So it seems that I’ll be dusting off the old “videogames are like buses” analogy again. For fans of cyberpunk RPGs (and those eagerly anticipating CD Projekt’s game of the same name), the next couple of months are looking pretty rosy with Deus Ex: Mankind Divided heading to consoles and PC next month and not one, but two cyberpunk RPGs coming down the feeds and onto your consoles. First up, we went to Mars with The Technomancer, and you can read the full review here (TL:DR: it’s a Spiders RPG with all of the joys and problems that entails). Back on Earth, things have become decidedly old school in the best possible sense for Dex: Enhanced Edition–the inevitable console port of Dreadlocks’ 2D RPG that was originally released on PC last year after a successful Kickstarter campaign.
Taking the genre’s tag line of high tech, low life pretty seriously, Dex pitches its tent firmly in the Ghost in the Shell/Matrix camp as players take on the role of the mysterious titular character, Dex. She’s the latest in a long line of Kusanagi (the protagonist of Ghost in the Shell) clones, who soon finds herself on the run from a shadowy organization whose motives are unclear, but unlikely to be good. Luckily, she finds shelter in the slums of Harbour Prime, running errands for a group of seedy gentlemen that promise to keep her safe in return for services rendered.
Figuring out what to do and where to go next in the vast warren of slums and high-rises that make up Harbour Prime can feel a little bewildering at first, as there are no objective markers in Dex, and there’s an awful lot of stuff to do and people in need. Fortunately, the game has a detailed quest log containing all of the details you’ll need to make it from A to B. This comes in extra handy should you miss a vital piece of info (like where to go next) during some of Dex’s lengthy exchanges. Not absolutely everything is contained within this quest log; at times, the way forward can also be found in your notes or occasionally by examining items in your inventory, such as looking for the code to a safe or how to successfully operate various pieces of machinery.
Despite the lack of objective markers being a little awkward at times (as we’re so used to them now), the amount of sleuthing involved fits the genre nicely, and it’s great to play a cyberpunk game which sees players do some actual detective work for a change. Likewise, the neon lights and dank alleys of Harbor Prime feel like something straight out of a Gibson novel. The divide between rich and poor has never being wider, despite the vast leaps in technology. Junkies in the slums are forced to sell every part of their bodies just to get by, while corrupt CEOs sell out whole neighborhoods for a few stock points. It’s a grim and depressing world, but, like the best cyberpunk settings, one that never seems too far away from a cynical future reality.
It wouldn’t be a cyberpunk game if you didn’t get to do your fair share of hacking. As you would expect, it is a powerful tool used both in combat to overcome defensive shields as well as break into computers and networks to gain valuable information. In an interesting and (as far as we know, unique) touch, Dex’s hacking mini game plays as a twin stick shooter, with players literally destroying firewalls by taking out their power sources while dodging waves of enemies in a similar vein to Geometry Wars.
Dex likes to keep its morals firmly in the grey, and as such allows you to complete objectives in numerous ways. Do you help a hobo and have him give you a key to the next area, or simply beat the guy half to death and take it from him? Or perhaps you ignore him entirely and pick the lock, or just take an entirely different route around? Though it might initially seem that you can simply get by with a limited range of skills, if you want to see everything the game has to offer (and complete all the quests), it’s best to try and balance your character as best as you can, with your augmentations and upgrades ultimately being more a matter of priority rather than creating a specific build. This might annoy some who want to play a more focused character.
Lock picking is a great place to start, as it allows you to access locked rooms and break into safes to get precious loot and information. Upping your shooting skill helps you to make short work of groups of armed enemies, while if you want to access those hard to reach places, you’re going to need the higher jumping augmentation.
Combat upgrades are also incredibly useful, mainly due to Dex’s stealth system’s being rudimentary at best and absolutely useless at worst. Basically, if you’re lucky enough to get behind an enemy without being spotted, you can perform a takedown. However, there is no way to sneak up on them. Instead, you have to lurk behind a bit of scenery and hope they wander past. This rarely happens, and as a consequence, it is far easier to simply run in and punch the buggers until they fall over. Unsurprisingly, though, your most useful and important abilities all revolve around your hacking stat, which enables you to turn off cameras to avoid alarms being raised, make sentry turrets target enemies, and access computers and networks to steal the valuable info contained within.
You can also stun enemies during battle by hacking them. This is achieved by tapping L3 during combat, which overlays the standard hacking game onto the world around you and lets you interfere with things in the vicinity. It’s fairly simple, really (at least to begin with), and you just need to fill a progress bar by shooting the enemies while dodging incoming fire. Time stops while hacking, so you can theoretically stun an entire room’s worth of enemies mid-combat, so long as you have enough energy to complete the hack.
That said, you’ll spend most of your time using your fists, with combat following the same tune as a basic brawler–blocking, dodging and countering. Initially, this mostly revolves around holding the block button, or dashing out the way with the right stick and then mashing the attack button until your foe is unconscious. However, as you level up and add a few augmentations, you’ll gain access to extra moves that make things a little more interesting. I would suggest increasing damage whenever you can, as it makes combat a lot faster and a lot more bearable than simply chipping away at a foes ever-increasing life bar.
Every augmentation and ability you gain in Dex is hard won, and you really don’t start out as a badass at all. You have to fight to become one. When the game starts, you don’t have any augmentations, and you can’t even hack. Like Neo in the Matrix, you spend most of the game’s earlier sections running from shadowy figures who are far more powerful than you.
Dex eventually comes into contact with a legendary hacker named Raycast, who hooks her up with the augmentations she need to survive and teaches her how to hack, which turns out to be something Dex has an innate talent for. This allows players to buy upgrades and unlock new abilities, some of which initially are far more useful than others. As is the case with most tales like this, Raycast has big plans for Dex, and much like Deus Ex and The Matrix, the story does get a little too predictably messianic by the end. It’s still an intriguing enough yarn, and the world of Harbour Prime is one that is rich enough to want to explore every inch of.
If you’re up for a grim cyberpunk adventure that hearkens back to 16bit greats such as Shadow Run and Stalker, you’ll have a great time with Dex. It’s an interesting blend of brawler, platformer, RPG, and twin stick shooter that tells a cracking tale in a high-tech world full of lowlifes. And in a cyberpunk narrative, you couldn’t really ask for more than that.
Dex: Enhanced Edition was reviewed on PS4 with a copy provided by the publisher.
Developer: Dreadlocks, Ltd. | Publisher: Dreadlocks, Ltd., Techland | Genre: Action Platformer | Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One, WiiU | PEGI/ESRB: 16+/T | Release Date: July 08, 2016