That’s one Dexy lady!
When watching a trailer for Dex, the first thing that came to my mind was the classic early nineties run-and-jumper Flashback, with the 2D platforming and futuristic setting. However, when getting into Dex, I quickly found out it was infinitely – and excitingly – more ambitious. It’s surely no coincidence the game’s title sounds like Deus Ex said really quickly, as Dex combines retro 2D stylings with an open world, a cyberpunk setting and a full RPG-like character progression system. Dex, our titular blue-haired hero, starts the game staring out over the neon jungle of Harbour Prime, pondering “what-to-dos, who-to-bes”. When the opening cutscene finished and she’d leaped out her window onto the rooftops, fleeing from a sinister, world-spanning conspiracy, her story seemed full of possibility. My fingers were poised above the keyboard with eagerness to see if Dex would become what it was seemingly destined to be: a brilliant harbinger of a new type of game.
Dex really seemed to nail the cyberpunk ambiance from the moment it started with gorgeous hand-drawn backgrounds and big, well animated sprites. The backgrounds are far from static either, with bystanders walking along the streets, cars racing along the bottom foreground. Cut-scenes come in an attractive, lightly animated visual novel style. The soundtrack is really outstanding, with thrumming techno overlaid with haunting vocals that fluidly raise and drop the tempo when action stops and starts.
When I dropped into my first combat, everything immediately felt fluid and responsive. In no time at all, I was dodging around chain-wielding gangers and armoured super-soldiers, peppering them with sweeps, punches and flying kicks. Platforming sections are fun too, and rolling past pistons or jumping over chasms. If you pick up a certain augmentation later on in the game, Dex can perform incredible super-jumps allowing her to access a fair few semi-secret areas on isolated balconies and sections of crumbling floor.
Writing is very hit and miss in Dex. I did love how earnestly Dex threw itself into presenting the type of cultural melting pot you’d expect to find in its cyberpunk world. Right from the start, you’re meeting characters from a variety of races and religions. There’s plenty of interesting characters like the Russian homeless hacker Georgij who waxes philosophically while explaining his plan to hack the cities’ vending machines. On the other hand, there are a few rather cringe-making characters like the Chinese hacker Tony who gifts us with such excruciating lines as “What the chicken chow mein is going on?”.
This is a world where exploitation and corporate intrigue is rampant, and you’re empowered to decide if Dex is a caring character or a cynical one. Though choices are often a clear cut case of being greedy or being altruistic, they’re always compelling. Since there’s so many cool implants that open up opportunities for exploration or improving your character, greed is certainly a tempting option.
The quests weren’t just a simple matter of following waypoints to the next thing I needed to kill either. I actually had to use my brain once in a while! I definitely admit I got a deep sense of satisfaction out of finding some crucial information allowing me to extort more money from a PMC defector or locating a drug dealer to provide an “antidote” for a combat drug an upcoming boss was using. With the investment of a few experience points, talking your way past your problems is often a edifying alternative to punching them in the face. There were also fun puzzles to solve such as using clues to crack safes and start up reactors. Not only do quests usually give the player some interesting decisions to make, they reward exploration and experimentation on the player’s part.
It was only somewhere around the middle of the game that the rose-tinted ocular implants I was viewing Dex through started to flicker. Dex’s greatest strength is just how ambitious it is, but this is also the game’s greatest weakness. Many aspects of the game feel awkward and undeveloped.
For a start, gunplay is a major disappointment. In Flashback, you could draw your gun and smoothly roll into combat, dispatching an opponent with a few well timed blasts. Dex automatically has you holster your weapon whenever you move, not allowing you to redraw your weapon until Dex has finished whatever movement animation she’s doing. Unless you can find one of the rather scarce “cover” points (which even then are cumbersome to use) gun-fighting becomes a rather dispiriting exercise of you and your opponent unloading rounds into each-other, with you tapping the hotkey for a healing item to keep yourself alive. Any thoughts you might have of Dex ducking and diving around enemy fire – popping off carefully aimed shots in-between – are dashed.
The hacking mini-game is a significant part of Dex. After interacting with the terminal you’re infiltrating, cyberspace is visualised as a classic top-down, scrolling shooter where you zap insectoid-looking viruses and other deadly looking computerized countermeasures to your intrusion. While traversing the virtual ether, you can enjoy reading private correspondence, stealing money or doing important questy things like opening doors to another part of a level. Unfortunately, hacking isn’t quite the dramatic cyber-duel you might hope it to be. There are more than a few exploits to be found in the levels (such as sneaking around corners to zap turrets with no risk to yourself). If your avatar “dies” in cyberspace you’re penalized with a measly and easily recoverable 50 HP in real-world damage, allowing you theoretically unlimited attempts at jacking back in to try again with no loss of progress. Deus Ex: Human Revolution had a more complex hacking mini-game where failure was far more consequential, and it’s just far too easy in Dex by comparison.
Dex has a touch of Abe’s Odyssey about it (with Dex’s cyberspace avatar hovering around the screen replacing physic farts) with the ability to enter Augmented Reality. You can brain-fry your opponents, paralyze them and leave them vulnerable to attack, all while time is frozen and your physical body is safe. AR is a surprisingly simple matter of spamming attacks on a firewalled enemy until they’re vulnerable and clicking which attack programs to use while viruses creep towards you. It’s very repetitive, and though it can give you a very slight edge in upcoming fights, you can’t do anything really significant or fun like mind-controlling an opponent to attack his allies. It doesn’t help matters that the ability takes an age to recharge between uses either. AR felt more like a easily forgettable gimmick than an integral or enjoyable part of the game.
Augmented reality, as it happens, is a very good way of deactivating the many security cameras dotted throughout levels. Though this just leads me to another flaw in the game. When security cameras detect you, an alarm goes off, but other than an annoying klaxon ringing out, there doesn’t seem to be any actual consequences. On more than a couple occasions, I got spotted by a camera, but no re-enforcements came running, and I was able to perform stealth takedowns on enemies continuing to obliviously patrol nearby. Stealth is another gameplay element that’s been implemented in a bit of a half-arsed way.
Dex tries to combine many disparate genres and gameplay styles in a straddling attempt so epic it’s like Jean-Claude Van Damme doing the splits between two moving trucks. Unlike the light beer promoting Frenchman though, Dex ends up pulling its hamstrings and toppling to the unforgiving asphalt below, with an overall experience that can’t really reconcile its many elements into offering a balanced challenge. Dex is a lot like its titular protagonist at the beginning of the game: good-looking, fun and spunky, but not yet having the self-understanding to live up to her full potential. Though Dex herself comes to transcend her limitations through cybernetics, Dex the game will probably have to wait for a sequel to really transcend the sum of its disparate parts.
Final Verdict: 3.5 / 5
Available on: PC (reviewed) ; Publisher: Dreadlocks Ltd; Developer: Dreadlocks Ltd; Players: 1; Released: May 7, 2015 ;
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of DEX provided by the game’s publisher.