Dex is a game I wanted to like, and for the first hour or two, I really did like it. It’s a cyberpunk action RPG reminiscent of Deus Ex and Shadowrun, but that plays out as a sidescroller with some gorgeous 2D artwork. The combination of action RPG staples, light platforming elements, a creative hacking system, and an intriguing world and premise set Dex up to be a refreshing game.
And then it all falls flat. Despite its initial promise, the plot quickly falls into every tired cyberpunk cliche, but it doesn’t even do established ideas justice, let alone introduce any fresh ones. There are soulless corporations, there’s an evil AI, hackers are the world’s anarchistic anti-heroes ready to stand up to the man, but there’s nothing to actually make any of these elements interesting and compelling – Dex’s plot feels like a cheap facsimile of the stories that clearly inspired it.
This is all made worse by bad writing. Dex is the kind of game that wants to be “edgy”, but goes about it in the most pedestrian, juvenile way possible. Sex workers and strip clubs are an uncritical shorthand for “seedy”, you’ll find porn discs and condoms everywhere, and the slums are full of “crazy” homeless people and violent gangsters. Everyone, from the random NPCs you get quests from to the eponymous hero herself, is a cardboard cutout with no sense of character – just a tick in a checkbox for a particular character archetype – so when it comes to dialogue choices and supposed moral dilemmas, there’s no emotional context to give them any weight. To top it all off, the voice acting is awful and the text is too small to read unless you’re sitting right in front of the TV.
This would be forgivable if the narrative was just window dressing for a compelling game, but Dex is far from that. Despite being a 2D sidescroller, there’s almost none of the interesting level design that platformers are built upon, so it’s more of a stylistic choice than anything else. Between unwieldy weapons and bland melee combat, the action element does little to pick up the slack, and the RPG systems are shallow and annoyingly restrictive. Sources of experience and money are finite and limited, but almost every quest comes down to either having lots of money or being sufficiently levelled up in some particular skill, so it’s easy to back yourself into a corner.
What should have been Dex’s saving grace is its hacking system, which involves a minigame that’s basically a top-down shooter on a TRON-like neon wireframe level. Unfortunately, the aiming controls are horrible and the difficulty is all over the place, so anything potentially exciting about it is lost. The icing on the cake is a pointless back-and-forth between your base and whatever you’re trying to hack to restore your “Focus”, which is, essentially, your hacking health.
The one area that Dex does excel in is its presentation. As I said before, the 2D art is beautiful, and reminds me of the work of SNK in their King of Fighters prime. It’s incredibly detailed, with rich shadows giving it a sense of depth not often seen in sprite work; it leans towards photorealism, but without losing 2D art’s unique sense of style. Even better are the hand-painted stills that are used for the game’s cutscenes, with their careful balance between deep shadows and vibrant colours that really makes each piece jump off the screen.
Sadly, gorgeous art doesn’t make for the game’s myriad of other shortcomings. Dex puts its best foot forward early on with some great ideas, but very quickly devolves a banal, painfully generic cyberpunk romp that’s not nearly as edgy as it thinks it is.
Dex is developed by Dreadlocks Lts. and published by BadLand Indie. It’s available now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
A press copy was supplied by BadLand Indie for this review.