Encodya is a cyberpunk point-and-click adventure for the current age. It comes to us courtesy of ChaosmongerStudio, with Assemble Entertainment as publishers. While boasting a gorgeous visual style and an intriguing world, it also stumbles under some lackluster gameplay and themes. Read on for the full Encodya review from VeryAli.
First things first, Encodya is visually stunning. It takes place in 2062 Neo-Berlin, where corporations, corrupt politicians, and the media control everything. In this bleak world, most citizens seek escape in cyberspace, an almost identical version of the real Neo-Berlin. The only difference: in cyberspace, (almost) anything is permitted.
You play as Tina, a nine-year-old orphan whose father abandoned her, and whose mother died from a cyberspace overdose. Tina’s only companion is SAM-53, a clumsy, well-meaning robot who follows her wherever she goes. That even includes an adventure to save the city.
The world of Neo-Berlin is a confusing one. Anyone who knows the real Berlin will struggle to find similarities. The two obvious exceptions are the TV tower and Brandenburger Tor, the city’s “ancient gate.” Considering Berlin’s current reputation for progressive openness, this seemed like a strange choice. Even after the story’s end, I still didn’t quite see the point.
On the other hand, the city, such as it is, is also an intriguing place. Bladerunner-style neon signs flash at you through the gray. But rather than German or English, most of these signs are in Japanese. As you progress through the storyline, you will learn snippets of history that go some way to explaining these peculiarities. These do a nice job of enriching the game’s world.
All of this is done via a striking art style, which the game’s creators describe as Studio Ghibli meets Bladerunner. Against the realistic backdrop of the concrete jungle, the game’s characters all look hand drawn and cartoonish. It is an effective contrast, lending Neo-Berlin’s people an endearing side as they navigate their miserable daily lives.
The game’s effective world-building stems not only from the visuals but also the sound design. Right on the title menu, you hear a haunting synth track reminiscent of, well, Bladerunner. This becomes the dominant tone of most of the game’s soundscape.
In a slow game like this, you may spend a long time simply standing around figuring out puzzles. As such, the soundtrack is necessarily going to loop (much like the character animations). Fortunately, it’s subtle and simple enough not to be intrusive, even if it is, by default, rather on the loud side.
Then there are the areas that have their own local music, like the German-Japanese-fusion restaurant. Rather than replacing the background music, these tracks simply play over the top of it. The result is a veritable cacophony of jingles and synths. Perhaps this was an intentional part of the dystopian urban aesthetic, but while these moments were rare, they were truly unpleasant on the ears.
The voice acting is also a mixed bag. The two leads, Tina and SAM, are a delight. Each of them will offer their own take on what’s happening around them, often with wry humor or charming innocence. One might wonder why they have to be American when the rest of the cast is so diverse in its accents, but this is more of a missed opportunity than a major issue.
The other characters can be a bit hit and miss. Some, like Eku, the cyber dealer you meet at the beginning, sound oddly stilted in how they present their lines. Furthermore, some of them have truly strange accents. The game’s tutorial is voiced by what sounds like an Australian trying very hard to do a convincing American accent. To an Aussie émigré like me, this was hilariously distracting.
Given Eku’s equally amorphous pronunciations, I thought this might be a subtle hint about Neo-Berlin’s diverse future. Yet after I met the rest of the city’s denizens and their various accents, this seemed increasingly unlikely. Again, while not a serious issue, these moments do detract a bit from the game’s overall presentation. If they’re meant as a joke, they are delivered too seriously to work as such.
A Point to the Clicks?
As with all video games, visuals, presentation, and sound all mean nothing without solid, engaging gameplay. I admit that I did not play many point-and-click adventures back in the 90s. Yet even without the comparison of true classics like Monkey Island, I found Encodya‘s puzzles rather lackluster.
It’s a fact that most point-and-click games rely on at least a modicum of moon logic. This includes things that made sense to the developers because they thought of it, but to nobody else. While the game’s puzzles and their solutions never made me shout “What?!” they also didn’t make me nod in quiet appreciation of their wit.
All too often, I found myself taking potshots as I tried to see which items might unlock the next barrier in the story. At others, I just ran back and forth through the areas I had already explored to see where that barrier even was.
Obviously a puzzle game shouldn’t just throw the answers at you, but it would have been nice to see some more clues woven into the various dialogues and object descriptions. This might at least have made the solutions feel less arbitrary when you finally do figure them out.
On the point of running back and forth, this game also has some control issues. Everything can be done with the mouse, with a few keyboard shortcuts thrown in for things like opening the inventory or map, or switching between Tina and SAM. This means that you’ll be clicking a lot (a point-and-click game with lots of clicks, who’d have thought!).
This wouldn’t be so bad if Tina and SAM didn’t move so slowly every time you told them to go anywhere. It’s possible to double click on a destination to speed things up, but if you see an object in the distance that you want to check, you either have to sprint next to it first, or else wait a long time for your character to amble over to it.
Similarly, while you can double click an exit to use it immediately, sometimes you have to move around a bit before the exit even becomes visible. Add to this the fact that the camera pans much more slowly than your characters run. As a result, you sometimes find yourself clicking impatiently on the edge of the screen and waiting for things to get going when you just want to move on to the next section.
That’s So Meta…
A final point that needs discussing is the game’s thematic content. Like most dystopian sci fi, while Encodya may be set in the future, its ideas are firmly anchored the present. It’s also full of homages and references, some cute, some lame.
An opening disclaimer will tell you that the game is not trying to push any particular political message, but wants its players to think about the way media and corporations run our lives. It also has a somewhat pat remark about non-discrimination of identities, which is nice but seems rather hollow in context.
As things progress, you may start to think that disclaimer was a bit disingenuous. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Early on in the game, you meet an electrician who is clearly doing the bare minimum to keep his job. When SAM asks him why he doesn’t expand the scope of his duties, he replies that this would simply mean more work, not more fulfillment. He then quips that his duties are “already making him slip into Marxist existentialism.”
Likewise, if you examine the various cyber junkies dotting the city, you may get a wry explanation that they are seeking escape because only in cyberspace do they feel free… or that, “as someone once said of religion: it is the opium (sic) of the masses.” While not exactly subtle, this does point toward very real concerns about how many of our pleasures and luxuries simply distract us from our day-to-day misery, rather than pushing us to address it.
And then finally there’s Neo-Berlin’s mayor, a huffing blond man of self-consciously small stature named Jonas Rumpf… one guess as to who inspired that one. Still, this reviewer appreciated the joke, ham fisted though it was.
Encodya is a game of high vision that doesn’t quite meet its own goals. While giving us an engaging, mysterious, and beautiful world, it also fumbles its core gameplay loop.
Its sometimes sloppy sound design, unsubtle politics, and plot that, though intriguing, doesn’t quite deliver on its promises, while never game-breaking, only serve to compound its gameplay issues.
Given the attention to detail that went into both the world building and the story (flawed as it may be), this was clearly a labor of love, and it should be commended for that. It’s just a shame that the developers didn’t iron out the puzzles and controls a little more to make a truly great point-and-click adventure for the new decade.
Encodya is available now on Windows, iOS, and Linux.
Summary:Neo Berlin 2062. Tina – a nine-year-old orphan – lives with SAM-53 – her big clumsy robot guardian –in a rooftop makeshift shelter in Neo-Berlin, a dark megalopolis controlled by corporations.
Genres: adventure, point-and-click, Cyberpunk.
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (Review Version), iOS & Linux