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Encased is a post-apocalyptic role-playing game from first-time developer Dark Crystal Games. The premise for the game involves a huge dome suddenly appearing in a desert in an alternative version of 1971. Humanity takes it as a sign from the "forefathers" -- or maybe God, or maybe aliens, who knows? -- and they band together to explore it. Interestingly, the dome is filled with odd and valuable relics, and while these and other inorganic items can be transported out, people, once they enter, are stuck inside, making the dome sort of a Human Motel. So only volunteers and criminals are used to investigate the phenomenon.
Your character enters the dome in 1975. Shortly thereafter, an "Incident" occurs, and the dome is cut off from the outside world. The majority of the game then takes place two years later, when the people stuck inside the dome have created their own rules and societies. But during this time there is still electricity and plumbing, and there isn't any nuclear fallout to worry about, so while Encased is labeled as post-apocalyptic, its apocalypse is pretty friendly.
The first thing you do in Encased is create your character. You're given some options for faces and hairstyles, but since the game is played using an isometric view, this is the only time you're likely to see your character close-up, and so your appearance doesn't really matter. More important is your choice of a portrait, since you'll see that all the time. Encased comes with over 40 portraits for you to choose from, and if you don't like any of the default options, then you can create one of your own. Nicely, Encased uses roughly the same setting and exactly the same portrait format as the most recent Wasteland games, so finding custom portraits is easy.
Next up, you have to choose your "wing." The residents of the dome were divided into five wings when they were admitted, based on their planned role. The wings include Black (guards), Blue (mechanics), Orange (criminals), Silver (administrators), and White (scientists). Oddly, despite the Incident and the resulting chaos, people have stayed with their wings and still wear their colors. For you, your choice changes some dialogue options and quests, and it gives you a unique starting bonus. For all intents and purposes, your wing is your class.
You also have to choose your attributes. These include Muscle, Perception, Guts, and more -- or basically Fallout's SPECIAL attributes with some renamed and Psyche thrown in for good measure. You're given 37 points to spread around the eight attributes, and you have to be careful here because you're not given many ways to increase your attributes during the game. Attributes determine a lot of your starting stats and skill levels. For example, your health is based on your Muscle and Guts, and your Medicine skill is based on your Brains and Charisma.
There are 14 skills in total -- seven for weapons (there are seven weapon types, including light weapons and melee weapons), and seven for social and environmental situations. As you increase these skills, you gain access to new attacks and subskills, like Lock Picking (gained from 30 points in the Criminal skill), Resuscitation (gained from 90 points in the Medicine skill), and Weakening Strike (gained from 60 points in the Melee Weapons skill). You receive skill points each time you level, based on your Brains attribute.
Want more? There are also perks, which you gain every three levels. Perks give you nice bonuses in a variety of areas. For example, you can choose things like Backstabber (bonus damage when attacking from behind), Heavy Sleeper (increased resistances for 24 hours after sleeping), and Observant (extra skill points each level). There are around 80 perks available, pretty much guaranteeing that you'll find something useful to pick.
And finally, you can choose a trait. Traits give a bonus and a penalty, so you have to decide if the former is worth the latter. Traits include things like Neanderthal (you do more close quarters damage, but you can't wear pants or a shirt), Penitent One (you're more skilled, but you take more critical hit damage), and Slacker (you receive two extra perks, but you gain fewer skill points per level). Traits are optional, so if you don't find one that you like, then you can pass on them.
If you've played Fallout, then Encased's character system should sound familiar since it's almost identical, just with new names and a few new ideas. Fallout's system is one of my all-time favorites, so I didn't mind seeing a clone, and Encased's system works well enough. The main difference between the two is that while Fallout had a level cap, Encased doesn't, so it doesn't force you to make as many important decisions. In fact, since you gain experience for doing just about anything in Encased (including crafting, exploring, looting, killing, questing, and even sleeping) it's easy to learn everything you want, plus a few things more. Players usually prefer uncapped systems, but I think Encased would have been better off with a cap.
