Originally kickstarted back in 2012 and released in 2015, Dex was the first non-mobile game released by developed Dreadlocks. Now, in 2020, Dex has released for the Nintendo Switch following on from a series of ports and remasters that have recently released for the platform such as Catherine: Full Body, Bioshock: The Collection and Borderlands: Legendary Collection. A Cyberpunk side-scrolling action RPG, Dex takes place in a city controlled by corporations, shadowy secret authorities and morally bankrupt people taking advantage of the status quo. It’s a premise that is well-trodden, but with some solid writing and fantastic atmosphere the game sets itself apart, but some terrible gameplay design and controls holds it back from being great.
Dex follows the story of Dex, a young woman suddenly pulled into a city wide conspiracy with little understanding of what’s happening around her. Suddenly targeted by the shadowy organisation, The Complex, and taken in by hackers railing against them, she quickly sets out to find the truth while taking down her pursuers. It’s a relatively simple premise, but is elevated by a fantastically created atmosphere and some engaging writing. I couldn’t point to any one moment where the writing felt exceptional in the game, but it was solid and interesting enough to keep me engaged. Dex being a relatively silent protagonist, beyond your own conversation option selections, held it back slightly, but the cast of characters around her were interesting enough to stop that from becoming an issue. There are also some interesting beats in the story surrounding Dex that were particularly well done. I certainly wasn’t disappointed by the story, but it also wasn’t amazing.
The atmosphere was really what elevated Dex from being a mediocre Switch game to an above average one. The world is grimy and filled with neon. The obviously poor are relegated to slums and sub-standard living conditions, while the rich keep them underfoot from their mansions and high rises. Gangs abound, all more than happy to try and murder you with absolutely no provocation, while The Complex and other corruptive influences can be felt wherever you go. Throughout all of this, there’s still hope as well. People trying to do their best with what they’ve got or just straight up trying to get by and hoping for better things. This is all supported by a rather minimalistic soundtrack that provides a great backing track (if it’s somewhat repetitive) and a fantastic 2D pixel-art style that brings it to life. It’s largely a deliberately depressing look at what rampant capitalism and consumerism can lead to (as many cyberpunk works tend to show), but the glimpses of good are what keeps it fresh. As far as atmosphere and world building goes, Dreadlocks have nailed it.
Where they’ve done quite the opposite is in the game’s combat and hacking systems, both of which you’ll spend a long, long time engaging with. Combat is the lesser of two evils, simply being mediocre as opposed to frustrating. At the beginning of the game, your entire repertoire of combat systems is a block, a dodge, and a two-hit melee combo. As you progress through the game and level up you can spend skill points to increase your combo and unlock new attacks (as well as buying augments to increase your damage and resistance), but this does little to elevate the system. Most combat encounters simply revolve around standing still and holding guard, waiting for an enemy to finish their single or two hit combo before getting a couple of hits in and repeating this five or six times until they’re dead. Occasionally, you might even need to dodge. Throw in some really poorly controlling shooting, and you’ve got a combat system that you simply have to trudge through, but never feels actively terrible.
Where Dex really does feel terrible on Nintendo Switch is in its hacking. Being a cyberpunk game, you’re going to be spending a lot of time hacking, often with absolutely no way to avoid it. While hacking the game takes the form of a twin-stick shooter, as you traverse the cyberscape to find datapoints to read. Viruses and system protections will come at you throughout this, and you’ll need to shoot them down to stop yourself from getting killed. There are two specific places where this system gets back: the controls are horrible and it can get extremely difficult. The controls while hacking are incredibly slow, both in your movement and in rotating to shoot. This definitely isn’t Geometry Wars. Couple this with enemies that nearly all take ages to shoot down (even after multiple skill upgrades), enemies that spawn more enemies, often overwhelming numbers of enemies, and your own fragility, and you have a system that is an utter chore to engage with. It was so bad at points, especially early in the game before I was able to arbitrarily brute force my way through it by investment inordinate amounts of skill points into hacking, that if I hadn’t been reviewing the game I likely would have walked away from it. If you’re going to play this, I absolutely recommend going hard on skill point investment into hacking as early as possible.
Overall, Dex on Nintendo Switch has the potential to be great but is held back by poor mechanics and systems. The story and characters are interesting, while the atmosphere and world is fantastic, but the combat and hacking hurt the experience. If you’re a fan of cyberpunk games and don’t mind some dodgy combat I’d definitely suggest checking out the game, but otherwise I don’t think this will be the game for you.
Dex was reviewed on a regular Nintendo Switch, with a review copy provided by the developer. For more information on the game, check out the official website.
- Great world building and atmosphere - Story and characters are interesting
- Combat is dull and boring - Hacking is actively frustrating and poor controlling