Let me just start by saying that when I first saw Dex, I thought it would be right up my alley. As a big fan of the cyberpunk genre, I have spent an ungodly amount of hours playing Shadowrun games (specifically the Sega Genesis version). So when I saw some gameplay footage of Dex with its 2D side-scrolling, gritty futuristic setting that caused me to flashback to my shadowrunning days, my curiosity had been peaked enough that I knew I had to get my hands on a copy. Not only that, but it also had all the hallmarks of the aforementioned series; RPG elements, quests, and cybernetic enhancements! I am a skeptical person by nature, however, so as I was loading up the game I was tamping down on my enthusiasm as not to let myself down when it inevitably failed to meet my expectations. Turns out that it was an unnecessary precaution. Dex delivers an excellent and engaging experience in a satisfying cyberpunk world that fans of the genre will feel right at home in.
Dex takes place in the distant dystopian future where cybernetic enhancement is the norm, in a city that goes by the name of Harbor Prime. The titular character, Dex, is forced to flee for her safety from a group of mysterious and powerful individuals that are only known as The Complex. Guided by an equally mysterious and powerful hacker named Raycast, she seeks out Decker; an elite ex-hacker, to help her bring the fight to The Complex and discover why they are hunting her. The story starts out strong but eventually peters out into the usual sci-fi trope of an all-powerful AI being used to control the world. The multiple endings are pretty basic, too. They mostly amount to a single choice being made at the end of the game and result in a short, unsatisfying ending. But where the ending falters, the journey there is where all the fun is to be had.
Harbor Prime is a large place with plenty of things to do. Once you get past a certain point in the beginning of the story, you are free to wander around and explore as you see fit. You can adhere to the central story missions, or you can find one of the many eccentric NPCs that offer up sidequests to provide you with money, experience, and other useful rewards. For the most part, the voice cast and dialogues are quite good, but some characters are just so damn annoying (I’m not naming names). I like the multiple choice options and the fact that some quests can be solved in different ways. There are plenty of vendors located around Harbor Prime that can sell you the goods you need; guns, consumables, hacking software, even cybernetic enhancements. The freedom to explore the city at your own pace adds a sense of non-linearity that feels natural and fun. Certain areas may be difficult to traverse, due to stronger enemies, sturdy locks, and even the occasional environmental hazard. This does a good job of encouraging players to come back and explore again once they acquire the proper skills and equipment needed to sniff out all of an area’s secrets. This is where the fast travel comes in real handy. You can easily fast travel to any section of the city that you have already visited via your menu, provided that you are not in a combat situation.
The combat takes on a free and easy approach, much like the rest of the game. It caters to a multitude of playstyles so how you want to handle each situation is usually up to you, whether it be stealth, hand-to-hand, guns blazing, or a mix of all the above. The hand-to-hand combat is handled well, which is a good thing since it is probably what you’ll be using in most situations. I like that Dex can block, dodge, do combos, and learn some special moves to top it all off. The melee mechanics were meatier than I was expecting, to be honest. Whenever Dex gains a level you are awarded skills points to distribute as you see fit. She has a plethora of handy skills that offer immense benefits and generally make your life easier. Putting points towards the melee and ranged categories enhance your combat capabilities in those areas while increasing the endurance category gives you extra HP and allows you to install more cybernetic implants. There are non-combat related categories too like lockpicking, charisma, and barter. Be warned: there aren’t enough skill points to learn everything so choose wisely. When I beat the game I was level 17 and I bought every item in the game that grants you an extra skill point when used and I’m still missing some skills. Once a certain quest is complete, Dex will have the option of purchasing cybernetic implants from Dr. Niles. These offer you incredibly useful buffs, but you are limited by your endurance level as to how many you can have installed. Some of the more important implants to acquire let you jump higher, breath in gas without dying, and traverse electrically charged paths without taking damage. So we have a futuristic city, we have cybernetic implants, what else do we need for a good old-fashioned cyberpunk romp? You guessed it, hacking!
There are two ways of hacking in Dex so we’ll take a look at the more traditional version first. Manually hacking into certain terminals initiates a hacking minigame. You take control of a glowing sphere as you traverse through the computer network from a top-down view. You navigate through obstacles while fending off attacks from the network that come in the form of countermeasures with various abilities such as stunning you or sucking you into their damaging attacks. Taking damage depletes your focus meter. Once your focus meter is fully depleted you are ejected from the network and you suffer damage to your HP bar. Most of the time, your objective involves getting to a node at the end of the area and activating it. The second form of hacking is a special ability unique to Dex alone. It is called alternate reality hacking or AR for short. Dex can activate this at any time to pause the game and take control of the glowing sphere. Controlling the sphere, you can then hack into various objects in the world, mostly cameras and turrets, and shut them down. If you level up the appropriate skill, you can even use it to stun enemies. I found the turret and AR hacking annoying at first, but I started enjoying it a lot more once I leveled up my hacking skills.
The world of Dex is presented in some mighty fine-looking 2D pixel graphics, though the character models have a slightly grittier look to them than the backgrounds do. Adds an extra bit of charm, I suppose. The environments of Harbor Prime vary between crumbling, graffiti-covered slums to the higher class districts, resplendent with their neon-sign covered buildings. And of course, you can’t have a proper video game with a cyberpunk setting without some sweet synthetic tunes to go along with the look. And here you’ll find it in droves, as the soundtrack is composed of an interesting mix of synth-laden orchestral tracks that can go from foreboding to future-funky in a heartbeat.
Despite suffering slightly from a lukewarm story, Dex hits all the right notes for me. A glimpse into a dark dystopian future where people are enhanced beyond human means through the use of cybernetic implants. Secretive, all powerful organizations ruling from the shadows. Satisfying RPG elements and skill progressions. A quirky cast of fully-voiced characters. Non-linear gameplay and a city to explore as you please. All these factors combined have assured Dex a spot on my list of highly recommended cyberpunk material, among the likes of Johnny Mnemonic and Shadowrun.
*Note: A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final Score: 8.5/10
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