When a game promises itself to be Studio Ghibli, Blade Runner, and Monkey Island all rolled into one, it’s setting some big expectations! Does Encodya manage to live up to these lofty inspirations, or does it come off feeling derivative and unoriginal?
In Encodya, you play as Tina and SAM-53, a homeless, orphaned girl and her robot, living and surviving on the harsh streets of Neo-Berlin. After discovering that a corrupt politician named Mr. Rumph (not the sharpest political satire I’ve ever seen) is after her SAM unit for something buried in its memory, Tina starts on an adventure that will lead her to uncover the truth about her family and maybe even liberate the people of Neo-Berlin from the tyranny of Mayor Rumph.
Encodya pulls so much from its inspirations that it’s difficult to separate them from the game itself. Let’s start with Studio Ghibli. At the heart of Encodya is the relationship between Tina and SAM-53, and this is where the game is most successful. After all, who isn’t touched by the story of a small child and their robot? While their story hits many familiar beats of this well-trodden tale, it still pulls the heartstrings. SAM’s adoptive-father nature and the love that Tina has for her protector bring to mind a sweeter version of the Big Daddy and Little Sister relationship from Bioshock. The ability to switch between both characters on the fly opens up many puzzle-solving opportunities in the gameplay and shows how their teamwork makes them stronger. Frankly, they’re delightful together!
With Blade Runner, the game holds so close to its visual inspiration that it becomes difficult to differentiate it at times. The very first shot is a blimp flying high above a building; the only thing missing is a voice preaching about the glories of the off-world colonies. The world of Neo-Berlin is as close to Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles as you can get, with Asian inspiration everywhere and neon advertisements lighting up every location. This moody dystopian world does provide a nice contrast to the fun visuals of Tina and SAM running around it, but the setting feels so derivative that it often pulled me out of the game.
Finally, Monkey Island. As an adventure game, Encodya understandably wants to pull from one of the most famous point-and-click games ever made. However, that “inspiration” includes several characters who seem to know they live in an adventure game, routinely breaking the fourth wall. This conceit works in the Monkey Island games because the entire setting of Mêlée Island was satirical. Encodya, on the other hand, is not a piece of satire. It’s trying to tell a somewhat grounded sci-fi story. So when a character says that they are looping an animation to save on resources, it feels dramatically out of place.
Encodya also brings one of the point-and-click’s greatest weaknesses with it: adventure game logic. With the “rub one object against another” nature of the game, there are many, many points where you know what you need to do but can’t get your characters to do it. If something is just out of SAM’s reach, for example, you should logically be able to use the stick in your inventory to reach it. Or maybe Tina could climb SAM to extend her reach. But no, that doesn’t work because it isn’t the pre-set solution to that puzzle. Inevitably, this leads to you using every single item in your inventory with each other, then with every hotspot in the world, hoping that one of them will somehow work. Many of your inventory items are never actually used, acting as red herrings or “secrets,” compounding the situation. It’s tedious at best and frustrating at worst.
The visuals are where Encodya excels and are likely what will draw most people to the game. Once you get past the Blade Runner-inspired setting, you can start to appreciate the design and personality that went into each character. They are animated beautifully, often putting a grin on my face. The hand-drawn 2D backgrounds are stunning and perfectly blend with the 3D characters, to the point where everything looks like one seamless world. It’s a lovely visual style that I hope the developers will continue to use in future games. Mind you, I wouldn’t complain if they made SAM-53’s character model a little smaller next time, as he is so large that he often obscures the scene, other characters, and hotspots.
Encodya’s soundscape is one of its best attributes, but again, still feels entirely unoriginal. It’s primarily a pastiche of Vangelis’ iconic Blade Runner soundtrack, complete with synth and moody noir-inspired melodies. The main issue here is that, while Encodya is visually inspired by the film, there is nothing “noir” about the game. This mismatch in music with the tone of the story was jarring, making me wish that the composer directed their obvious talent towards original tracks that better suited the story and characters, rather than creating an homage to a work that doesn’t fit with the overall tone.
Voice acting is another mixed bag. While the voice actors for main characters Tina and SAM are excellent, others are not as well cast. It’s admirable that Assemble Entertainment managed to snag some professional actors for the cast, but that, unfortunately, makes the non-actors stand out even more. Potentially memorable characters are marred by poor voice acting, actively making you want to end conversations ASAP rather than engage with their well-written dialogue.
As a massive fan of Blade Runner, Studio Ghibli, and Monkey Island, I was let down by the derivative nature of Encodya. What’s most disappointing is that it’s obvious how much care and love went into its development. The visuals look spectacular, the central character relationship is touching, and the developers’ affection for the source material is evident. Unfortunately, the game not only fails to rise to its inspirations but seems to pull from them without an understanding of why they worked in the first place. That said, if you’re looking for a heartwarming story to scratch an old-school adventure game itch, then Encodya might be a good match! Just try not to expect anything overly original.