While you're exploring in Encased, you can meet six people who are potential companions, and you’re allowed to have at most two of them with you at any one time. Companions are mostly only battle helpers -- their contribution to the story is minimal, and I didn't detect anything that resembled a romance. You can equip your companions, but they choose what to do with their skill points, and they don't earn any perks, so you're stuck with their default builds, which means you can't tune them to work better with your character. As a result, your character has to do most of the heavy lifting, both inside combat and out.
Encased is played using an isometric view. You left-click for most actions, including moving, looting, and attacking. When there are multiple things you can do with an object -- like talking to, pickpocketing or attacking a person -- then left-clicking performs the default action and right-clicking brings up a context-sensitive menu where you can choose the option you want. The camera can be rotated and zoomed in and out, but you can't change the pitch, so you can't play the game using a quasi over-the-should view.
Most of the game is played in real time. This is where you walk around, talk to people, and explore the dome. The dome is comprised of a large, circular grid. The diameter of the grid is 30 squares, giving lots of space where you can find cities, abandoned research stations, odd bunkers, and more. There are also random encounters, but the game runs out of unique ones quickly, leaving you with a plethora of trash fights and wandering merchants. Luckily, with the right skills you can identify and skip encounters if you want to. You start out the game on foot, but eventually you find a vehicle, which makes exploring easier.
While you're exploring, you have to survive, which means you have to eat, drink and sleep. Since Encased is based on a friendly apocalypse, this usually isn't too difficult. For example, since the plumbing still works in the dome and there isn't any need to purify water, you can drink from any sink you stumble across, and there are lots of them. Food is more interesting, since it involves crafting edible items from the creatures you kill, or buying supplies from vendors. Plus, food gives bonuses -- sometimes good, sometimes bad (I'm looking at you, flatulence) -- so you can use it to help you in different situations. But sleeping ends up being a problem. Just about everything you do causes fatigue, and enemies can damage your fatigue as well, so you have to sleep a lot to keep your character in peak condition. This is easy -- you can camp at any time to rest and recover -- but it's a constant drag away from playing the game. Luckily, while companions have to sleep, they don't need to eat or drink, so there's no hassle in keeping them around.
When you loot enemies and containers, you find lots of crafting components. With enough skill, these components allow you to craft meals, ammunition, healing kits, grenades, and more. The grenades in particular are important because early in the game they're way more powerful than your weapons, and they allow you to survive tough fights until you can build up your character. Crafting requires special crafting stations, but you can find them all over the place, including in all towns.
For weapons and armor, you mostly only find them being sold by merchants, which means you have to sell the stuff you loot from enemies and containers to buy the stuff you need (which isn't my favorite way of gathering equipment). Characters can wear nine items, including power armor -- oops, a "servoshell" -- and they can equip two weapons. Weapons and armor have a level. You can upgrade weapons to increase their level (using crafting components and weapon manuals) but you can only improve your armor by buying better versions. You can also equip up to five relics, but most of them have pluses and minuses and aren't worth the trouble.
Finally, you're given a scanner early in the game, and it allows you to catalogue new and unusual items. For a while, I thought this was how I was going to learn about the dome (similar to how X-COM uses research to teach you about aliens), but sadly the scanner isn't nearly that interesting. Scanning just earns you points that you can redeem for healing supplies -- which you might not even need since the Medicine skill makes most of them unnecessary. I bought one item with my points just to try out the system, and then I never bothered with them again. Still, scanning earns you experience, which is always useful.
When you run into enemies, Encased switches to a turn-based mode. Each character involved in the battle gets one turn per round, with the order being determined by their initiative. Characters get a certain number of Action Points (AP) for their turn, and they can spend them by moving, attacking, using skills, or using inventory objects, each of which has an AP cost
As you learn weapon skills, you unlock new attacks. So assault rifles gain burst modes, bladed weapons can cause bleeding, and blunt weapons can stun. There are also "high-tech" and "psi-glove" weapons, which essentially give the game a form of magic. These weapons can burn or freeze -- or explode heads. Most weapons can also damage fatigue instead of health, giving you a way to knock out opponents instead of killing them (for all of you pacifists out there). So there are lots of options for how to attack enemies.
Unfortunately, the rest of the combat engine isn't as great. You can deal extra damage when attacking from behind, but I didn't notice any benefit to flanking or attacking from height. There isn't any way to use cover. There isn't any way to draw aggro. You can't wait to take your turn later in the round (although you can end your turn early and save some AP for your next turn). So you attack and move, and that's mostly it, making combat feel sort of basic.
