I’m in a crowd of gamblers, all craning our necks at flickering security monitors to watch a group of rats scurry through narrow tubes. I had to slip a guard 100 Combonds just to watch the race: She looked the other way while I shimmied down an elevator shaft into a cavernous reactor room, my radiation meter ticking up every second. I’ll have to visit the lab later, but it was worth it. Cherry—a rat I’d heard her owner boast about just before I placed my bet—pips the leader at the post, and I net a tidy profit.
Later, I help an engineer catch a rat that’s nested beneath the floors of a transport bay filled with rusty cars. I consider giving it a new life as a sprinter in the irradiated depths, but it seems cruel. Instead, I stash it in my inventory, and now I’m carrying a rat in a cage around with me as I blast mutated bugs with a shotgun, crack once-genius scientists over the head with an electric baton, and try to figure out why the whole world has gone to hell.
Together Preston and I, as I’ve named him, have completed Encased’s first act. We’re happy to report that despite being nine months from release out of Early Access, Encased already feels like a deep, complex post-apocalyptic RPG full of mini storylines that will easily steal 40 hours of my life. The turn-based combat is entirely average, but I like how vividly Encased creates its world and the social structure within it, before wrapping everything in a shroud of mystery. It starts by explaining its rigid, rules-driven society and ends with me floating through an imaginary world of smoke as the shapes of characters drift around me.
The setting goes something like this. Humans have discovered a giant indestructible dome in the desert, believed to contain invaluable artifacts from an ancient civilization called the Forefathers. The world’s great and good flock to it, drawn by grand visions of what they might find inside—but once you go in, you can’t come back out.
Upon arriving at Magellan, the first stop for dome newbies, it’s immediately clear just how fractured society is. Everyone is classified into one of five jobs: Orange Wing for prisoners shipped in as unskilled labour, Blue Wing for engineers, Black Wing for soldiers, White Wing for scientists, and Silver Wing for financiers. You can feel the weight of the hierarchy, and your registration is a complex administrative process that takes you to every floor of the station.
The role you pick drastically changes your playthrough: as a scientist, I arrived with the aim of researching the Forefathers and advancing humankind. I could’ve equally been an Orange Wing-er in handcuffs, tasked only with my survival. My White Wing status means I can freely roam the laboratory level, and other scientists instantly like me more. But many dialogue options are greyed out, either because they’re only open to other factions or because my tech, criminal or leadership skills aren’t high enough.
That dialogue system provides lots of ways to solve a given problem. When a Black Wing soldier staggers back to Magellan dragging an injured comrade, I can pass a Survival check to help him hang on until doctors arrive, a First Aid check for a more invasive approach, a Dismantling check to carefully prize his armor off, or inject him with a med kit, provided I’ve got one in my inventory.
That freedom extends to whole questlines. I’m offered an apartment on a lower floor of Magellan, provided I can find a stolen watch. I can intimidate a local know-it-all to cough up the culprit, or take a gentler approach and steal some chemicals from the lab for him in exchange for the information. Alternatively, I can find the thief’s dropped ID card and confront them, or turn them into the floor’s security guard. I can even just head upstairs to security HQ and ask the station’s CCTV operator to examine old footage.
Your route is never prescribed and there’s no quest markers, so you actually have to think about what to do next. After your orientation, you’re asked to investigate a missing team at the C12-Nashville facility, and you’re told to speak to a specific person in Magellan’s labs for some extra med kits before you head out. In most games, you’d know exactly where that person was: here, you have to hunt them without the aid of a floating arrow. It immediately made me feel more a part of the world.
The combat is simple and based on percentage chances to hit, which leads to fights where both sides waft aimlessly at each other with baseball bats. But planning for combat is fun: Every consumable, from pot noodles to steroid pills, grants you a different stat boost. My Deftness is too low for my favorite baton weapon, but coffee boosts it, so I spend every spare moment in canteens and kitchens, hunting caffeine.
I’d like to see more ways to get past enemies without resorting to weapons. You can stealth past turrets using ventilation shafts, but most of my last two hours of Encased’s first act (two more are coming by the end of Early Access) were spent shooting enemies with shotguns or mashing them with my trusty baton, gulping down coffee and munching noodles between battles. The combat isn’t satisfying enough to sustain that, and I would’ve loved to talk myself through these situations, or at least program some security turrets to do the hard work for me.
Encased could also do with a key for highlighting objects you can interact with so you don’t miss anything (that ID card was tricky to spot). The dialogue has a fair few typos alongside some awkward turns of phrases, too. But on the whole, Encased is remarkably polished at this point: the quests I played all worked, and worked intuitively. The ending, without spoiling anything, was vague enough to leave me with plenty of questions, but concrete enough that I could start forming theories about the strange goings-on around C12-Nashville. I'm looking forward to finding out if I'm right as Encased finishes development.