detection range are always visible, the detection timer is generous when performing actions and moving at a distance, while patrol paths can be disrupted if you need to create a space to slip through (the alternate use for bolts). If stealth or dialogue fails, or just isn’t an option with a bunch of mutants, the combat is serviceable.

Encounters follow the classic turn-based formula, with character attributes determining the turn-order and the number of action-points available, yet it feels simple in comparison to its peers. Actions – movement, shooting, activating abilities, and consumables – all have an AP cost to consider. You can break line of sight by moving around obstacles but there is no dedicated cover system or need to flank. Your chance-to-hit changes based on weapon type, range, or abilities. There are explosive barrels and traps to avoid or utilise. Companions are entirely controllable, with skills that expand your tactical options. There’s even offers a non-approach that requires dropping your foes “fatigue” to zero.

Unfortunately, combat often feels like a simple numbers game, with your party and enemies trading blows until one falls. That said, there are abilities that disrupt enemies, preserving AP gives a defence bonus, and there are often out-of-combat actions you can take before engaging to skew the odds (such as gaining the high ground or inflicting damage in advance). You can, of course, create a tough-as-nails, damage-dealing build, and murder your way through combatants and non-hostile NPCs alike – and still discover clues that trigger the primary quests – but it feels like the combat was never the primary focus. Worth noting is that attempting to play solo all but demands you invest in two combat skills to account for various enemy resistances, limiting your access to non-combat solutions.

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There are, of course, abilities and contraptions that can stun or disrupt enemies but combat lacks the tactical elements of other CRPGs – think cover and flanking. My first attempt at taking over Magellan Station went poorly.

When it comes to the presentation, Encased looks great from afar, 90% of the time, and always nails the atmosphere. Sure, if you zoom in close or scrutinise each location, you’ll spot low-resolution textures and clipping objects but, on the whole, Encased offers up a distinctive art style, atmospheric lighting, and a heavy post-processing pass. Better still, the performance was solid on my 4-year-old gaming laptop. 1080p/60 was attainable at “ultra” settings with an i5 8300H CPU, 4GB GeForce GTX 1050ti, 16GB DDR4-2400 RAM, installed on a SATA-III 6.0Gb/s SSD (a VRR monitor handled minor dips).

The voice work and narration for key dialogue is good, though I eventually turned off the narrator as this flavour text drags out the already verbose conversations. Action-based audio – think combat sounds, explosions, and activated abilities – felt serviceable but unremarkable, whereas the ambient audio and unintrusive soundtrack are both excellent, bring each location to life, and contribute to the atmosphere. The soundtrack was the highlight, complementing each location or combat encounter, yet never dominating the experience.

A final aspect to touch on is the partial gamepad support. It works well enough when traversing environments and engaging in combat, but feels unwieldy when trying to select specific items, dealing with pop-up menus, or navigating the inventory. It relies on the bumpers and triggers to highlight on-screen shortcuts that are then assigned to face buttons. Encased could benefit from the increasingly common radial-menu approach used in other console CRPG ports.

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Although some areas look a little less polished than others, Encased is a good-looking game back up by excellent ambient audio and soundtrack. Remember… they’re servosuits, not power armour!

Now nothing is perfect, and there are several elements of Encased that feel a little jarring or underdeveloped. Moving from the dense but linear prologue into a sprawling post-incident dome is a sudden change of pace and spike in difficulty. Finding quest objectives or area exits can be difficult in crowded maps. Companions have relatively little to say and few interactions outside of their dedicated quests. The morass of crafting components feels overwhelming in contrast to the limited gear variants. Navigating the detail-heavy menu screens could be more intuitive.  

The minor gripes add up over time but fans of the genre should know they’re still in for a treat with Encased: A Sci-Fi Post-Apocalyptic. Its alternate history premise, central mystery, divergent narrative, skill- and choice-driven gameplay, and stylish presentation all make it one of the best examples of modern CRPG. It may stick a little too close to its inspirations and offer few novel features, but it’s releasing into a genre that’s far from crowded. As such, a new setting to explore using classic mechanics is always a positive. For those with a passing interest, there is a “story” difficulty mode to trivialise combat and the impact of survival meters, but this remains a dense and complex game that requires a considerable investment of time and concentration.

A review code for Encased: A Sci-Fi Post-Apocalyptic RPG was provided to Gameblur by the publisher.

Encased: A Sci-Fi Post-Apocalyptic RPG (PC) Review

Encased: A Sci-Fi Post-Apocalyptic RPG (PC) Review
8 10 0 1
Encased: A Sci-Fi Post-Apocalyptic has a few minor issues but fans of the genre are in for a treat. The alternate history world, central mystery, divergent narrative, skill- and choice-driven gameplay, and stylish presentation make it one of the finest examples of a modern CRPG. At worst, you could argue it sticks a little too close to its inspirations and offers few novel features, but CRPGs are hardly a crowded genre these days. A new setting to explore, using classic mechanics, still makes for a great time.
Encased: A Sci-Fi Post-Apocalyptic has a few minor issues but fans of the genre are in for a treat. The alternate history world, central mystery, divergent narrative, skill- and choice-driven gameplay, and stylish presentation make it one of the finest examples of a modern CRPG. At worst, you could argue it sticks a little too close to its inspirations and offers few novel features, but CRPGs are hardly a crowded genre these days. A new setting to explore, using classic mechanics, still makes for a great time.
8/10
Total Score
  • Story
    8/10 Very Good
    You've got a great premise, interesting characters, and multiple outcomes for both main and secondary quests. The only downside is a few throwaway quests that exist for reputation boosts.
  • Gameplay
    9/10 Amazing
    Complex and utterly engaging for fans of the CRPG genre. There are so many ways to solve quests, navigate tricky dialogue, or survive combat encounters. That said, those with a casual interest may find it too involved and slow-paced.
  • Visuals
    7/10 Good
    There are some rough edges if you look closely but, on the whole, it looks good and nails the atmosphere throughout.
  • Audio
    8/10 Very Good
    The sounds of combat and basic abilities may be unremarkable, but the voice work and narration are quality. The ambient sounds and soundtrack are both excellent and intramental to bringing each area to life.

The Good

  • Deep character creation with immediate repercussions
  • Complex, interconnected gameplay systems that ensure there are always several ways to progress any quest
  • A divergent narrative that can see you unite the factions or destroy them all and go it alone
  • Solid visuals, great atmosphere, and an amazing soundtrack

The Bad

  • Stays true to its inspirations with few novel features
  • Several minor gripes add up over time
Total
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