Sunday, September 10, 2017

Moral Ambiguity and Improvised Nunchucks: My Review of “Dex”

As promised, (or threatened, depending on how you look at it,) here at last is my review of Dex! Dex is the brainchild of Czech indie publisher Dreadlocks Ltd, which describes it as a “2D, side-scrolling, open-world cyberpunk roleplaying game with a focus on exploration and non-linear gameplay.” This is spot-on: Dex makes very innovative use of the limited side-scroller format by combining questing, combat, role-play, arcade gaming, and open exploration. In fact, it comes dangerously close to succumbing to the pitfalls of trying to be all things to all gamers, but it manages to balance multiple elements effectively for an engaging experience that feels smoothly integrated.

The story centers around Dex, a young woman living in the futuristic city of Harbor Prime, who awakes one morning to find herself being pursued by a gang of militarized assassins. An ethereal figure named Raycast appears on her computer screen and directs her to a safe house in the run-down district of Fixer’s Hope, where she is introduced to Decker, an ex-hacker who takes her under his wing. It is soon revealed that Dex has unique attributes, including the ability to project herself into cyberspace directly “without a jack”, and superhuman combat skills that she can further hone through the use of trans-human “augmentations.” We discover that she poses a major threat to the controlling corporation of Harbor Prime because she is an avatar of Kether, a draconian artificial intelligence program that they lost control of at one time but is that’s currently being held in check by…um…okay to be honest, that whole part of the plot is still a little muddled for me. I don’t really understand what Dex’s role in this is, nor do I fully have a grasp on the somewhat garbled Matrixy logic of the whole “projecting into cyberspace” thing. But no matter; there is plenty more going on.  Throughout her adventures in the districts of Harbor Prime, Dex runs into a number of eccentric characters, all who try to rope her into various, at times morally questionable missions. As you complete quests, you have the opportunity to upgrade Dex’s skills in combat, hacking, lock picking, shooting, and even persuasion.

The hand-to-hand combat is smooth and fun, and so far I’ve found it to be quite entertaining. The various thugs and gangsters are colorfully drawn and have their own tricks, including bike chains wielded as improvised nunchucks, and some pretty heavy knockout punches. You can pack a handgun, too, but I’ve found that guns are far more useful for shooting out security cameras and turrets than taking down thugs, and with ammo being pricy, I’ve started saving mine for that, and the occasional rogue security guard. The questing is technically non-linear, but there is a particular order the quests must be done in to optimize your rewards and skills points and to build on other plot branches. The voice acting is overall quite good, but jarringly uneven with some characters. The world is visually interesting and evocative, the quests and dialogue are well-written, and the storylines are intriguing and unusual. Getting needed cash and supplies such as stimulant pills and ammo can be a challenge, and keeping up on healing gets expensive as you advance through the game, so plan well, steal freely, and sell everything you don’t need. (If you play your cards right, you can score a discount at Hank’s Guns.)

Overall, the game is very absorbing and enjoyable. But it has one fatal flaw that drags this otherwise great experience down: By far, the most frustrating and infuriating aspect of Dex is the hacking. When hacking is required, Dex basically throws you into a mini-arcade game, which is maddeningly difficult, slow, and costly in terms of character health and the pricey boosts needed to beat back the attacking viruses. After iron-willed determination, I did manage to complete one important hacking quest to get a much needed upgrade, but it was hair-pullingly difficult and I rage-quit more than once. After scouring various Dex message boards for hacking tips, it seems that I’m not the only who has an issue with this “feature” of Dex. It either needs to be made skippable, or able to be played on an easier setting for uncoordinated non-twitch gamers like me. Dreadlocks, please fix this, because it’s wrecking an otherwise great experience!

Overall, I would give Dex three out of five bionic limbs. It’s innovative, although not revolutionary, entertaining, clever and has a great story. It’s also a great way to get your feet wet if you’re a non-gamer, so why not give it a shot?

--Kristen McHenry

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