If I were to talk about a sci-fi game, one that prominently features body augmentation as a central theme and combines RPG with another, more action oriented genre, then you would almost certainly think of Deus Ex. The similarities between the first person augment-’em-up and Dex are more than skin deep, as the cyberpunk atmosphere of Dex certainly hits similar notes to Deus Ex’s futuristic, dystopian tone. The crucial difference, however, is that Dex is in fact a side-scrolling action RPG rather than a first-person shooter.
You find yourself in control of the mysterious titular character, Dex, a blue-haired cyberpunk girl who soon finds herself running from a mysterious organisation that wants her for undisclosed reasons. She comes across a selection of helpful yet seedy chaps who give you somewhere to hide and a wide variety of quests. You will soon find yourself wandering around the surprisingly large city of Harbor Prime, a little bit lost.
There are no objective markers in Dex; if you weren’t paying attention you can miss your next destination in one of the many dialogue-heavy conversations. This, combined with the rather large selection of quests you’ll come across, makes your quest log your best friend, usually holding the information you need should you have forgotten the details. Either that, or it’ll be in your notes that you’ve picked up. Or sometimes your inventory, as you’ll occasionally find yourself having to read instructions for a very non-user-friendly machine, or perhaps just a code for a safe.
This can be initially overwhelming, which is perhaps par for the course for the genre. The city of Harbor Prime has a dark, murky atmosphere and the conversations with its inhabitants only serve to further that. Amongst the neon lights and dismal alleys you will come across people from all walks of life, from drug dealers to CEOs, prostitutes to, well, pimps.
Perhaps the only things they have in common is the tragedy they are no doubt involved in. From junkies manipulated into flesh and blood prostitution – i.e. no augmentations, 100% natural – to corrupt CEOs of shady conglomerates, Harbor Prime is a patchwork of deceit and tragedy, which makes it all the more fascinating to uncover.
A large amount of that sleuthing is done via surprise genre number two – a twin stick shooter. Hacking is a powerful tool both in detective work and in combat. You hack into computers and networks by shooting your way through their defences – destroying firewalls by shooting their power sources, dodging pattern-driven enemies à la Geometry Wars. It’s certainly a unique hacking mechanic, but if it isn’t to your tastes then it may be enough to recommend avoiding the game.
On the surface, Dex seems to offer a lot of options for completing quests. An early example is choosing whether to help a weird sewer guy so he gives you the key for the door to progress, try and fight him and take it from him, pick the lock if you invest in the skill, or take an alternate route through a dangerous, chemical-filled area. They are all doable, but ultimately are just different ways to accomplish the same thing – escape the area, get to your destination. As you play more of the game you realise that while individual quests offer options, to complete all the quests you are going to need everything.
Lockpicking quickly becomes essential if you like loot, or finding important information, or accessing locked rooms. Shooting skill is important because without it, you are in trouble against a group of armed enemies. Hacking is necessary because some information is simply only accessible via a good old hack, as well as for story reasons. If you want to access all areas, you will need the higher jumping augmentation. It’s perhaps difficult to avoid, but ultimately turns the options into priorities, rather than picking between things to forge a character you are slowly collecting abilities.
Combat upgrades are another essential aspect that initially seem optional. You will be fighting a lot, regardless of what you do. There is a rudimentary stealth system which boils down to takedowns from behind if you can get close enough without being spotted. Fine, but there isn’t really a sneaking system to go along with it. You either wait for people to not be facing you, take cover behind the occasional bit of scenery, or you can hack things. Another option that quickly becomes essential, hacking lets you hack cameras so they don’t trigger alarms, sentry guns so they shoot enemies – who inexplicably just stand there and die slowly – and you can even hack enemies to stun them briefly.
A tap of L3 brings up your little twin-stick shooter, but this time instead of inside a computer it’s overlaid over the world, allowing you to hack things in the vicinity. As you do, a circle will appear and a progress bar, stay in the circle while dodging and shooting the newly aggravated enemies and the progress bar will fill, completing the hack. Time stops while hacking, so you can happily hack-stun an entire screen of enemies mid-combat should you be able to keep it up without running out of energy. Of course, energy can be replenished with consumables outside of hacking, as can the health you lose for running out of energy.
The combat itself is almost akin to a brawler, as you’ll be blocking attacks, dodging unblockable attacks with the right stick, and combo-ing in between them. Your combo is essentially pressing the attack button over and over, at least until you unlock a few extra moves by levelling up. Again, this almost essential not only because there plenty of combat that you can’t really avoid forever, but because it will simply make the combat itself more enjoyable.
Increasing damage via augmentations in particular helped alleviate the slight slog of combat as slowly picking away at multiple enemies’ health bars one after another quickly becomes excruciating. Without those additional moves acquired from levelling up, combat consists entirely of holding block and punching in between enemy attacks, with the occasional dodge. Guns meanwhile need space to shoot, so make sure you have it and get close to armed enemies, or just avoid aggravating them while beating up their pals.
Any power you amass in Dex is hard won. You don’t start out with augmentations, or even with the ability to hack. In fact, your earliest experiences will involve running from enemies who are really very tough. Then early on you will be introduced to hacking, which your character has an innate talent for, not to mention the lack of a Matrix-style jack in the back of her neck that all other hackers require to “jack in.”
A mysterious hacker legend named Raycast will advise you to get yourself augmented due to a need for more muscle. This allows you to buy upgrades, some of which are less optional than others. This hacker naturally has further plans for you, and the story all goes a bit ‘chosen one’. It’s interesting enough, but I found myself more interested in side missions than the main quest.
If the issues don’t phase you and you are at peace with large sections of dialogue, you will find an interesting, dismal world filled with shadowy characters and intrigue. Everyone is a bit off in Dex, whether they’re shady themselves or they’re in the midst of their own tragedy that is no doubt brought on by people you have already met. Uncovering the threads that connect the residents of Harbor Prime is a fascinating look into a flawed future, if you are willing to hack for it.
Version Tested: PS4