Friday, December 8, 2017

Dex (video game) review

    One of the elements which often gets ignored in modern gaming is the indie game. With so much focus on the Triple A games being released every year, those created by smaller studio are impulse buys and "until I have something else to play" at best--at least for most gamers. That means some surprising gems have been overlooked. One of these gems is one I'm going to take a moment to talk

The combat isn't too far from Double Dragon.
    Dex is a side-scrolling Metroidvania best described as "Symphony of the Night and Deus Ex." You play the role of Dex, a blue-haired cyberpunk heroine who is woken up one night by the world's worst assassins. Narrowly escaping them, Dex finds out she is a genetically engineered super-soldier who has a connection to one of the world's two artificial intelligences. This messianic destiny is far off and the majority of the game is trying to survive on the streets of Harbour Prime.

    Harbour Prime is a dirty graffiti covered hellhole inhabited by gangs, prostitutes, and thugs who wander the streets along with ordinary citizens. There's a lot of side-quests available for Dex to participate in from rescuing a young man from sex trafficking, robbing smugglers of cybernetic parts, and dealing with an attempt to patent food so as to force independent restaurants out of business. About 80% of the game is the sidequests and that's a good thing because the main quest is fairly straightforward while the sidequests all have multiple endings as well as different ways to approach. My favorite was an aging pop star dealing with a loony fan and both of them seeing the potential of cybernetic vocal chords to create a new career. You can side with the pop star, the loony fan, or arrange so they kill each other for shits and giggles.

I love Harbour Prime. It's a wonderful setting.
    The writing is the best part of Dex with a lot of lowlife criminal stories that are entertaining as hell. These are the kind of things which Deux Ex: Mankind Divided tried and failed to create convincingly. Ironically, it's the main quest which is the weakest of the stories since choosing to side with the godlike A.I. or the evil corporation is just a repeat of the original Deus Ex (or Neuromancer for that matter).

    The art design for the world is extremely well done. Harbour Prime has all the feeling of a proper cyberpunk setting with horrific bombed out slums, a sleazy Red Light district, and a fantastic district for the super rich. It reminded me a bit of a much-better designed Final Fight and I appreciated the fact you could fast travel between all the districts at will. Despite being limited in graphic budget, the place is well-done with lots of hidden nooks and crannies to explore.

Harbour Prime has a huge amount of personality.
    The voice acting for the game is top notch and there's numerous really well-done cutscenes which make use of art set pieces that give the game a nice comic book feel. All of the game's characters are well-realized from the Americana obsessed gun store owner to the somewhat disgusting cybernetics doctor who takes liberties with unconscious patients (sadly, you can't kill him for this). I was particularly interesting in the brothel madame Lilly who is a subversion of your typical human trafficker.

    The biggest flaws of the game are the fact combat is extremely basic and a broken boring hacking minigame. Even the developers commented the hacking minigame sucks. The RPG elements actually make both harder. For example, you can't kick until you upgrade your melee skill, for instance, and that's just ridiculous. The combat can thus be summarized as punching guys and rolling out of the way of their counterattacks until they go down. Using guns is barely viable as they don't do that much more damage than punching and quickly runs through ammo.

The sleazy elements are perfectly developed.
    The problem with this is the hacking mini-game is the least enjoyable part of the game and feels more like Space Invaders meets Gauntlet versus the rest of the game. It didn't become tolerable until I upgraded my Hacking stat to maximum. The game would have been massively improved by making the hacking game optional or giving some way of getting past them without having to do such a serious gameplay change.

    Dex, herself, is a great character and someone I wouldn't be unhappy to see become the star of a series of games. She doesn't speak much but what she does creates a mysterious and fascinating character. I admit to playing her as a professional thief, lover of prostitutes, and killer with a heart of gold. Others may go for a more heroic build.

Great comic book cutscene art.
    I was fond of supporting cast members Decker, Tony, Richmond, and Raycast. While they could have had one extra female character among the five hackers who form the group opposing the Complex, I will note Dex is the lead. I also like how the game often comments on how Raycast is untrustworthy and yet all the characters trust him--only to be have whether that trust be justified or not revealed in a genuinely surprising way. I actually grew to like all of the characters and cared about their fates.

    In conclusion, Dex is a surprisingly great game which got lost in the indie slush pile. A sequel is unlikely but the Dreadlocks team have continually updated and enhanced the game since its release so perhaps all is not lost. It's kind of funny that a tiny studio in the Czech Republic made such a delightfully cyberpunk game. With CD Projekt Red's upcoming Cyberpunk 2077, maybe there's just something about post-communist life which draws people to cyberpunk.



  1. Off topic but since you are a huge Star Trek fan, what do you think about the rumors of Quentin Tarantino doing a Star Trek movie? Patrick Stewart said he would be very interested in reprising Picard if it happens.

    1. I think Quentin Tarantino knows a great deal about how franchises work from kung fu movies to Westerns. So, I wouldn't be surprised if he would be able to capture classic Trek.