Forty years isn’t a huge amount of time, if you think about it. Yet sci-fi writers are incredibly optimistic about the advances it thinks we’ll be able to make in such a short period. Personally, I’m still waiting for flying cars and individual rocket packs, which have been promised for at least half a century. So, when a game set in Neo-Berlin in the year 2062 promises not just airborne automobiles but full on automatons and robots assigned to you at birth, I’m more than a little sceptical. Who is funding all this tech? We can barely cope with rolling out a vaccine plan for a global pandemic; I’m not convinced that we can line the streets with intelligent robots in four decades. Still, I’m happy to be proven wrong.
In the meantime, Encodya tries to scratch the wish fulfilment itch of anyone longing for a cyberpunk point-and-click. “Tries” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence, because the game, as lovely as it looks, is at best a passable analogue of much better games but with a technoskin. Nine-year-old orphan Tina spends her days scavenging the city for food, parts and, erm, socks, while her robot buddy SAM-53 — assigned to her at birth by the government — pootles along beside her with the aim of protecting her at all costs. Tina discovers that the father who vanished when she was young was actually caught up in some pretty dodgy stuff and buried a message within SAM for her to find when she turned ten. And as quickly as you can say “Help me,Obi-Wan Kenobi”, you’re off on an adventure to find out what he was doing before his mysterious disappearance.
The plot, which takes an age to get going, is pedestrian. Neo-Berlin is ruled by the tubby mayor, Mr. Rumpf, who is definitely not an analogue of a certain recently departed political figure. In cutscenes, he’s reduced to screaming at people (or down the phone) in a German accent. As any writer in the last four years can attest, trying to make satire out of a living breathing caricature is doomed to failure; layering ‘Allo ‘Allo levels of stereotyping on top isn’t going to improve matters.
That said, Neo-Berlin is filled with interesting locations whose backgrounds bristle with hover cars, robot passers-by, and a lot of colourful outfits. The city is grimy and rundown despite the tech on show, and it looks gorgeous despite the overfamiliar cyberpunk vibe. Yet the human element feels lacking. Huge streets are surprisingly empty at the surface level. Characters are relegated to cyber junkies or store owners, most of whom are either annoying or riffing on the names of well-known real world figures, or both. There's an IT geek called Dick Bates who runs a retro computer outlet and my, didn't I laugh at that incredible pun!
As you explore, you’ll see the same inhabitants — a guy with a neon-lit disc hat, a small, repetitive selection of bipedal robots — and they literally walk through each other on the street, or get stuck marching in place. Sloppiness like this detracts from the care that has been taken in building the backgrounds.
The meta jokes thrown in about you being in a game also fall flat. We get it, it’s a point-and-click. The animations are looped. The tooltips explain what a thing is. You’re playing a game. Bringing attention to any of these things without a decent payoff just feels, well, weird. The subtlety of LucasArts is absent here.
Control of Tina and SAM-53 can be interchanged to allow them to finish different tasks. Tina’s small hands can be used to access crevices, while SAM-53 can communicate with robots which Tina hears as gibberish. However, this concept feels significantly underused. Sure, one of them is huge and one is a child, but more could have been done with puzzles other than being able to reach things in different ways, or having NPCs refuse to speak to one or the other of the characters.
Encodya comes in easy and hard flavours of difficulty — which cannot be changed when selected — and the former setting highlights interactive or collectable items as well as giving you hints about what to do next if needed, but the highlighting is wildly inconsistent. A box of RAM in a tech store felt like window dressing until I moused over it. A pair of pliers in a store and a piece of wire on a rooftop blended into the background, even with the helpful “glow”. Even the hint system — which rewards players for not using it — can be gamed by simply saving before asking for one, and then reloading.
Even if you did decide to effectively cheat to progress the plot, it just isn’t that interesting. Tina and SAM-53 are not very engaging characters, and the robot’s Data-like exposition soon becomes wearying. Encodya suffers most of all from tonal dissonance. It feels like it should be aimed at younger players, given the nine-year-old protagonist and the simple dialogue, but the writing is rarely funny and unlikely to engage kids. But neither is it gritty enough for adults to care about what you’re doing or why. You’re sent on a mission to complete your father’s work, but none of the revelations that follow or the explanations surrounding it provide much of a hook. It’s point-and-click by numbers, even if those numbers are lovely to look at on occasion. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the majority of the hokey voice acting.
The puzzles are contained within a limited number of locations and require revisiting characters and areas multiple times. After learning more about the next thing preventing progress, more dialogue is unlocked for characters you’ve already spoken to. Finding a potential solution ahead of schedule (for instance, collecting a capacitor for someone who needs it) is useless if you haven’t first triggered the reason to talk to them about it. Gritting your teeth and powering through the first act does give way to a slightly more engaging experience but unless you’re a fiend for the genre, it’s hit-or-miss whether you’ll find the patience to do so. It might be a futuristic point-and-click, but Encodya feels firmly stuck in the 90s.
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