Preview: Dex On Steam Early Access
The cyberpunk genre has seen renewed interest in the last few years, especially after the success of both Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Shadowrun Returns. And with the seemingly unstoppable rise of independent developers, games like Dex have a bright future ahead.
Available via Steam’s Early Access scheme, Dreadlocks Ltd’s side-scrolling mix of action-RPG, platformer and roguelike catches the eye from the very start. Its 2D visuals may seem simplistic at first, but they convey the atmosphere of a cyberpunk future with an almost effortless style. The Chinese Quarter is filled with people milling about, even the foreground is populated by animated silhouettes that simulate the feeling of a busy main street, and its main feature is a stunning mixture of traditional Chinese architecture and the staple neon of the genre.
Most other areas are similarly detailed but are far more run down, with dingy apartments and rubble-strewn ruins bringing Dex’s world to life.
Even in its unfinished state, the map offers eight playable zones, each accessed via straight exploration or by simply clicking on them in the map screen, which warps you to the selected zone. Hopefully, in the full release, each zone will only be unlocked for fast-travel once you’ve found it via traditional exploration, instead of being totally unlocked from the start as it is now.
It should be said that Dex is in a very early alpha state, meaning that it isn’t even close to finished. The eight zones available are just over half of what the city map promises, and there is no main story right now, meaning the player is just dropped into the game with no tutorial or guide whatsoever. This can make for a frustrating first half hour, as you wrestle with awkward controls (remapping isn’t an option) and a brutally difficult combat system, but stick with it and you’ll be rewarded with a flawed gem.
Using the traditional WASD keys for movement and the mouse to aim, it seems like everything should be easy enough to control. However, the mouse buttons are punch and kick, holding the X key is required to actually aim your gun, and the enemies are just too quick and too accurate to battle when you’re just about learning the game for yourself.
Stealth is supposed to be an option, but it just doesn’t work in the game’s current incarnation. The field of view effect means that enemies are hidden from view until you’re usually right on top of them, by which point they’re already barreling into you or spraying bullets in your face. When both often occur at the same time, this makes it almost impossible to be stealthy.
Or to fight back.
The controls often struggle with multiple paths, too. There are sometimes staircases that can be bypassed, opening up a path beneath them. However, there appears to be no consistent ability to walk past stairs, only the random chance of somehow being lucky enough for it to happen. There are sometimes ledges on the upper floor that you can drop from, but otherwise it’s a case of relying on random chance. Even the controls screen offers no enlightenment on the subject.
This is all sounding very negative at this point, but I assure you that these problems in no way hindered my enjoyment of Dex.
The fighting may be a struggle at first, but through patience and upgrading your skills (we’ll get to the upgrade screen in a moment) it becomes a more rewarding experience. Similar to the likes of Dark Souls’ experience-led system of remembering enemy attack patterns and finding the right strategy for each encounter, Dex’s brutal mix of melee and ranged combat comes to life through being mercilessly pummelled – only to return later with greater knowledge of attackers’ behaviour and, ultimately, to pummel them right back.
The upgrade system works much the same way as most RPGs, with skill points awarded each time you level up. Those points can be put into a number of different categories, from simple endurance so you can take more damage, to things like lockpicking and first aid. The latter means health items regenerate more health, which definitely comes in handy.
At first it seems like levelling up makes no real difference, but after a couple of levels you soon find yourself able to deal with more dangerous situations and it can even open up previously inaccessible areas within each zone. In turn, this gains access to new NPC characters and new missions, which leads to more XP and higher levels.
Alongside the traditional levelling upgrades, you can also buy augmentations from the extremely shady (but perfectly in keeping with the game’s aesthetic) Dr Niles. These range from a respirator that allows you to travel through noxious gas unharmed, to the ability to jump much higher via limb enhancements.
Some of these are integral to progressing in certain missions, others are obviously intended for future use in an updated version of the game, but it all means that Dex could eventually become something truly special, as long as the developer listens to feedback and generally provides more tangible content via some kind of story additions.
At present, the majority of Dex’s story comes from its side quests. Some are merely fetch quests (one being a particularly elaborate one set in an abandoned laboratory), others require the death of a certain group of troublemakers, but you do get one or two slightly different ones dotted around. They’re a little thin on the ground right now, but they’re all delivered by NPCs that ooze character and would easily have been at home in the likes of Blade Runner.
All in all, Dreadlocks Ltd has an awful lot to do to ensure that Dex lives up to its potential, and at £12 it could be seen as a bit expensive for a game that only currently offers a couple of hours’ gameplay. However, the Early Access scheme has turned up a few gems already and this could be very well be another.