I've been looking forward to Dexter - The Game on the iPhone/iPod since first hearing about it a few months ago. Tonight, the popular Showtime series starts its fourth season, with anticipation spilling over from the fans. The first season is arguably still the best thus far, and it's events from that first season that act as the basis for the missions in The Game. Being familiar with the first season might make for a more rewarding experience, but it isn't required. Having some familiarity with the series is a great idea though, as the characters aren't explained in detail. The question is whether or not this app is something every Dexter fan needs -- and for that, let's take a closer look.
Stealth & Collecting Evidence - Gameplay Part 1
Dexter: The Game begins just like the series' pilot did: Dexter is watching Donovan, a seemingly peaceful man who leads a choir of young boys at a neighborhood church. Unknown to everyone else, Donovan has urges to kill, and he's killed at least three boys thus far. When the opening cinematic ends, you start outside in a vacant plot of land, searching for the hard evidence of Donovan's brutal actions.
As fans of the show will know, and as newcomers will quickly learn, Dexter lives by a code that his late father instilled in him as a teenager. Dexter is different, and carries within him an intangible 'dark passenger' that drives his need to kill. Unlike most 'monsters,' Dexter was taught to kill for good -- i.e., killing those people who escaped justice for their heinous acts. Before a kill, Dexter has to be absolutely certain of his prey, and so evidence to confirm his suspicions and police reports, etc., must be found.
Throughout The Game, collecting evidence is one of the four major aspects of gameplay. Using two virtual joysticks, (you can enable accelerometer control, but I don't recommend it or use it myself), players control Dexter's movement and view, just like a typical third person game. Pushing all the way forward on the left v-stick makes Dexter run, while lighter pushing makes him walk. The only time you aren't running is when you are sneaking around, at which times the game forces you to walk slowly anyway, so you might as well run every other time. The second v-stick is for the camera, but what I found to work better was just swiping across the screen. The v-stick camera control isn't made for big, swift changes in view, so just a quick swipe works better.
Objects in the game world that Dexter can interact with will subtly flash. The first such object in the game is a shovel. when you get near it, a couple of small icons pop up next to the right v-stick: Examine and Take. Tapping the examine button brings up a picture of the shovel and offers a basic description of it. I was expecting to do a lot of examining throughout the game but you honestly don't do that much of it. After picking up the shovel, I thought I might also do a lot of item collecting and inventory building but that turned out to not be the case.
Shovel in hand, Dexter's next goal is to run around the area and search for graves to dig up. Players are kept attuned to what needs to be done by tapping the Journal text button at the top of the HUD. The developers also did a good job of informing the player how to play various gameplay mechanics by bringing up full screen text descriptions with accompanying audio. Tapping the Journal takes you instantly to a new screen that shows five icons. These are the five missions Dexter will play through to complete the game, which ends rather abruptly. The missions have some order to them, although I was playing the final three missions all at one time.
After Dexter satisfies the Code by discovering the three bodies Donovan buried, he's good to go for the kill. Just like in the show, he's got to pick a time and a place for the deed, and a clean kill room must be setup. Locating the kill room is never a problem, and setting it up is left up to a cutscene. After the cutscene is over, you can touch up parts of the painter's plastic Dexter has draped all around the room by going up to open seams and pressing the 'Fix Plastic' button that pops up. Doing so helps ensure a room that leaves behind no evidence. Little tasks like this, and several others I will describe later, help maintain Dexter's Mask, an important game element I will describe shortly.
Okay, so Dexter is all set to take Donovan's life now -- the Code is set, the Passenger is ready, and the kill room is waiting. The next sequence in The Game is stealth-based. Dexter has Donovan alone, but needs to sneak up on him now. In this case, Dexter is looking for Donovan's keys, so that he can hide in the backseat and wait for Donovan to return to his car. At that point, Dexter forces Donovan to drive him out to the kill room, a shack next to the graves of Donovan's victims.
The stealth component to The Game requires that players stay well back from their target and take cover often. There are about five such sequences throughout the campaign, and in each case a red timer is counting down in the center of the screen. This timer simply indicates when the sequence is over; if you can sneak around for this long, you're all set for the cutscene. Sneaking around is done with the same movement and camera controls as before, only players cannot run this time. Additionally, a Stand Up/Crouch Down button appears above the right v-stick that you use to take cover; you cannot move while crouched down by the way. The only way to know if you are about to be caught is by the yellow and red border that appears at the edges of the screen. These moments indicate when the target is suspicious or aware, and if you aren't in cover at this time, the sequence restarts (with no load times).
Dialogue & Mini-Games - Gameplay Part 2
To this point, I've discussed two of the four major aspects of Dexter: The Game's gameplay: stealth and evidence collecting. The other two would then be dialogue and mini-games. After successfully capturing your prey, players get to choose what weapon from Dexter's medical tools collection they want to use to kill. Then, the victim is woken up and a branching dialogue sequence starts. The dialogue moments are most important and much more common outside of the kill room's, and what you say has a direct effect on your Mask/Passenger ratio, which must be maintained or the game ends. Keeping the ratio sufficiently balanced is easy though, and should provide no problem to an average gamer.
The dialogue sequences can reveal additional evidence, which count towards your total evidence gathered per mission. The number of available bits of information that can be gathered vary from one mission to the next, but you always know how much you have and need by looking at the Journal. Anyway, in kill room scenarios, the dialogue is used to essentially make the victim confess. Dexter has three choices of dialogue for every response in a conversation, and these are represented by buttons with one or two words. I admit I found these buttons a little misleading, because their description is so brief it doesn't always represent what Dexter is actually going to say very well. It's not a big deal, but as each string of dialogue is usually short anyway, it seems to me that they could have just put the entire line of dialogue out on the screen for choosing instead of just a very abbreviated button.
