Ghost in the Shell is one of my favourite media franchises, period. I can’t get enough of every little bit of the series, from the movies to the shows to even the novels. Yet the realm of videogames is where the anime juggernaut has always faltered. All four attempts at bringing Major Motoko Kusanagi’s exploits to the big screen have been varying degrees of “mixed,” even the admittedly decent PS2 title. Don’t even get me started on that PSP shooter.
Much to my relief, small Czech studio Dreadlocks has scratched my GITS itch with Dex, and they didn’t even have to use the IP, to boot.
Dex follows the titular heroine as she wakes up in her grungy apartment, the sound of militarized police outside her door. Out of nowhere, a mysterious entity called “Raycast” contacts her, instructing her to hack her surroundings and run. As it turns out, she’s under hot pursuit from The Complex, a secretive entity hellbent on using artificial intelligence to take control of Harbor Prime. With the help of a gruff barkeep, a sarcastic hacker, a sketchy doctor, and a veritable rogue’s gallery of allies, Dex has to get to the bottom of why The Complex is after her—and maybe even put a stop to them.
The core narrative in Dex is, in one word, fantastic. It is punctuated by climactic highs that start a few hours in, and sustained throughout by a technobabble-rich conspiracy theory that slowly unravels. All of the players are well written and diverse, drawn from a melting pot of races, backgrounds, and sexual orientations. As a whole, the core narrative is a deeply cerebral yet nevertheless action-packed romp from beginning to end.
But to play through just the main story is to miss where Dex truly shines. Dreadlocks has filled their game with some of the most interesting ancillary narratives I’ve ever seen in a game, bar none. As good as the main plot is, there are several sub-plots that are equally as, if not more so, interesting. Rescuing the loved one of a restaurant owner from sex trafficking, reuniting a corrupt corporate lawyer with her conspiracy theorist husband, and preventing a deranged fan from killing her favourite singer are just three of the amazing narratives available. The best part is the fact that there are multiple outcomes to each, all of them direct, palpable results of your own choices.
Which isn’t to say that Dex herself is just a player analogue for choices. She most certainly isn’t. She is, in fact, one of my favourite protagonists in literal years. The writers have instilled their resilient, bisexual heroine with strength, sass, and enough mystery to keep you asking questions about her until the very end. While her appearance and attitude is so clearly influenced by Major Katsuragi herself, Dex manages to escape just being a hollow homage and emerges as her own entity. When 2016 ends, she will undoubtedly be one of my favourite characters I got to take control of.
It helps that the game itself is pretty fun to play as well. Dex’s side-scrolling gameplay is a well-managed marriage of beat ‘em ups, platformers, and RPGs, with some schmups thrown in during the surprisingly compelling hacking minigames. There is also a nice degree of freedom in how players approach conflicts. Statting out Dex with upped strength and gunplay, then running in guns blazing is just as valid as sneaking around and never being seen. It’s a truly dynamic game, and one that rewards patience and experimentation. While I did run into some occasional bugs, such as getting caught on scenery and dialogue popping a bit early, it was still a smooth, engaging experience overall.
There are homages, there are spiritual successors, and then there are things like Dex. This is a game which wears its influences on its sleeves, yet is never held back by attempting cheap imitations. It’s clear that Dreadlocks has a lot of love for Ghost In The Shell and other cyberpunk works in a similar vein, but they’ve clearly struck out in their own direction with it. That direction is one that is consistently compelling, engaging, and most importantly, a lasting experience with loads to unpack.
Uninstall that FTP Ghost in the Shell shooter and play something made with love and care for the franchise.