Encodya review: A girl and her robot

by VR Lars
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Encodya is the latest title to enter the cyberpunk dystopian future – and it certainly won’t be the last, we’re probably entering a bit of a renaissance era for the theme – but this is no big, bombastic tale of espionage and the dangers of body modification. Those elements are all there, of course, ticking away in the background, hinted at quietly and not so quietly. Encodya is a story about a little girl and a big robot, doing their best to survive in the grim future city of Neo – Berlin.

This is an old-school point n’ click. You’ll get about fifteen minutes in before your pockets are full of enough random garbage to kit out ten high street charity shops, and in all honesty that’s actually kind of cool – these games are usually so heavily streamlined now that you can’t really pick up genuinely useless junk. There’s lots of time spent traipsing back and forth between maps wondering why the hell the default walk speed is so goddamn slow, and it’s definitely not an experience that’ll grab you by the throat from the start.

Encodya’s atmosphere shines the brightest, sure to appeal to cyberpunk lovers and game art enthusiasts.

You navigate the world swapping freely between street urchin Tina and her hulking robot protector, Sam. Their personalities are simple, but in a short and sweet sort of way – the story doesn’t worry too much about nuance, adopting the duo’s viewpoint of solving the problem that’s ahead of them. Sam is a particular highlight in his stoic, determined care of Tina, and the story really hits all the right notes with him. I found myself walking around as Sam, swapping only to Tina when the situation demanded it, but maybe that’s because everyone loves a big friendly robot.

You have to spend a fair bit of time soaking in Encodya’s Blade Runner-esque, saxophone-dominated ambience before the adventure’s charm really starts to wriggle in. As mentioned back at the start, the typical cyberpunk themes are all here. They’re alluded to in subtle hints of corruption, addiction and technology dependence, and shouted from the rooftops with a megaphon. Neo-Berlin’s mayor is a small, plump orange-haired man named Mr. Rumpf – hardly sneaking that one by anyone, are they?

It’s unclear whether or not Encodya is being snarkily self aware – there was a moment of sincere pause when I rifled through a bin in search of something to eat and was awarded with a “cyber-lasagna”. It’s either an ironic joke or a clumsy attempt to reinforce the theme, and the line between the two is so thin it’s getting modeling contracts for Paris Fashion Week. If this sounds negative, it’s really not meant to be – it all does come together to form a very individual breed of endearing charm.

Vote for Mr. Rumpf! I’m not sure what they’re trying to say here. Some sort of George W. Bush dig?

Encodya has a surprisingly cute approach to the bleak, evil corporation-dominated future we’re all inevitably careening towards. There’s almost a Pixar goes cyberpunk vibe to it – while the towering buildings and neon-lit back alleys are suitably grim, the characters are rounded and cartoonish. The world is gorgeous, with that handcrafted quality that made the classics that came before it look so distinctive even now. The biggest criticism of Encodya‘s audio-visual elements is probably the voice acting – it’s not bad, exactly, but it’s just entirely unnecessary.

The uneven voice acting essentially just highlights some of the writing’s overall wonkiness, chipping away at some of the polish and cheapening the emotional potential of its storytelling. It also shoehorns references into the dialogue hard enough to break an ankle, at one point bellowing out “DARUDE – SANDSTORM” completely out of nowhere for no reason whatsoever. There’s nothing wrong with the odd pop culture reference here and there, but it does kind of undermine the story Encodya wants to tell. If they’d just killed the voice track, these little blips wouldn’t grate as much.

Less dialogue and more of Encodya’s implied storytelling would have elevated the game into a much more thoughtful experience.

This does leave interactions with the world around Tina and Sam feeling a bit clumsy, and a major gripe is the writing’s desperation to make goofy comments when it should be organically building the world, guiding the player to the next piece of the puzzle. It just feels a bit like Encodya keeps getting in its own way, and the inherently sad dynamic of the protagonist’s relationship doesn’t get any time to settle in. The game is a serious passion project, a genuine attempt to create something original and fantastical, and the world around the characters shows that on pretty much every level. It just needs to shut up once in a while.

If you’re a lover of classic adventure games, Encodya is worthy of your time. It’s a little rough around the edges, and the writing is hit and miss. These problems don’t undermine the heart at the game’s core, which is evident in every neon-lit, litter-strewn alley Tina and Sam stroll through. This is a story that should be heard – it might take a little while to get its hooks in, but it’s a good time when it does.

Encodya is out on the 26th of January (tomorrow, at time of writing). Check it out on Steam here, and take a look at more of our game reviews here.

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