As has long been prophesied by film and game alike, The Future is set to be a gritty, grimy, cybernetic-y kind of place. So it is with Dex, a side-scrolling action RPG that represents this vision of our grey and cheerless future with hand-drawn aplomb. There's a hint of Blade Runner about the initial clutch of environments and character designs, but the gameplay has more in common with Syndicate's upgrade system and Streets of Rage's combat than it does with po-faced monologues about tears in the rain.
Now released on Steam's Early Access program, Dex was successfully Kickstarted last year when it landed over double its modest Ł14,000 target. It fell short of some of its more optimistic stretch goals - so, no "major console" support - but has still managed to secure an extended single-player campaign and an eventual Wii U port. For now, though, this alpha release provides the bare bones of a game and gives a flavour of what's to come, including cybernetic implants, platforming, stealth takedowns, gunplay and over a dozen short side-missions.
The biggest omission from the current build is any form of wider narrative, which is currently a work in progress, undermining developer Dreadlocks' goal of making Dex a story-driven experience. However, the current playable area of New Harbour reveals a number of NPCs looking for someone (you) to solve their problems for a variety of reasons, from tracking down a missing accountant to putting a local drug syndicate out of business. This is achieved through a mix of stealth, platforming, melee combat and recently implemented gunplay, with some varied results.
The fiddliest of these approaches is the current stealth model, which necessitates a silent but painfully slow-moving crouching shuffle to negate the sound of your footfall. There's also the option to head to the local chop-shop - a shady clinic with questionable hygiene standards - to install upgrades to complement your play style, with both softened footpads and knee cushioning available to aid your stealth efforts. Get in close enough and you can take down a bad guy from behind, but more often than not you're spotted by an off-screen hoodlum - and once you've been seen by one, you've been seen by all, forcing you to flee or stand and fight. This means stealth is often abandoned in favour of running, rolling and jumping around like a maniac in order to get away from the unerringly accurate SMG-toting villains.
Downtown, you'll find shops aplenty where ammo retails for cheaper than a kebab, making it a no brainer to arm yourself with a gun and, once the functionality has been added, body armour. Firing your weapon requires you to stand still and although you have the accuracy of cursor-based aiming, you can't shoot something that you can't see - unlike your adversaries. Gunplay has only recently been implemented and is a current area of development focus, so it will require more time before it feels like a viable option. Melee combat, on the other hand, is already a tense and exciting affair. Delivered in a flurry of punches, kicks, sweeps and uppercuts, it has the feel of a 16-bit side-scroller and, along with the tone and art direction, is currently the game's standout feature.
Enemies rush you and wind up more powerful blows to knock you off your feet, requiring you to take evasive manoeuvres. Dreadlocks is working on adding more variety to enemy types and combat scenarios and based on what's here, it's looking likely that a combination of stealth and melee combat will ultimately be the most satisfying way to conduct your often nefarious business. What that business is in aid of or hoping to achieve isn't currently clear, but that will come in time, too.
A skill-point-based progression system offers some standard options for increasing health and damage, but also adds a lock-picking ability to access a multitude of locked doors and a loot-filled safe or two. Experience earned from completing missions, roughing up scumbags and draining old power chips of their juice contributes towards to a levelling model that you'll likely plan ahead of time depending on your preferred play style, in a manner not dissimilar to Deus Ex.
Whatever your preference, though, I recommend opting for artificial limbs as soon as possible because they allow you to jump wonderfully high and far, which is not only fun but also useful for extricating yourself from those failed stealth attempts. The only downside to this Zebedee jumping is that, when you're perched atop tall buildings, it's not always clear what you can land on and what's just part of the scenery, leading to some embarrassing falls from grace onto skull-cracking pavement.
There's still much more to be added to Dex, with a whole system designed to depict cyberspace and provide out-of-body gameplay for hacking turrets, consoles and other character's neural implants yet to be implemented. However, what's present provides a solid base on which to build. There are a slew of fixes and refinements to be made, of course, the biggest of which include a choppy frame-rate and the squishing of a freeze-bug that requires a quick reload (with no loss of progress), but there's nothing here to render Dex unplayable in its current state.
Rough edges are to be expected of an Early Access title and Dex bears them better than some. Whether you're tempted to take the plunge now or wait for a more stable, feature-rich release is a question of just how much the cyberpunk vibe and side-scrolling action-RPG premise appeal to you. There's a way to go before Dex is a cohesive, refined and wholly enjoyable game but its future, unlike the one it depicts, appears bright.