After a minute or so of talking, the killing part happens and it features one of several mini-games you will encounter throughout the game. The screen goes black and various lines are drawn on screen. The player must simply drag his finger to match these lines, which include several variations like straight and curved, two lines at once, and so forth. A timer keeps you focused on matching as many lines are you can, and when done, points for your Mask and Passenger meters are awarded for the previous dialogue sequence and for how well you did in this mini-game.
The top of the HUD is where you can keep track of the white meter that represents your Mask. The Mask is the Dexter that everyone sees in his world; it's made up of fake smiles, socializing, and everything that isn't the Passenger. The Passenger is the dark voice inside Dexter that drives him to kill, and only with the Code is he able to stay balanced and under control. Just about everything you do in Dexter alters your Mask or Passenger score, with additional mini-games available to give you back Mask points if needed.
The Donovan mission is short and sweet, with just three pieces of Evidence to collect. Other 'cases' from the first season make up the other four missions, including of course the Ice Truck Killer which was the overarching storyline in season one. A cocaine related murder, a hit and run fugitive, and a rapist/murderer are the ideas behind the other three cases. Fourteen bits of evidence await in the Ice Truck case, but I was able to complete the mission with only ten pieces of evidence found. You don't actually play through the entire storyline though, and the game actually ends at what would have probably been the fourth or fifth episode of the season. More specifically, whenever Dexter finds something at his apartment, but I'll leave it at that instead of risking spoilers.
The apartment is one of several destinations that Dexter must travel to throughout the game to advance the story. Save games are automatically submitted when traveling to new locations, or you can go back to the Apartment to save at anytime. You can also view some of your victim's slides there. This is done by tapping the GPS button next to the Journal button in the HUD. When you do this, a list of available areas is displayed. Load times on my 3GS were never more than ten seconds at most for any part of The Game.
The cocaine case is one that Dexter is looking at for Sgt. Doakes. Doakes is sure of his suspicions but a blood spatter mini-game tells the real story. In this case, there are only three bits of evidence. The first is gotten after talking with Doakes. Talking with Doakes is different than talking to other characters in that players don't choose what to say; instead, during the entire conversation, an accelerometer mini-game appears. The player must keep a glowing ball inside of two brackets. If he does, Dexter remains cool and collected, but if he doesn't, Dexter says some things he really shouldn't, and your Passenger score goes up. The reason for this is that Doakes is the only one on the police force who is creeped out by Dexter, an idea that really takes form in the second season.
The blood spatter mini-game is neat, but can be frustrating. In this game, a sample blood spatter taken from the crime scene is shown on the left. Players choose from a list of weapons from a drop down menu and try to replicate the blood spatter by dragging their finger across a plain canvas. The idea is that you must successfully recreate all blood spatters on the left. A submit button lets you submit your attempt with instant feedback. Players have unlimited canvas to use, but a meter at the top tells you how much blood you have left. Players must match all blood sequences on the left during one attempt to be successful. In other words, you can't match one sample, run out of blood, restart a second later, and match the second blood spatter sample on the left. You have to be rather exact on size and orientation, which can be the cause of some frustration at first, but ultimately it's a pretty cool game.
From within Dexter's lab, players can spend time on other mini-games such as finger print analysis, paint chip matching, and DNA analysis to earn extra Mask points. You can also practice decrypting passwords and picking locks from Dexter's apartment, too. Finger print analysis is fun, and tough. A 4x4 grid is shown as well as four colors off to the side. Like the old Simon game, boxes in the grid will quickly flash a color, and the player must correctly tap the colors in order to reveal a print on part of the grid. You have to get enough grid spots unlocked by the time the last sequence is shown to match a database record to succeed.
Paint chip matching is an accelerometer mini-game where you tilt the device back and forth to try to get four paint colors to pass through a small target window. You do one color at a time, and whenever the color passes through this small window, you have to tap the Lock button on screen. This is similar to lock picking, which is also a timing/accelerometer based game. Here, players must push their lock pick forward through the tumblers. The tumblers have a small space between them that can only be reached if you tilt your phone in such a way to allow for your pick to slide past the tumbler. Picking locks is required at some areas in the game.
The DNA mini-game has players quickly tapping highlighted colored bubbles, while decryption is another grid-based game. In decryption, a 4x4 grid pops up. Players have to move letters from one side of the screen into this grid and submit their configuration. You get four attempts to get all of the letters in the right place before having to restart.
Presentation, Closing Thoughts
Dexter: The Game is obviously backed by Showtime and as such includes Michael C. Hall providing the voiceover for Dexter and the other voices sounded accurate too. Music from the show is also included, as are of course a handful of plotlines. Graphically, The Game looks good with no major technical issues at all. I didn't have any real trouble with the controls either, and about the only trouble I ran into was late in the game when I was trying to complete an objective that wasn't possible yet. This objective was available, but not doable until I completed part of another mission entirely, which wasn't made clear to me.
The game ends rather abruptly as I mentioned earlier, and a player stats screen is shown afterwards. Players can re-play the experience to try to find all of the evidence, or you can go back at anytime and play some of those mini-games. For me, one play through was sufficient, but it's good to know there is some replay value there if I felt the urge.
To the summary...