Dex is set in a futuristic dystopia and it’s obvious that developer Dreadlocks Ltd. has taken some inspiration from movies and games like Blade Runner and Deux Ex, the game has a wonderfully retro-yet-futuristic feel to it. The game is set in a world where big corporations have plenty of power and ability to influence the government, and anybody with enough money can augment their body with some pretty impressive cybernetics or nanotechnology. You’ll be spending your time in the city of Harbour Prime, it’s a really great setting for a game, a dark and moody city with an interesting mix of areas to explore, from the glamorous and rich High Rise areas to the seedy down town areas filled with drugs, prostitution and black market dealings. It’s a shame then that the actual game play doesn’t quite live up to the interesting setting of the game.
You get to play as the blue haired protagonist Dex and the game begins with her being awoken in the middle of the night by a mysterious hacker called Raycast telling her that “they’re coming to get you”, ‘they’ being masked men with guns. ‘They’ are part of a shadowy organisation called ‘The Complex’ and seeing as they’ve come to your door with guns it’s pretty safe to assume that they aren’t coming for a friendly chat! You have to escape and make your way to a hacker friendly haven, a bar called Fixer’s Hope, where you meet Decker, an ex-hacker, who helps you to escape and re-introduces you to Raycast, the mysterious hacker who woke you up earlier. The story is an interesting, albeit not the most original, sci-fi mix of shadowy organisations, AI and hackers with plenty of twists thrown in throughout.
The initial part of the game is fairly linear, you go from location to location on the run, picking up little snippets of information about what’s happening and why, before the game opens up and you’re allowed to explore Harbour Prime at your own pace. While there aren’t a vast number of main story missions there are plenty of side quests to complete and you will need to complete at least some of them so that you can level up enough to take on the main missions. Thankfully the side quests contain some really interesting side-stories which will provide even more atmosphere and detail to the city. Side quests range from helping a homeless man get back on his feet, finding a missing sibling who’s gotten involved in prostitution and helping a pop singer deal with an obsessed fan. You’ll be able to complete these side quests in a number of different ways and it definitely adds some replayability to the game, as you’ll want to see what happens to the various characters if you make different choices throughout some of the quests. There are so many weird and wonderful characters and they all help to bring Harbour Prime to life, the voice acting is surprisingly good for a small indie game.
So, on to the actual gameplay! Combat makes up a big part of what you’ll be doing throughout the game and there are a few different combat styles you can switch between, melee, stealth or guns. Melee combat is very simple and most of the time you’ll just throw a couple of punches and then block or roll to dodge out of an enemies way. For stealth attacks you just need to creep up on an enemy when his back is turned. It’s a shame that the enemy AI is pretty stupid, you can stand on a platform underneath enemies and shoot up at them and they’ll just stand there until they get slowly shot to death, no ducking or investigating where the gun shots are coming from. Another amusing thing to watch is in melee combat enemies will sometimes walk backwards off a platform, they don’t seem upset by this and will just stand around on the lower platform and wait for you to go to them. Even when enemies aren’t doing dumb things combat just feels clumsy, it’s too easy to try to move out of an enemies way and end up with Dex facing the wrong way round and swinging punches wildly at empty nothing.
Guns are unfortunately not fun to use, aiming feels really imprecise and it can take you a while to line up a shot, this means that by the time you’re ready to shoot an enemy he’ll have already got a couple of shots in and removed a good chunk of your health. Even if you do aim quickly there’s no real ducking for cover so you’ll just stand opposite the enemy taking shots at each other until someone dies.
Dex also has the ability to hack into security cameras and gun turrets. Hacking into gun turrets means that they’ll shoot enemies instead of you. Unfortunately this again reveals the stupid nature of the AI as they just stand next to the gun turrets until they die.
As well as hacking being used for combat you can also use it to hack into computers to try to gain information or unlock doors. Hacking into computers involves you playing a simplistic twinstick shooter style mini-game where you fend off various types of viruses. This can initially be tricky to play but after getting a couple of upgrades it becomes really easy and repetitive. It also suffers and slows down a bit when there are lots of viruses on screen.
There’s a level up system in place, you’ll gain experience from completing quests or killing enemies and every time you level up you’ll be granted skill points that you can use to improve a selection of different skills like lock picking, charisma, melee ability, gun skills, health, hacking skills etc. You can also purchase augments which will grant you abilities like jumping higher, more health and stronger melee attacks. If you do most of the side quests then by the end of the game you’ll probably feel pretty over powered.
My biggest issue with this game doesn’t come from the slightly lack luster combat or reptitive hacking mini-game but the game’s shadow and lighting effects. At time’s it can be really difficult to see where you’re going. Shadows seem to be set to Dex’s point of view so if she moves from a small room to a large outdoor space the shadows open up revealing more of the area outside, if you’re standing underneath a platform you can’t see what’s above you as it’s covered in shadow and you so can’t see if there are any enemies around. This obviously makes sense from her view point but as the player you are viewing the game side-on so it just means you get loads of ugly, blocky, dark areas on screen. The shadows also move constantly as Dex moves, it’s really distracting and just doesn’t work well. Even just running across a room can cause a sort of ripple effect with the shadows moving constantly in the corners of the room. The shadows are also present in the hacking minigame and mean that there will be many times when you can’t see a virus until you’re completely on top of it.
Dex has some really gorgeous cut scenes but unfortunately in-game it seems to have suffered slightly from being ported over to the PS Vita. Not only does the game have the weird shadow effect mentioned above but there are also many texture tears and sometimes the game’s text is cut off at the end of a sentence. The game also crashes fairly regularly, especially as you get towards the end of the game. It’s definitely worth making a manual safe before leaving an area, just in case.
Dex is definitely a flawed game but despite its many issues it surprised me with how much I enjoyed spending time in it’s gritty world. Harbour Prime has a dark moody atmosphere and is full of interesting characters, I really wanted to explore the city more. There’s a lot that could be improved in Dex but developer Dreadlocks Ltd has built such an interesting world that I would definitely return if there was a sequel.