Transcending humanity or descending into banality?
This is a review of the Enhanced Version of Dex. If you want to see my review of the original release, check it out here.
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 under deadly droplets of toxic goo 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 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 bit of a disappointment. In Flashback, you could draw your gun and smoothly roll into combat, dispatching an opponent with a few well timed blasts. The original version of Dex automatically had you holster your weapon whenever you move, not allowing you to redraw your weapon until Dex had finished her last movement animation. This has been partially fixed, as you’re now able to move with your gun drawn, but it’s still not as smooth as in Flashback. Rolling into combat will get you shot a few times more often than not – because it takes a second for Dex to re-draw her gun – though it does at least open the avenue of roll-dodging backwards to reload. There’s still the problem of combats all too often turning into dispiriting battles of attrition, with you and your adversaries just unloading rounds into eachother – while you pause occasionally to leisurely refill your health. It really is a shame, as it wouldn’t have been that hard to put some sort of cooldown on healing items, instead of just letting you spam them from the menu screen.
The hacking mini-game is a significant part of Dex. After interacting with the terminal you’re infiltrating, cyberspace is visualized 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. There are a few exploits to be found in the levels (such as sneaking around corners to zap turrets with no risk to yourself). However, there’s plenty of other types of viruses to give you a hard time – like the giant rotor-blade-twirling monstrosity that exerts a gravitational pull on your hapless avatar. If your avatar “dies” in cyberspace, you’ll suffer a brain-frying 50 HP of feedback damage. You’ll also have to recharge your focus meter with Nuerostims if you want your avatar to have any hitpoints left when you try again. The Enhanced version of Dex does make failure at hacking a fair bit more consequential; adds more deadly viruses to test your cyber-mettle; and makes jacking-in almost as much fun as jacking… well, you know… the other kind of jacking!
Dex has a touch of Abe’s Odyssey about it (Dex’s cyberspace avatar hovering around the screen replacing physic farts) with the ability to enter Augmented Reality. This allows you to paralyze enemies and leave them vulnerable to attack, all while time is frozen and your physical body is safe. AR has been much improved since its original iteration, and is now far more challenging, but also more rewarding. Though enemies remain stunned for longer, you’ll have to fight off swarms of viruses, darting around them while still defending your hacking zone. I wrote in my original review that AR felt like a gimmick, but it has evolved into a more integral part of the game. Still, I found the lack of a Ghost in the Shell style mind-hacking power a bit disappointing.
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 a big 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.
I got to try the Playstation 4 version of Dex: Enchanced Version, and found the controls to be very tight and responsive with a controller. I noticed no major issues with the port other than the menu and dialogue text being a little too small to read on my telly without having to sit right in front of the screen (though maybe I’m just getting old). There are other key improvements in the enhanced version of Dex such as three new outfits that empower Dex in interesting new ways. There’s the Euroforce Battlerig, which turns Dex into a real tank, able to block bullets with her bare hands. The Samio Cyberwear lets you regenerate your focus between attempts at hacking or augmented reality, making you a genuine cyber-god(dess). The Armagear invisisuit gives new opportunities for stealth by letting you fade into the background after a few seconds of standing still. There’s also some extra sidequests to actually earn these pieces of powerful apparel. The enchanced edition also has many bug-fixes from the problematic original release of Dex, and the menus are now a lot more well-organized and less cumbersome. Now I can sell random bits of junk I found on a dead guy in a sewer to weirdo store owners much more easily. Thanks, bug-fixers!
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. The Enchanced version does add a bit of new content, and clear up a few niggles, polishing the flawed gem of the original a little – but not enough to make it a sparkling jewel. 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 many parts.
Having said that though, the Enhanced Edition is enough of an improvement to make me raise my score of the original game from 3.5 to 4. Go on, Dex, have an extra .5 on me. You’ve earned it, you strange, neck-plated woman, you!
Final Verdict: 4 / 5
Available on: PC, PS4 (reviewed); Publisher: Dreadlocks Ltd; Developer: Dreadlocks Ltd; Players: 1; Released: May 7th, 2015 (PC), July 12th, 2016 (PS4) ;
Full disclosure: This review of DEX: Enhanced Edition is based on a PS4 review code provided by the game’s publisher.