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In 1992, a French game company called Delphine Software release a science fiction platformer called Flashback: The Quest for Identity, and was ported to consoles a year later. The highly cinematic, much-praised game was not the first of its kind, but was a highly influential title set in a dystopian, cyberpunk world. It was later remade for Xbox Live Arcade in 2013, but was met with less than critical favor. For anyone who has played Flashback, it’s hard to play games in the genre and not be reminded of its greatness. That’s not to say that no games since have been worthy. Many are great. Dex falls short, but embraces its past well.
Dex, the latest from Dreadlocks Ltd, a video game developer based in Prague, Czech Republic, isn’t trying to set the video game side-scrolling world on fire. There isn’t a lot in the way of innovation, but for fans of genre, it has plenty to offer, with a solid challenge, some quality art work, a good story and mostly decent combat. Sure, the players in this world are familiar, with corporate corruption, sentient AI, secret organizations, a mysterious underground society and lots of techno-babble, but there’s some fun in trope-ishness of it all.
You play as the titular Dex, a beautiful AI woman living in Harbor Prime. Harbor Prime is a city under the control of conglomerates controlling a secret authority known as The Complex. For unknown reasons at the start of the game, The Complex is after Dex, and the game begins with a squad of assassins riding up the elevator to Dex’s apartment, intent on killing her. A hacker known as Raycast contacts her while the assassins approach and helps to slow their progress as he guides her to safety. She then literally rides her own elevator to the sewers and the game starts proper as she begins a quest for the Singularity. If you aren’t familiar with this word, you should be. It’s long been the hypothetical event where artificial intelligence will self-improve to such a degree it will eventually surpass human intelligence. Scary stuff.
As the game begins, Dex is unsure why she is targeted, but is quickly drawn into the mystery, which naturally has her questioning her own existence. The world of Harbor Prime is thick with bad guys, plenty of secrets, and tons of opportunities for Dex to amass skill points and upgrades to get the better of her enemies. There are weapons as such, but Dex is far better with her fists and feet and most combat is best handled in a brawl. Dex has a few basic combinations at the start, which remains throughout, all standard punch, roll, block, and a jump attacks. It’s all about timing, which isn’t too hard as the enemies are all basically the same with various weapons at hand. Like any of the sort, it’s a matter of tapping buttons in the right order and keeping in motion. It doesn’t have much finesse, but it is functional. There is a nice zoom feature though that allows you to pull in or away from the action at any time. The problem stems from several encounters where Dex is overmatched, facing combatants with unbreakable blocks, too many at a time, and gun power that is far superior. You make a wrong turn and get stuck in a battle you’re not ready for, it can be disappointing. Enemies don’t respawn, fortunately, but they do get repetitive.
There are other issues as well, such as minor responsive issues. The 2D environments have objects and playable areas in the slight fore- and backgrounds so you can walk past a ladder or climb up it for example. Sometimes though, Dex gets stuck in the background layer and finding a way to get to the front can be a problem. There is also a hacking mechanic that admittedly is clever, but like all hacking mechanics, becomes a groan-inducing chore as they are frequent and too long. Enjoyability will be player be player preference. The story is driven by dialog trees, and is a nice touch for the genre, but the choices are a little obvious and few have consequence. With the role-playing aspect, you can modify Dex to be a hacker, a killer, or a fighter. That might offer some motivation to replay but I found the combat skills most important in staying alive.
That said, Harbor Prime, despite its clichéd city districts, looks great. The hand-drawn style and muted atmosphere, punctuated by neon is eye-catching. There are several moments where it’s tempting to stop and soak up the look. The city itself is loaded with side quests and activities and secrets, giving you motivation to explore, though getting lost is pretty easy. Some sections are barely a few seconds long while others require a bit more time to dig around. This brings up the load times, of which there are plenty. Sometimes, you think you’ve died because the screen’s gone black but it’s merely a transition. I will say though, that the voice work is excellent and even if the NPC encounters can be a bit long, the story, if you’re willing to follow it, is compelling.
Dex is a serviceable entry in the mix that suffers from a number of minor bugs, but overall is a competent and often fun game that is better in the first two acts than the finale. For fans interested in a rich narrative and a complex mystery to unfold, there is a lot to stay engaged, though the combat may disappoint. A solid platformer, Dex can’t quite reach its potential but shows promise for the developer.
Developer: Dreadlocks Ltd
Genre: Action, role-playing, side-scrolling
Platfrom(s): Windows, OS X, Playstation 4, Xbox One