Czech developers Dreadlocks Ltd. originally released their open world 2D cyberpunk action-RPG, Dex, in 2015 after a successful crowdfunding campaign to mixed reviews, but later updated the game with a better received Enhanced Edition that addressed user feedback and adjusted glitches and quality of life issues. Now, a little over five years later, the enhanced version of Dex brings some much needed synth-laden moodiness to the Nintendo Switch in a concise, 15-hour experience with plenty of variety in gameplay and player choice.
Dex immediately shows you that it isn’t shy about its influences, greeting players with an ambiguous monologue by the titular (soon to be) cyborg character, as she watches over the city of Harbor Prime in a shot and pose reminiscent of the 1995 Ghost in the Shell film, before being chased by a shadow organization called The Complex. The UI’s color scheme resembles the dark, golden urine shadings of the latest Deux Ex titles by Eidos Montreal. The many nods to genre classics and recent hits could be found a bit obnoxious, or make players feel right at home. I found myself in the later camp, simply because we are going through a bit of a quality cyberpunk drought and I am thirsty for augmentations, soft neon glows, and endless hedonism for the right price.
While we’re on the topic of influences, reviews for the original Dex release often described it as a sort of mix between modern Deus Ex’s RPG elements and “Metroidvania” open world platformer level design. I’d say this is mostly accurate. Something that made this game stand out to me is that the approach to combat, while not necessarily deep or fluid, was impressive in its execution of player choice. Even though this is a 2D platformer, Dex does have the option to navigate corporate headquarters or underground gang hideouts using stealth, hiding behind cover, picking locks to loot forbidden areas, using silent takedowns and finding secret air vents that realistically make no sense to bypass groups of enemies. There’s also the guns blazing approach if you want to take full advantage of your cybernetically enhanced, apparently very attractive (the majority of characters in this game mention Dex’s beauty, some offer cunnilingus) body, all you have to do is allot enough skill points to be able to wield shotguns, lasers and SMGs and you can go full Scarface, drugs included.
For the three Streets of Rage fans remaining on Earth there’s plenty of opportunity for hand-to-hand brawling, which I did occasionally find glitchy but not game-breaking by any means. Taking enemies head-on was fun, but it did play a bit like those old Flash games you’d try to sneak onto whenever there was downtime in middle school. For patricians like myself who love negotiation mechanics, there’s special dialogue enhancements that mix up character interactions somewhat too. There’s just enough of a taste of everything in the combat as well as a healthy amount of difficulty to make Dex immersive. There were a couple times during my playthrough where I stopped and realized my capabilities were so different than how they were when I began the game not that long ago. I love that feeling in a game when you return to an old area with all your new skills and weapons and feel obligated to pay homage to that sucker you used to be.
Hacking is going to get its own paragraph because I found this to be the least engaging part of the game. Dex’s hacking mechanic takes a couple pages from modern Deus Ex’s hacking, but it’s mostly like playing a cheap version of Asteroids, which I imagine didn’t cost much to make either. It’s disappointing because this could’ve been the place to try something crazy or new: perhaps have these segments focus on the platforming in virtual challenges or give Dex a rival who tries to counter her cyberspace exploits and they have Matrix fights to the virtual death or something. Anything would’ve been preferable to shooting boxes that make other boxes disappear so you can press X on a circle while you avoid the bad circles. Dex’s hacking served its purpose, but I found myself actively loathing it when I knew there was a big segment coming up.
This gripe aside, Dex’s narrative is also among the best of its peers, even if heavily reliant on genre tropes. In my experience most indie platformers/ARPGs of this caliber, even if story-driven, simply don’t put in the kind of sheer volume of branching questlines, dialogue and exposition that Dex contains. It occasionally borders on visual novel, there’s so much text. This could be a negative for some who value brevity in platformer storylines, but I consider it a strength in what Dreadlocks was trying to accomplish. Items detailed as Dex’s internal monologue are witty and endearing, making her more likeable than she would be if you didn’t know her opinion on toilet paper or condoms, since most of the time she’s a half-silent protagonist. Side characters are helpful, believable in context, talk about each other (more important than you think when attempting to construct a lived-in world), and are quietly connected in the game’s lore if you read into quest items and hacked emails.
These are all good things, but while the narrative ranks high among “Metroidvania” games, I do feel that the tropes hold Dex back a bit here. The main story’s major plot twists aren’t very surprising if you’ve seen basically any cyberpunk movie ever. The overarching themes touched upon aren’t inspired or insightful even though a future wrought with human grief at the interlocked hands of megacorporations and a corrupt government opens so many narrative doors. Both endings of the game were a bit unsatisfying, one more than the other, though I am glad we did have a choice. I wasn’t overly attached to any of the characters in particular, but they weren’t poorly written by any means. In some regards I think Dreadlocks played it safe to make sure the game was marketable. The writing is good in Dex; it just needed a few more left turns. It could just be that I’m expecting too much, but you hate to see a game with so much potential neglect to take every possible advantage of it.
Presentation in Dex is, again, ranked high among its peers. The pixel art captures the retro feel these games like to go for without sacrificing characterization through animation. Backgrounds are lively with club sandwiches, people drinking cold Mexican beer and $10,000-a-night hook-…sex workers. (My bad, go watch Johnny Mnemonic) Oh yeah, there’s plenty of dogs too, which you can’t pet, unfortunately. The Harbor Prime locales themselves are mostly what you would expect in a futuristic world, another downside of the aforementioned tropes, but they’re utilized decently enough in the quests to give them a bit of flavor. The few comic-like cutscenes we get are easy on the eyes (though a bit dark) and are fitting for the game’s scale. There weren’t any major framerate drops, though it can dip a little when you find yourself surrounded by toxic sewage. It also runs equally well in docked and handheld modes. You will have to adjust the audio settings though; the volume of character voices were a bit all over the place.
Speaking of, pun intended, the game being fully voice acted was a huge plus for me considering the amount of reading players will be doing, even though some of the side character performances ended up being campy and stereotypical. Personally, I welcome the campiness with open arms; the less-than-stellar voice acting brought me back to simpler days when video games had nothing to prove and weren’t trying to be The Godfather or whatever popular film that came out within the last five years.
That was a consistent emotional thread I felt while playing Dex: those classic “video game” vibes with modern elements that make it easily digestible such as fast travel, skill trees and the ability to save anywhere, anytime. It wasn’t a movie. It wasn’t trying to sell me new outfits, pre-planned story DLC or XP tokens to skip levels. It wasn’t telling me how to feel about the outside world. It was just a video game about a blue-haired chick and her many augmented orbiters. Despite its shortcomings, I started playing Dex and didn’t want to stop until I was done, not just with the main story, but with every side quest as well, and that says more than I ever could in this already rambling review. This game is a solid foundation to what could be a great franchise should Dreadlocks decide to work on a sequel, and if they happen to crowdfund Dex 2 as well, I’d totally sell all my organic limbs so I could pitch in. All of them.
- Player choice and exploration are high priority
- Layered and tightly written narrative
- Cyberpunk aesthetic is captured well through art, music, character design
- Hacking is frustrating and unsatisfying
- Genre trope overreliance makes it predictable
- Combat, while diverse, feels a bit dated