Dex Preview (PC)

December 2013 saw indie dev Dreadlocks double their Kickstarter goal for cyberpunk adventure DEX, and it's been full steam ahead ever since. The Czech team was eager to show off its work-in-progress when we met them at EGX Rezzed 2014 and provided us with a pre-alpha build to muck around in. But what was there to glean from our time in DEX's city of Harbor Prime? Read on to find out.

The developers at Dreadlocks are self proclaimed superfans of the cyberpunk genre, specifically William Gibson's novel Neuromancer. Such influences are immediately recognisable upon playing DEX, which opens in a dingy street populated by Chinese restaurants, suggestive young women, introverted pedestrians and of course, neon. Although there was no indication as to where this environment existed within the context of the game, the scene was a familiar one - DEX's equivalent of Bladerunner's “Neo-Tokyo”. But while Bladerunner focuses on the lives of the fortunate living amongst the grit, DEX is more concerned with the people that embody that grit.

Between the hobo fires and the crumbling buildings, the graffiti that peppers DEX's slums tells an interesting story. “This Message Is NOT Subliminal”, “Go Viral”, “AWAKEN”: Internet culture has melded with society entirely, yet the presumably expansive digital sea of knowledge has done nothing to break down the ever widening class divide. In fact, a particularly large piece of graffiti informs the “scum” of the aforementioned “China town” district to stay in said district, telling us that the many prejudices of today are still present in DEX's future.

We reached out to Dreadlocks' Jan Jirkovsky via email, following our chat at EGX Rezzed 2014, to find out about DEX's more subtle storytelling elements:
These are mainly meant to immerse the player in the mood and pulsebeat of the city. Background conversations (and – for example – finding optional data logs to read) generally tell atmospheric bits and pieces about the city of Harbor Prime and the game world rather than contributing to the main storyline.

We want to diversify this: players can either follow the storyline (which is mostly “linear” and told mainly through quests, dialogues, and cutscenes) or take a more exploratory approach (i.e. roaming through streets and rooftops, finding side-quests and explorative tasks, reading optional data logs, etc.). Also, graffiti and overheard conversations may contain clues to hidden passages, secret doors, safe combinations…
Again, the city of Harbor Prime is a dystopia – an significantly imperfect and often oppressive environment – and will be familiar to anyone who has ever stumbled across the term, be that in the the works of William Gibson and Philip K. Dick, or even Verhoeven's RoboCop. It's all there: grubby, neon adorned shops, tiny grey apartments, the strange, “neo-conservative” fashion and a city that cannot sleep. Dreadlocks has left no stone unturned in its quest to craft an authentic cyberpunk world. Aesthetically and atmospherically it seem to have succeeded, however DEX's gameplay still has a long, long way to go.

It should be stressed that the version of DEX we played was a very early, pre-alpha build. When we talked with him at EGX Rezzed, Jan Jirkovsky was very open about this version's lack of features which include hacking, combat and story elements. But the pre-alpha was far more skeletal than that: items could be purchased but couldn't be equipped, a health bar was present but medkits couldn't be used and the only missions available were very basic fetch quests that rewarded unusable cash and experience. We were eager to find out how these missing or undeveloped features would manifest themselves in the full game and so asked Jan for a breakdown of item types, uses and equipment mechnics, to which we received the following:
All inventory objects in the game fall into one of the following categories:

Armor: Each type of armor changes your avatar’s visual appearance and also tweaks your stats with a special unique feature such as an additional combat move. You can wear only one kind of armor at a time. There will be around four to six armor-types to choose from in the final game.

Decks/AR Chips: Generally, these are a hardware/software combo that allow you to link into cyberspace. Your deck also determines your stats and abilities in cyberspace. You can have only one deck at a time, which limits you in some ways and empowers you in others.

Ranged Weapons: You can place these in quick-item slots and use them in combat. Generally our combat is more melee-based, resembling brawler games (the style can be somewhat similar to Guacamelee or Aztez, to name a couple of recent examples), but still, ranged weapons can play a larger role if you want them to. You can generally have as many ranged weapons as will fit into your inventory, and you can equip as many as you have quick-item slots available (there are nine slots, so as to map to the PC keyboard). The weapons differ in damage, recoil, ammo capacity and amount of sound produced, so generally you can either have big guns making a lot of noise or small guns that keep you less detectable when playing in a stealthy way.

Consumables: You can use these directly from inventory or place them in quick-item slots to use quickly during action. The majority of these are health restoration items, with several notable exceptions such as datachips (these give you additional XP upon use; more advanced ones give you skillpoints).

Viewables: These are mainly used for adventure puzzles and side-quests. They may be maps, engine or location sketches, etc. Once you get a viewable item, you can look at it in the inventory and get direct or indirect clues to quest and puzzle solutions.

Quest items: All the keys, keycards, and other items you need to acquire in order to solve a mission or progress further in the game. These can be pretty much anything, and they can be used either within dialogue (to unlock new dialogue options) or directly to unlock a door or gate or otherwise gain access to a new location.

Immersive Items: These cannot be used in any way, only found/bought/sold. They’re intended to strengthen immersion in the game world – examples include t-shirts, magazines, old videogame cartridges, etc.
With nothing much to do in terms of narrative progression, the pre-alpha preview build of DEX is essentially a virtual tour of Harbor Prime. As such, our time with the game was spent jumping and over rooftops, crawling through sewers and looting unguarded apartments.

It was freeing to have our blue haired avatar sprint across the top of a building, inhabited only by fleeing pigeons, far above the hustle and bustle of the grimy streets below. The scene communicated a sense of purpose, as if the young lady on screen really did harbour a hidden potential that could change the world. Actually performing such feats is currently a bug-ridden and clunky process, but the idea is there, and it is strong. Again, the future of DEX's environments intrigued us and so we asked Jan for more information:
The locations in the final release will be more dense. Firstly, there will be more NPCs to interact with. Secondly, there will be more meaningful uses of items. Thirdly, once we introduce cyberspace, locations will get an additional layer of interactivity (so you might be able, for example, to hack ATMs and vending machines in the city streets). Also, once locations are populated with enemies and potential ambushes, it will make passing through the streets and slums much more challenging.
Equally strong are DEX's 2D, half hand-drawn, half pixilated visuals which can be viewed up close or from afar by zooming in and out. Characters are well detailed, despite their clunky animation, and sport individual characteristics such as tattoos, cyberpunk headgear and even smoke-creating cigarettes. The many bars, streets and desolate apartments are also just as detailed, with unmade beds, stained walls and grubby condom vending machines being the fine brush strokes on Dreadlocks living, breathing, dystopian panorama.

There was much to see in the version of DEX we played, but not much to do. Nevertheless, the message was clear – DEX will present a well crafted world made by those with a passion, love and understanding of classic cyberpunk themes – and we can't wait to see more. In the mean time, be sure to check our EGX Rezzed interview with Dreadlocks, the official DEX website and its Steam Greenlight page.

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