If there’s one thing I can never get enough of, aside from copious amounts of rum, it would be cyberpunk set videogames that whiff a bit of Blade Runner and Deus Ex. Thankfully then, I can happily report that Dex, from Czech developer Dreadlocks Ltd, not only fills that particular craving quite nicely but that it also happens to be a rather enjoyable experience in its own right.
Running the Blade
In a story that will have fans of The Matrix and William Gibson fiction glued to the TV screen, players are cast as the titular heroine Dex, an on-the-fringe of society hacker type who has been contacted by a mysterious AI that wants to spirit her away from the authorities and set her on a journey of self-discovery.
At the risk of spoiling the overarching plot, folks interested in deep and sophisticated cyberpunk dystopian yarns will find a lot to enjoy here as Dex’s narrative takes our heroine from a rude awakening in her grimy flat to a breakneck odyssey that encompasses all sorts of themes from the singularity to the very nature of the human condition. Indeed Dex herself especially proves to be a likeable lead; uncertain and bewildered at first (not at all unlike Keanu Reeves’ character in the first Matrix movie), she matures as the story progresses and undergoes a metamorphosis into a confident and strong protagonist with ample scope for the player to use dialog and story choices in order to shape her to their own preference beyond these broad character strokes.
From rain-drenched neon-lit streets to high-tech skyscrapers, dingy cyberbars, forgotten tech slums, and just about everything you can think of in between, Dex not only does a good job of immersing the player in all manner of romanticised cyberpunk settings, it also ensures that there is no shortage in location variety across the game’s fifteen hour or so duration.
With a map of many different places to explore, people to talk to, goons to kill, and stuff to loot/hack, Dex ostensibly needs a gameplay framework to pull it off, and while a little rough around the edges, the game manages to give a decent account of itself in this regard. Ostensibly, one of the most interesting things about Dex is how it fuses together side-scrolling platforming, melee and ranged combat, and traditional RPG progression systems to fashion something we really haven’t seen before on PS4.
Starting with the platforming side of things, Dex definitely has the passing smell of Metroidvania about it as the player can leap, climb, and smack enemies of various strength about en route to reaching areas or places that were inaccessible previously. Though the mechanic isn’t as prominently entrenched in the overall game design as other, more dedicated efforts such as Rogue Legacy, it nonetheless feels effective when taken in tandem with other genre elements.
The combat for example allows players to adopt a stealthy approach to avoid foes altogether by dipping into cover wherever the opportunity presents itself or by creeping up on them and using silent takedowns to take them out of the equation. Equally, Dex can elect for a more confrontational approach via melee or ranged methods. In the case of the former, a litany of various fearsome sounding firearms and devices can be used to wreak havoc upon your foes at range; making quick work of one or a group of foes at a time.
When it comes to melee combat however, a far deeper system reveals itself since every enemy has their own attack pattern that must be deciphered, demanding that players master range and environmental awareness as well as possessing the necessary pugilistic acumen to mix up various strikes and combos where necessary. You’ll want to get proficient with the nuances of hand-to-hand combat early too since you will certainly run into fully-armed, gun-toting, and extremely deadly enemies long before you ever get the chance to obtain some prime bang-bang. If there is one knock to the melee combat it would be that the strikes themselves lack any sort of real sonic oomph; the connection of fist and foot to flesh (or metal) is entirely bereft of satisfying impact which feels like a missed opportunity given the otherwise engaging combat system.
Away from such base tools of confrontation, Dex being a cyberpunk yarn centred around hacking means that you can get down and dirty with the ol’ code manipulation. Being able to hack anything from turrets to doors to even hostile robots, the applications for hacking are both varied and numerous throughout the game, it’s just a shame that the hacking mini-game that accompanies many of these tasks is essentially tedium incarnate.
A monumentally simplistic, top down twin-stick shooter, the hacking mini-game in Dex just feels utterly superfluous simply because it just isn’t fun. Guiding Dex’s digital avatar around a maze, players must destroy power nodes to unlock doors to reach information nodes that need to be collected all the while ensuring that hostile trojans and hack-ending black holes are avoided. As well as the grand prize of attaining these precious information nodes, additional loot such as extra money may also be scooped up along the way, though not even the incentive of grabbing extra stuff is enough to lift this mini-game into the realm of the mediocre, let alone that of the worthwhile.
When you’re not leaping about like a madwoman, ghosting fools and furthering the plot you’ll be spending a fair whack of time buried deep in Dex’s progression systems. With precious XP being bestowed upon you for everything from kills to completed quests and side-quests, you’ll be able to parlay these into various upgrades that allow you to focus on a range of skills from hacking to improving your melee and ranged combat talents. This being set in a cyberpunk world, cybernetic implants are a thing that can be used to boost one or any number of different stats, providing yet further opportunity for players to customise their style of play.
The Neon Demon
The two-dimensional pixel-art style that Dex embraces meshes well with the cyberpunk dystopia setting, evoking something that appears to be a marriage of Blade Runner, Deus Ex, and Beneath a Steel Sky but somehow manages to strike that balance of inspirations without ever really feeling derivative. Further enhanced by an appropriately grounded palette that shines with the occasional flourish of neon, Dex’s take on two-dimensional cyberpunk dystopia is the most visually engaging I’ve seen for a long while.
It’s not all shiny trench-coats and happy neon signage however, as the visual veneer of Dex is occasionally blighted by an odd affliction. A slight shimmering sometimes runs up and down the screen which, if it was part of the tech-themed intended art direction, falls somewhat flat in its execution since it appears to be more like a bout of screen tearing rather than some bespoke exercise in artistic flair. Either way, the effect can be somewhat distracting in the early going and I’m pretty sure that the game could do without it entirely.
Dex is not perfect, this much is arguable. Despite, or perhaps, in spite of this fact, the ambition which is synonymous with the melding of so many genres underneath such a well-realised retro veneer is something that should be commended, if not outright championed. Though a few minor flaws tarnish the final product to a somewhat limited degree, the sense of place that developer Dreadlocks has managed to fashion here is palpable and certainly effective at making you crave for more once the credits have begun that inexorable climb up the screen.