Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Review: The Encephalon

Title: The Encephalon
Developer: Deckiller
Genre: RPG
Program: RPGMaker 2003

The Encephalon was developed alongside entrants to Shinan’s recent “One Room” contest, although it wasn't entered in the contest, which was a contest were developers tried to create a game that took place in a single room within a 72-hour timeframe. Technically, The Encephalon fits the bill as the bulk of the gameplay takes place within a computer server that is stored within a single room but, because the world stored on this server has several rooms, it would be pretty unfair to compare The Encaphalon with games that were entered into the contest. Still, despite this game not quite fitting the rules for the “One Room” contest, we have to recognise that finishing a game in 72-hours is a difficult thing to do and take this into consideration when playing the game…

… but the only way that this game really shows it was made in 72-hours is with its use of the default graphics that come bundled with the RPGMaker 2003 program, the so-called “runtime package” or “RTP”. I don’t really consider this a problem since the graphics are actually used really well, but people who are tired of seeing the RTP are going to have to take this into account before playing this game.

Anyway, with that slight disclaimer out of the way, let’s get into what this game is actually about, the titular “Encephalon”:

In the game’s “real world”, the Vector company has developed a machine called the “Encephalon” that is able to take the “souls” of dead humans and copy them into one of many “virtual worlds”. People live forever in their chosen “virtual world”, which is considered a form of “heaven”, but this process is only available to those who can afford it. Hackers, supposedly annoyed about the cost of the process and the controversial development of a “virtual hell” that could be used to punish criminals, implant a virus into one of the Encephalon’s “virtual worlds” that starts to erase souls from the Encephalon. As a result, you – scientists who work for Vector – are sent into the machine to try and rid the world of the virus.

The way this is turned into a traditional RPG is quite clever. By making it so that the "virtual world" infected by the virus is one that reflects everything stereotypical about a JRPG (all the customers for this particular "virtual world" probably played one too many JRPGs in their lifetimes...) and by making it so that the “virus” is symbolised by the appearance of “monsters”, Deckiller cleverly enables the use of a typical JRPG gameplay. Essentially, JRPG style battles become the method of choice for destroying the virus that is infecting the Encephalon.

Make sense so far?

In my opinion, it’s a really well-thought out scenario that allowed the developer to make use of the most readily available tools and resources, something that is vital for a 72-hour development timeframe (Deckiller states that the game was made with only 15 hours of work!) More importantly, though, it is a scenario that allows for an entertaining experience and ensures that the storyline is fairly gripping. There isn’t much to the game, it only takes an hour or two to complete, but this setting manages to keep you interested throughout.

Unfortunately, the dialogue doesn’t match up to how good the setting is and, as a result, the interplay between the characters you control is nowhere near as gripping as the backdrop. The main reason for this is that the scientists you play as are fairly unlikeable, but it’s also because their conversations with scientists outside of the Encephalon (in the “real world”) are really jarring. There is never any indication of when your characters are talking amongst yourselves and when they are talking to the “real world” scientists and this makes the “real world” scientists’ interjections seem really random.

Another bad thing about how the relationship between the "virtual" and "real world" scientists are portrayed is that, because you rarely ever see what is going on in the “real world”, you don’t get a feel for how hard their job actually is. This means that the changes they occasionally make to the “virtual world” your characters are in seem forced and also means that you end up thinking “why couldn’t they have done that sooner?”

None of this really detracts from the game too much (although it is definitely something I think could be looked at for the sequel), because it’s the gameplay that is the true focus when you’re playing The Encephalon. Well, not so much the out-of-battle gameplay because a lot of the out-of-battle gameplay is exactly what you’d expect from a generic JRPG and The Encephalon doesn’t really do anything special in this respect: It is the in-battle gameplay that is the true focus when you’re playing this game.

This is because the “real-time class change” system that Deckiller has implemented, a system that works in a similar way to the “paradigm shift” system in Final Fantasy XIII, works really well. By allowing you to change class whenever you want, the game makes sure that battles, especially boss encounters, aren’t just space-mashing affairs. Because most enemies have massive resistances and weaknesses, the game ensures that you always have to pay attention and that you always have to be changing classes to end battles quickly. For example, if you come up against an enemy that is resistant to magic then you're going to want to switch to a party with more fighters, or if you come up against an enemy that uses a lot of magic then you might want to take advantage of the mages higher magic-resistance. It’s a simple system, really, but I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the battles in this game because of it (it does help that they're superbly balanced as well!)

And… well, there’s not much more to say about this game. A lot of what it does is generic because of the limited time-scale that it was developed in, but I don’t think people should let that put them off. For the one or two hours you need to put into this game, what you get is a solid experience supplemented by an entertaining battle-system that makes battling a real pleasure. It's a shame that the dialogue isn't up to scratch but it really didn't bother me that much; the battles were enough to keep this game fun!

“Behold, a game that took 15 hours to make” is the first statement that you see at the top of The Encephalon’s gamepage, but it doesn’t really show when you play the game. This game goes to show that, if you plan properly and maintain your focus, you can achieve a lot in a small timeframe. 7/10

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