- Developer: Dreadlocks Limited
- Publisher: QubicGames
- Release Date: 24/07/2020
- Price: £17.99 / $19.99
- Review code provided by QubicGames
Introducing: Dex Switch Review
The absurd pace of technological development has opened up plenty of moral and ethical considerations that have become rote for creatives to explore. Sci-fi has seen no shortage of hand-wringing over the potential AI-initiated destruction of mankind. While many find it tiresome – and I agree to an extent – cyberpunk, an offshoot of sci-fi, is one of my favorite aesthetics. It rarely treads new ground, but it posits worlds absolutely smothered with ambiance that I can’t get enough of. Dex, the upcoming RPG from Dreadlocks Limited, operates squarely in this cyberpunk lane. While the game, like sci-fi on the whole, doesn’t break new ground, it does feature a compelling world and systems. Unfortunately, for as much as I wanted to connect with Dex, a tumult of mechanical and design issues held the game back from truly engaging me.
Exploring Harbor Prime
All of the game’s issues run far beneath its glossy and alluring exterior. Set in the city of Harbor Prime, Dex does an excellent job representing all of the social strata that one would expect in a cyberpunk world. You can traverse from the city’s crunchy and dank underbelly to the slick and magnetic high society, all the while feeling as though you’re in a real urban sprawl. Many of its locations are tropey, but they’re all wonderfully realized with detailed pixel art and satisfactory animation. I didn’t find myself particularly smitten by the game’s art style, but its art direction made up for any shortcomings.
This world is populated by an intriguing cast of characters too. Everyone from its central players to tangential figures to those who simply act as set-dressing compelled me. I found myself eagerly taking part in every conversation I could. I wanted to learn more about Harbor Prime and the machinations of those who inhabit it. For the most part, Dreadlocks Limited do a noble job of this. The writing is consistently enjoyable, bringing Dex’s cast to life in believable ways.
This extends to the overall narrative. Again, it isn’t anything particularly new, but its high-concept examination of privacy, humanity, and liberty through the conduit of warring AI systems still compelled me to push through Dex to its conclusion. Regrettably, this is where Dex lost me a little bit, as the writers give into the temptation to stretch the narrative beyond its limits, leaving the final leg of the adventure feeling convoluted. Still, I enjoyed the story on the whole, the writing that fleshed it out, and the world that it unfolded in.
Empowering the Player
A good portion of that narrative enjoyment can be attributed to the player agency that informs much of Dex. While limited in scope and budget, Dex is actually an open-world RPG. It has all the trimmings you’d expect from a game like The Outer Worlds, from the mission structure to the dialog trees to the progression systems. Some of the facets are rather elegant. The dialog trees in particular allow you to make choices that truly reverberate throughout the larger narrative and allow you to tailor your adventure to your personal moral compass. You’ll often make choices – both big and small – that truly matter, which is always the hallmark of a good RPG in my eyes.
The gameplay experience can be similarly customized to your proclivities as a player. You can allot skill points to your character in dichotomous ways that’ll allow for branching playstyles. For instance, I chose to put all my skill points into my persuasion, hacking, and lockpicking skills. Others who decide to, for example, augment their ranged and melee attacks will have a differently-flavored experience with Dex than I had. Due to my build, my experience with Dex was quieter. I used stealth, hacked turrets, broke into buildings. I coerced people and skated through the game on wit. Approaching the game from any other avenue would feel wrong to me, as I’m sure more aggro players would feel about my tactics. This makes the game feel somewhat dynamic, as you’ll be able to approach moment-to-moment situations in truly diverse ways.
No matter how much you enjoy the world or what playstyle you employ, everyone will struggle with the myriad issues that plague Dex. Unfortunately, the problems are endemic to the game’s fundamental design. I found its flaws to be hard to get around. Funnily enough, its flaws actually include the very basics of getting around, as Dex’s movement systems feel stiff. Its combat feels equally clumsy, with firefights having very little tactical nuance or underlying weight. It was hard to feel empowered by the game mechanically, which is never a good sign in an RPG of this ilk. Firing weapons never felt punchy and movement never felt visceral.
The game’s movement and combat systems are done no favors by Dex’s overarching design either, which is full of oversights and foibles that further disconnected me from the experience. In terms of traversal, Dex makes it very easy to just fast travel from point of interest to point of interest to efficiently knock out quests. This may seem like a positive, but I was mostly fast-traveling because Harbor Prime is small enough that you can see all of what it has to offer in each area on a first perfunctory jaunt. This, combined with the lacking movement, led to me not wanting to get from point A to C by traveling through B. I’d rather just jump right there, which also took a lot of the weight out of the quests. They often boiled down to fast travel here, have a conversation, hack a node, rinse, and repeat. The alternative is to proceed from area to area more methodically, but then you’re faced with the game’s underwhelming movement systems.
Then, there’s the combat which vacillates between being overly exploitable and grating. To the former, whether you’re hacking or going into combat head on, you’ll quickly find all manner of easily-cheesable tactics that’ll win the day but won’t be particularly fun. However, again, since the simple act of shooting a weapon or throwing a punch doesn’t feel particularly engaging, exploiting the game’s systems to overcome an enemy is somehow preferable.
Then, there is the hacking mini-game, which plays out as a top-down, twin-stick shooter. Whether you decide to allocate your skill points to a subversive hacker style or not, you’ll often have to partake in this minigame for story reasons. It’s consistently stiff and strangely unbalanced. After upgrading your hacking skills, it does become more tolerable, but these frequent sections never failed to grind down the pacing of Dex.
It’s unfortunate, as there really is a lot to like here. Harbor Prime is an exciting location to simply be in, and learning more about its inhabitants is truly engaging. The writing and world certainly are the highlights of Dex, but its gameplay just leaves a lot to be desired. While its open-world structure is surprisingly ambitious and the level of player agency makes Dex a fairly dynamic experience, it’s a deeply flawed one. Its core mechanics don’t meet the mark, and this has a cascading effect on many aspects of the experience. For as often as Dex surprised and engaged me, it disappointed and frustrated me. Its peaks and valleys feel equally extreme, so the net result is somewhere in the middle. Dex is far from a bad game, but it’s not an especially compelling one either.
- Ambitious open-world structure
- Engaging location and aesthetic
- Compelling writing
- Deep player choice
- Stiff movement
- Clunky, exploitable combat
- Underwhleming mission design
Dex is an ambitious RPG that begs to be experienced, but with its many design flaws, it’s difficult to emphatically recommend a trip to Harbor Prime.