Dex is a blue-haired cyberpunk girl, rudely awoken by the sound of the authorities bashing at her door. She’s guided to safety by a mysterious hacker named Raycast, and over the course of the next twelve hours or so of play time, she’ll explore various locales within the future city of Harbor Prime, and attempt to uncover the reasons behind her would-be assassination. Dex begins with a genuine sense of urgency, as you’re asked to guide our protagonist in her daring escape across balconies and through sewers, but just as quickly it becomes apparent that the biggest obstacles you’ll have to overcome are not puzzles or death-defying rooftop leaps, but questionable game design choices and an overall lack of polish.
The entire game seems to be a balancing act between despair and delight. The first thing I noticed upon starting my time with Dex was the beautiful art style: a sort of hybrid between the garish, augmented future seen in Ghost in the Shell, and the neon highlighted gloom of Blade Runner. The next things I noticed were that the tutorial messages telling me how to control the game were becoming obscured by items in the game world, controlling the titular heroine felt unresponsive and clunky, and the game had stuttered on a fairly regular basis from the word go.
The technical issues you’ll face when playing Dex are far too frequent and intrusive to be ignored. While I didn’t suffer any system crashes in my time spent playing the game, I did manage to get stuck in the game world requiring a reset, suffered untimely deaths thanks to stuttering or slow down, and I became confused thanks to the instructions that the game was relaying to me being too hard to read, or in a couple of instances, stopping mid-sentence and leaving me to guess the rest.
Depending on the level of patience that you possess, the bugs and glitches in the game may be a deal-breaker. But if you’re willing to persevere then you’ll find that there’s a lot to like about Dex buried in the mire. It’s an open-world, 2D action role-playing game that features some Metroidvania elements and boasts numerous potential methods to tackle the various quests you’ll undertake throughout the adventure. You can approach the main and side quests by taking a stealthy approach, or you can go in like John Rambo and not stop punching until everyone is dead. Sometimes you can avoid combat completely, and given how dull the battling is in the game, that should be your preferred option.
Combat in Dex is somewhat reminiscent of old school brawling games, but sadly never manages to feel like more than an unwelcome distraction. You can block incoming attacks – although enemies do possess unblockable techniques that are clearly telegraphed so you’ll know to dodge them – and you can punch and kick by mashing the square button when your opponent drops their guard. Later in the game you’ll be able to take down enemies with guns but given the finicky nature of the controls – mapped to the left analogue stick rather than the d-pad – it takes too long to aim, and you’ll likely end up taking way too much damage before you’ve even fired a shot to justify it as your primary course of action.
Killing foes yields experience, and experience allows you to upgrade your character with various tweaks and perks. The upgrade system seems somewhat imbalanced, with the latter portions of the game becoming far easier than the early stages thanks to a number of overpowered abilities. While ordinarily this would be a point of contention for a game, I found myself exasperated with the combat sections and just wanted to get them out of the way as quickly as possible to advance to the next story beat or conversation, and so you might actually consider this to be a blessing in disguise.
While the world building and characters in the game are largely interesting, the story never quite manages to live up to them. Part of this is down to an over-reliance on tropes and trappings that we’ve seen many times before, but more-so it’s thanks to the wildly broken pacing that cripples any momentum that the main plot might have been able to otherwise conjure. There are precious few main objectives in the game that advance the storyline, and the combat in the game is so unforgiving in the early going that you’ll likely have to take part in side-quests just to gather the necessary experience to make it through whether you care about them or not. The side-quests are often unrelated to the main narrative thrust of the game, and so the time spent grinding for experience actually serves to be detrimental to the urgency that the story should have, and what could have been a shorter but far more interesting sci-fi yarn feels stretched too thinly by the time the credits roll.
There are flashes of brilliance within the story, and amongst the cast of characters you’ll encounter that are worthy of admiration. The city of Harbor Prime features numerous districts that all feel distinct and yet still part of a cohesive whole. This is a game world that feels lived-in and alive, and the various stories you’ll happen upon are occasionally moving and thought-provoking. Perhaps with less of a reliance on combat situations, and with more time spent building upon the lore and the relationships between the characters in the game, Dex could have been a compelling adventure title, rather than a frustrating action RPG.
Dex is a game that is constantly shooting itself in the foot. The world that Dreadlocks has created is beautiful, alive, and compelling enough to want to get lost in, but the barrier for entry is uninspired combat, frequent technical hiccups, and a badly paced story. Frankly, it’s one of the most disappointing games I’ve played in recent memory, not because it’s especially bad, but because it’s got so many attractive qualities that I was left pining for the much better game it could have been.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation Vita code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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