Combat also has some balance issues, especially in terms of sneaking. Sneaking isn't tied to any skill, so anybody can do it, and once you select perks and build up skills to take advantage, you can one-shot enemies without their compatriots noticing anything amiss, making battles almost trivial. But until that point, battles can be rough, especially early in the game. Combat seems like it was tuned with a full party in mind, so after completing the Prologue but before finding companions, the game can be rough sledding. My first time through, I didn't know what to do early in the game and was constantly frustrated. Now I know you should visit the towns and complete social quests -- and loot tons of containers -- and earn experience that way first.
There are also relatively few enemy types: "undead" creatures (afflicted and necroids), animals (cockroaches, rats, wolpers and hyenas), robots, and people (usually bandits). That's it, and you see them all well before the halfway point in the game. Worse, almost all of the fights are random trash fights, so combat gets repetitive quickly, and there aren't any boss fights to liven things up. This is an area where Encased needs a lot of work.
The campaign for Encased allows you to explore the interior of the dome, which is big enough to house multiple cities. So you get to travel around and meet people and complete their quests, all while learning what life is like inside the dome. What you don't learn is what the dome is or why it appeared. The dome is just the world you're in, and that's it. This sort of annoyed me, but maybe it's just as well. Sometimes speculation is better than the explanation.
Developer Dark Crystal Games took an old-school approach to the campaign, which features a lot of elements that were more common around the turn of the century. At one point you have to collect the Five Special Objects so you can Do Something Important. At another point you have to Gain the Trust of Each Faction so you can do Something Else Important. There is only minimal branching of the quests (mostly you only choose one faction or wing over another), and most quest givers disappear or cease to have an important role in the game once you've completed their task, meaning it doesn't really matter what you choose. There's also an arena sequence (a one-time requirement for all RPGs), and a Towers of Hanoi mini-game (which wasn't new even when it appeared in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 20 years ago). If you're old like me, then the campaign might feel a little familiar, but if you're younger then maybe it'll seem new and different.
Even with its familiar feel, the campaign for Encased starts off well. The Prologue is detailed and well written, and it gives a good introduction to the game, but then the further you advance into the main part of the campaign, the more threadbare it becomes. The main factions aren't really fleshed out, so it doesn't matter who you support. There aren't any good guys or bad guys, so there isn't any emotional hook to keep you playing. There are huge cities where you can meet dozens of people, but most don't have anything interesting to say, and if you talk to all of them then maybe you only find a side quest or two. There are dozens of computers and telephones that you can interact with, but they just have placeholder text. And there are hundreds of containers to loot, but most just contain crafting components or nothing at all. The problem is, slogging through all of the people, computers and containers takes hours, and there's rarely a payoff, which turns the campaign into a chore rather than a fun enterprise.
As an example, during the Prologue you can find some tricky and amusing ways to "accidentally" kill yourself, like taking a nap in a coffin and getting incinerated. There are five ways to do this, and each one earns you an achievement, plus an extra achievement for experiencing the full set. But the game as a whole only has 44 achievements, and most of them are for stuff you're almost guaranteed to do (like getting your first kill and completing the game). Almost all of the optional achievements are from the first half of the game, and most of those are from the Prologue. There's just a complete lack of detail and content once you get past the halfway point. I don't know if Dark Crystal Games simply ran out of time, or if they were taking their inspiration from Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader, but the quality of the game deteriorates badly after the fine start. Hopefully Dark Crystal Games can fill in the gaps in the future -- and not with paid DLCs.
Overall, Encased is a functional but less-than-exciting RPG. The premise is fine, the engine is fine, but there isn't enough content to support the campaign. Developer Dark Crystal Games has released a handful of patches since the game's release a couple of months ago, but so far they've only fixed some minor problems, and it's not clear if they plan to do anything major (or if they even agree with my assessment that there isn't enough content). Encased has a mid-range price point, so it won't cost you an arm and a leg to try it out, but if you're interested in turn-based post-apocalyptic RPGs, then there are numerous better ones out there, like Underrail and Wasteland.