Gaming and cyberpunk go hand in cybernetically-augmented hand. Like dystopian peanut butter and electric jelly. Our beloved medium has always been well-served with the genre, from Megami Tensei to Shadowrun to Deus Ex all the way up to the forthcoming Cyberpunk 2077. While it's not exactly an overcrowded marketplace, there are plenty of tent-pole titles to either live up to, or – appropriately enough – lurk in the shadows of.
And there's quite a lot of lurking in Dex, both literal and figurative. This Kickstarter-funded side-scrolling RPG cites the likes of Blackthorne and Flashback among its influences, but, as with many crowd-funded ventures, the inspiration clearly comes from a lifetime of exposure to gaming classics. In the case of Dex, this has paid off to some extent.
Taking control of the titular Dex, you're thrust into a grubby 2D world of conspiracies, class warfare, and slightly wonky animation. The introduction is as generic as it gets narratively, with a disembodied voice compelling you to escape a raid that plays out as a tutorial in a very familiar manner. The game doesn't put its best foot forward at all, we found; the initial areas are dark, dingy and shockingly difficult. Your journey through a set of sewers is fraught with enemies, toxic waste and boiling hot steam that will melt through your HP like butter. It's a hostile barrier to entry, but the ability to save anywhere goes some way to helping you along – though, to be honest, it feels a little bit like a crutch to side-step the learning of the game's systems.
One of those systems is, naturally, combat. You begin with rudimentary hand-to-hand skills, as well as the ability to block and dodge-roll; stringing these abilities together is key to success, and enemies hit hard so you'll have to learn to use them quickly. It's also possible to stealth-takedown those baddies who aren't aware of your presence, but we found in most instances it was more worthwhile to take them on head-to-head and get some practice in. Dropping them yields XP, which allows you to upgrade your skills with tangible and genuinely useful benefits, rather than just the usual "higher damage, more health" stuff.
Firearms also come into play quickly, but they don't hit as hard as you may expect and are best used to weaken the enemy as they approach before finishing them off with melee. Aiming and firing are performed in the exact same way as the recent Liberated, but it's a little less satisfying here. It's all fit for purpose, but there's no real power to your shots and no satisfaction in busting a cap right between your target's eyes.
The meat of the gameplay, though, is exploration – and it's good stuff. After the initial area, you're effectively set loose in a large-ish open world and free to take on side missions as you please. Each of these has a story attached to it – they're a little limited, but interesting nonetheless. You're also free to approach said missions any way you want – there are often numerous routes to your destination and it's always rewarding to find a route off the beaten path that trivialises a section you previously struggled with. There are items and lore hidden all over the place and it's extremely rare that you won't find something worthwhile if you make the effort to investigate the many side paths.
Said routes are often facilitated by hacking – the obligatory minigame for this action resembles a twin-stick shooter ala Geometry Wars, and it's quite a bit of fun (if prohibitively difficult at first). Hacking cameras and people's augmentations is a matter of clicking the left stick any time, then finding your target and pressing X to begin the hack. This will flood the screen with viruses, and you've got to shoot them out of the way while remaining within a small on-screen circle in order to complete the hack. There are also hacking "dungeons", requiring you to navigate a small maze of enemies that reminded us veteran (read; ancient) gamers of Paradroid back the Commodore 64 days. It's absorbing stuff and another laudable aspect of the free-form gameplay you'll find here.
Visually, it's all nicely cohesive with atmospheric pixel art, though the animation leaves something to be desired and we had to crank up the brightness in the initial few areas to see what on earth we were doing. Performance is largely smooth as silk, but we ran into some minor framerate drops in the initial sewer area. The music is suitably synthy, if a little obvious, and the voice acting is genuinely good (though the game errs into the dodgy territory of crass ethnic stereotypes more than once). The story isn't original, but it is compelling, and the number of extra missions does a lot to flesh out this sleazy, adult world – strip clubs and prostitution abound and yes, there's pixellated nudity for those of you who like to play with your Switch under the duvet. Ahem.
Dex is a well-made game, packing all the features you'd expect from a cyberpunk adventure. If that sounds like damning it with faint praise, it isn't. There's passion here for its world, and while you'll find it familiar territory if you've ever seen a cyberpunk game before, it's always fun to get your hands dirty and dig into its seedy, nasty little world. Fans of both RPGs and Metroidvanias should find something to like here. A compelling little mash-up that takes a little time to reveal its charms, but definitely delivers if you've got the patience for it.