I finished playing another Indie RPG recently, so you know what that means: it’s time to shove it in your faces as though you asked for or in any way indicated that you wanted my opinion about it!
So, Dex is one of the Kickstarter RPGs I funded a little ways back. It’s a cyberpunk RPG, and clearly influenced, in a positive way, by iconic forebears of the genre like Shadowrun, William Gibson, and Blade Runner. You can find it at Good Old Games for $15.
Now, short of outright holding me at gunpoint, the term “cyberpunk RPG” has been scientifically proven to be the best way of getting me to give up my money with no questions asked. So, y’know, my objectivity on this might be slightly skewed. Nonetheless, I’d have to say that Dex is a fun, well-made, engaging RPG that finds its place quite nicely in its fascinating genre.
The plot and lore are fairly standard fare for the cyberpunk ventures, for a while, but enjoyable and nuanced enough that you stay engaged as the game continues, until you reach the point, toward its last quarter, when the story starts heating up and you start seeing the heavier stuff. What starts out as a relatively typical (but decent!) quest to stop a corp’s attempt to gain too much power through control of an artificial intelligence on the net eventually unfolds to be way more creative and interesting than expected. Usually the idea of controlling an AI on the internet is by itself the major problem of a cyberpunk story (Shadowrun’s done it a couple of times in its games, in big and small ways), so it was a pleasant and interesting surprise to me to find that there’s actually a deeper, even more dire level to the game’s story, when the creative plot twist was revealed. Kudos to Dreadlocks Ltd. for finding a very cool new approach to a bread-and-butter cyberpunk story concept!
The overall theme and message of the game is good, too, while we’re talking about plot. Skillful enough to raise a very cyberpunk-esque set of questions for you to contemplate, and subtly letting you decide the answers to those matters of philosophy yourself. Can’t really go into any more detail than that what with spoilers and all, but it’s intellectually good for the same reason that Deus Ex and Shadowrun are intellectually good.
I like the cast of the game, too. Sure, if you’re looking for really deep and involved characters for your cyberpunk RPG, I think your first stop should be Shadowrun: Dragonfall, and then Shadowrun: Hong Kong afterward (well, for Duncan, Gaichu, Racter, and Raymond, at least...Gobbet and Is0bel were pretty damned disappointing, sadly). Still, though the characters of Dex may not be as complex and well-explored as many of the Shadowrunners, they nonetheless have defined, appealing personalities that draw you to them just as well. This is helped in no small part by well-written speech mannerisms (Tony’s are particularly noteworthy and rich in cyberpunk style) delivered by competent, sometimes particularly skillful, voice actors.
It’s worth noting that the setting of this venture is solid, too. The background and artistic flavor of the visuals are pretty damned vital for the cyberpunk genre, as necessary to maintain its subtle but unique mood and focus as they are to genres like post apocalyptic and film noir.* Dex captures a lot of the feeling of the icons of its genre, particularly Blade Runner and Shadowrun, which is good. But I also feel that there’s a certain subtle vibrancy to Dex that helps it to distinguish itself from its predecessors enough to feel like its own presence, rather than just derivative. Likewise, the music helps set the mood in a way which is once more reminiscent of other works of the genre, yet distinct enough to be its own. It all comes together artistically to give you an experience that appeals to one’s love for the genre and its classics, while also giving you the enjoyment of a new experience.
The game also controls very well, and overall is pretty fun in regards to the actual play experience. Doesn’t make a difference to me, of course, but I know most people care about that.
Now, in fairness, Dex has its flaws. While the story really does pick up in an interesting way in its last third or so, there are some aspects of the plot in the game’s final moments that get a little too abstract. I’m still just as clueless as Dex herself about what to make of the final trial, involving visions of her friends Richmond and Decker. I think the game wants it to be artfully ambiguous, but it just comes off as frustrating not to know, because the ambiguity doesn’t really serve any purpose to the story or characters. Also, while I appreciate the dilemma posed by the game’s antagonist and the events she orchestrates, I feel that she herself is not all that great...the pontificating and motivations for her are kinda just generic RPG material. I mean, she’s not a bad villain, she’s just not a good one, either.
Finally, I have to say, while the gameplay overall works well and is certainly a draw for those who care about it, the gameplay element of firearms is puzzlingly obtuse and awkward. You can build a workable character who specializes in guns, but it’s just not nearly as functional, fluid, or enjoyable as sticking with a melee build. Which is just kinda weird to me...I know hand-to-hand, augmented combat is a strong part of the cyberpunk genre, but I think it’s safe to say that when you think of a battle in a cyberpunk game/movie/book/whatever, the first image in your head involves guns being fired. But the overall way the system for drawing and firing the gun works in this game, it’s just faster, safer, and more enjoyable to go for hand-to-hand, leaving the gunplay in the cyberpunk RPG behind. It’s like if you started playing a Wild West-themed RPG, only to find that all your characters’ primary weapons were swords and magical staffs.**
These problems, however, really don’t get in the way of appreciating Dex. The plot is still strong despite some of its last pieces being kind of inscrutable, the conflict of the game isn’t harmed significantly by the villain’s lack of gravitas, and even if you want to limit your mental experience by focusing on mundane matters of gameplay, the overall experience of playing Dex is still fun even if the firearms aren’t implemented as well as they should be.
So do I recommend Dex? I surely do. It’s a solid RPG for a pretty fair price. And if you’re a fan of cyberpunk stuff, Dex is a happy little relief to help ease the pain of knowing that Harebrained Schemes isn’t planning on making another installment of Shadowrun any time soon. Check it out!
* Also, I ask the world, and not for the first time: where is my film noir RPG?
** Damn it, Wild Arms 1, you had one job.