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   Dex - Review  

A Strong Foundation that Never Quite Reaches its Full Potential
by Charalampos Papadimitriou

PLATFORM
PC
BATTLE SYSTEM
3
INTERACTION
2
ORIGINALITY
4
STORY
4
MUSIC & SOUND
3
VISUALS
4
CHALLENGE
Unbalanced
COMPLETION TIME
Less than 20 Hours
OVERALL
3.5/5
+ Strong story and voice acting
+ Immersive environments
+ Solid gameplay foundations
+ Great blend of gameplay experiences
- Unbalanced challenge
- Never meets full potential
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   Dex is a unique RPG that takes place in an immersive and beautifully depicted dystopian futuristic world. It successfully blends beat'em up and shmup elements, and features a skill progression system very reminiscent of Deus Ex. While the game has well-laid and strong story and gameplay foundations, it sometimes comes across as underdeveloped, not fully meeting its possible potential. Nevertheless, the gameplay experience taken as a whole is enjoyable and will leave players generally satisfied.

   "Wake up! Wake up! They are coming for you!" So begins the story of Dex, as the game's protagonist — whose name the game shares — is rushed out of bed and hurriedly directed by a stranger to escape her apartment, with no information about the team of army-geared men in the process of breaking in. The action and suspense laid out in the game's opening scenes are maintained throughout its compelling story with excellent pacing. The game's well-written characters, dialogue, and first-rate voice acting infuse life into Dex's universe. Though the game has a clear antagonist in the oppressive organization known as 'The Complex', individual characters on both the protagonist and antagonist sides have a range of different relationships and loyalties to each other and to the different factions in the game's world. Characters in the game are multidimensional and cannot be easily classified in the typical 'good' and 'bad' binary classes that lesser narratives employ, and the writers instead make great use of the many different shades of gray. Where other writers often rely on surprising twists that can drastically change the player's perception of characters and events, the turns in Dex's plot, though sometimes unexpected, are always consistent with the characters' personalities and motivations and immediately make sense to the player.

   The game also features a number of side quests that have surprisingly more depth than those of many high-budget RPGs. Although the quests themselves are relatively simple, most are tied to or reveal interesting game lore — often through multiple quest chains — giving the player a strong sense of purpose in completing them. For example, what would in a different game be implemented as a thoughtless fetch quest to gather a number of meaningless antiques is greatly enhanced by the items' descriptions, histories, and relationships to the world provided by the quest giver as each item is retrieved. The way some of these items are found adds yet more layers of lore to the already immersive world. These individually small but collectively significant touches add up to impart a much grander sense of the world beyond the scope and vision that any protagonist's limited experiences can provide.

   Where the story in Dex falls short is in its limited length. Though the writing is strong, there is not enough of it to fully develop the characters. The story attempts an epic 'save-the-world' scenario, but because the events all take place in a very small part of its world, it lands just a bit shy of epic. Still, the overall story is both captivating and feels complete, offering a satisfying sense of closure.

A gun shop next to a 3D Print shop.  The dystopian future sure is convenient. A gun shop next to a 3D Print shop. The dystopian future sure is convenient.

   Gameplay in Dex takes place both in the real world and inside a cyber-world. The controls in both are generally serviceable, albeit a bit stiff and clunky. The general ideas behind combat and skill development are compelling. The game gives players the option to purchase a variety of augments, and also develop a number of skills, including hand-to-hand, guns, hacking, and lock-picking. Hand-to-hand and gun skills are used in the real world to take down enemies in a beat'em up style of play, while hacking skills are used in the shmup-based cyber-world. Progressing in skills is meaningful, giving a noticeable upgrade in power when investing in certain skills.

   While the core of the gameplay is solid, it shares the drawbacks of the game's story in that it is not fully developed. Both the beat'em up and shmup gameplay lack depth of choice. While putting points in skills makes them more effective, upgrading skills does not generally unlock different types of actions. In addition, game encounters are not designed to require any type of strategic approach and there is a notable lack of boss battles or unique enemies beyond those commonly encountered. As a result, while the gameplay feels fresh and fun initially, it becomes less engaging as the game progresses. Furthermore, because enemy encounters lack any real design, the difficulty feels very unbalanced and unsatisfying. Initially the game feels unfair, with the player being unable to avoid or mitigate large amounts of damage and often having no option other than to leave the current play area to recover at the game's clinic. But after acquiring the right skills, players become nearly unstoppable and gameplay becomes mindless. The period during which the game feels balanced is unusually short. Despite this, the action-packed game mechanics and multiple play styles available ensure that playing Dex never becomes tedious.

Like in the real world, hacking is accomplished by turning into a cursor and shooting at viruses trying to deplete your 'focus' meter. Like in the real world, hacking is accomplished by turning into a cursor and shooting at viruses trying to deplete your 'focus' meter.

   The environment graphics in Dex are really a pleasure to behold. Although minor pixelation of background images is sometimes noticeable, it never detracts from the wonderful settings established by the game's art direction. The highly detailed and atmospheric scenes are beautiful and perfectly convey the world of Dex to the player. The game takes place in the city of Harbor Prime and features a variety of environments, ranging from the Slums district, with its worn and crumbling buildings; to Afterlight Boulevard, bathed in the neon red common in red-light and nightlife districts; to the wealthy Highrise area, consisting of modern corporate offices and chic apartment buildings. The attention to detail makes each area feel unique, while the cohesive art direction gives the sense that all of the environments are part of the same complete city. The visuals compliment the excellent story presentation and writing very well, and together these aspects fully immerse the player in the game's universe. The character graphics are somewhat lacking, and although character designs are very well done, animations are stiff and often exacerbate low resolution pixelation. But even with these minor issues Dex is full of eye candy for those who enjoy dark dystopian worlds.

   While graphically there's a lot to like about Dex, the game's music lacks variety and feels quite unremarkable, even if suited to the game's ambiance and setting. It doesn't take away from the game's immersion and presentation, but it also doesn't add very much. Where the game's audio shines is in the voice acting. Dex features numerous uniqe characters with a wide range of personalities and individually tailored dialogue, and the voice actors impressively capture and convincingly convey them. Whether it's Tony, the game's comic relief; Richmond, a man down on his luck living in a trailer; or Miranda, a sophisticated corporate lawyer haunted by dark secrets, dialogue delivery comes across as both effortless and natural, with no signs of the amateurish awkwardness that often plagues low-budget voice acted games. Rather than realistic, the voice acting in Dex is best described as cinematic, and it truly does justice to the characters' well-crafted lines.

   Overall, Dex is a worthwhile game featuring a compelling, beautifully rendered universe and setting, a well-paced immersive story, and deep characters. It offers a very enjoyable experience that will keep players driven to explore its world and progress in its narrative. The core foundations of its gameplay styles are fun, and chock-full of potential, even if that potential isn't fully realized in some areas. In many ways, Dex's main flaw is that the game doesn't deliver more of the possibilities promised by its strong foundations, and that is not the worst flaw for a game to have.

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