In a world bursting with tales of gritty, post-apocalyptic futures and hard lessons, Dexter Stardust: Adventures in Outer Space comes blasting in as a bright and breezy breath of fresh air. From its surf-rock theme tune to its zany, pulptastic plotting and easy character camaraderie, its heart is firmly in the optimistic retro future of classic Saturday morning serials. It’s still technically post-apocalyptic, but with orbiting Taco Shacks and a hula doll on every spaceship dashboard, it’s hard to dwell on that too much. The plot and one of the main characters don’t always get the space they need to shine, and the pacing sags like a slightly overcooked souffle in the middle, but if you’re a fan of classic adventures, telenovelas, or Mexican cooking, you’ll be too busy smiling to notice.
Set in a future where there really were canals on Mars and Venus turned out to be a verdant paradise (rather than the toxic, greenhouse-gas-filled oven of our more boring reality), humanity has explored and colonised the solar system, eventually discovering the mysterious Planet X in its outer reaches. Or, as the locals like to call it, Vrees. First contact initially went so well that Dexter’s father, Bayard Stardust, fell in love with a beautiful Vreesian called Venturia. But then suddenly, out of nowhere, the Vreesians dispatched a fleet and blew up the Earth! Bayard perished, but not before entrusting young Dexter to his Uncle Jedo, who made it out just in time, spaceship dramatically backlit by the exploding fireball of Earth.
It’s now twenty years later, and despite their ruined homeworld, humanity is still thriving, thanks to colonies everywhere from Venus to Ganymede (or, as Dexter insists on putting it, Granny Mede’s). Jedo now runs a bodega on Mars, and Dexter and his partner Aurora are space couriers, helping Jedo to deliver vital supplies such as plastic flamingos and rubber chickens across the solar system. Dexter, like Futurama‘s Fry, is a lovable, perpetually optimistic doofus who generally wears his tragic history lightly, while Aurora is the brains of the outfit. Yes, there are times when he needs to retreat to their ship’s roof and contemplate the stars, but, as he likes to remind Aurora, there’s little that can’t be solved by tacos.
Then, one day, the pair are sent to negotiate trading rights with the Viceroy of Ganymede, only to encounter a mysterious Vreesian robot who stirs up Dexter’s long-buried past and puts them on a collision course with Vrees, with humanity’s future on the line. So, no pressure then! Especially since Jedo, in a bid to keep them safe, has dismantled the robot and grounded their ship. Time for some classic point-and-click shenanigans, including but not limited to tricking a guard dog with a flamingo, giving a bog monster indigestion, and learning the ukulele.
Dexter, with his leather jacket, flying goggles, and cargo pants, looks every inch the swashbuckling hero of a sci-fi serial. He even has his own hair-raising title sequence, with each of the four chapters (plus a short prologue) being presented as self-contained episodes, with titles like “Mega Problema in the Bodega” and “Hidden Secrets of the Moon”. (It’s probably best to play them in order, but you can dip in and out as you please.)
The cartoon graphics are delightful: crisp, lightly shaded, and colourful, but with a slightly faded palette to emphasise the retro mood. The worlds you visit all have their own unique personality, too. Mars, with its umber skies and craggy mountains, has been terraformed to add breathable air and lush forests, which open out to reveal “Nuevo Consuelo” picked out in huge Hollywood letters and a 1950s style diner with flying saucers outside. Meanwhile, Ganymede has more of an Incan or Aztec flavour, and the Moon is a broken-down theme park.
Aside from that peppy surf-rock theme and similar guitar stings at critical moments, the soundtrack mostly settles for gentle Latin and Caribbean melodies that keep things upbeat but not annoying or intrusive. The voice work, though, is a highlight, especially Dexter, who treads the line between enthusiastic innocence and hamming it up. The cast is small, with most actors taking several roles, but they all do a solid job, from super-chilled Chucho (with one sock and a tale to tell), to uptight British robot Number 4. Perhaps because the performers are all friends or relatives of solo developer Jeremy Fryc, there’s a companionable vibe to the characters, from grumpy uncle Jedo to a spaced-out hippie talking about the energy of the Universe. (Apart, that is, from a sinister, faceless Vreesian lurking in the background, but every good tale’s got to have a menacing villain.)
The interface is straightforward and familiar: clicking on an object brings up options to look at, talk to, take, or use it, and an inviting big red button in the bottom left of the screen brings up your inventory. There’s no true hint system, but Dexter loves to drop in clues everywhere he goes, suggesting what to do next or explaining why he can’t do something right now. At a few points, he even breaks the fourth wall to explain that you can’t pick up an object right now, but you should check back in a later episode. And if all that’s not enough to set you on the right path, the local ukulele emporium has a wall full of both ukuleles and random tips.
The developer is clearly a fan of classic LucasArts titles (dropping in easter eggs for Monkey Island, Sam and Max, and Loom, among others) and the gameplay reflects that, with long, convoluted puzzle chains leading to quirky payoffs in the later stages. As your inventory fills up with everything from an inflatable pig to a mind-control helmet, there can be a lot to monitor, but thankfully the game tracks your objectives, and the solutions are almost always in the realms of cartoon, rather than moon, logic. I was a little stymied by a loose floorboard that only shows up as a hotspot when you wander onto it, but since I was trapped in one small room at the time, I wasn’t stuck for long.
For all Dexter‘s lighthearted comedy, there’s a surprisingly serious and intricate plot underneath. Without spoilers, it features time travel and predestination, alien politics, and a tragic misunderstanding. The problem is that it’s mostly squeezed in at the beginning and end, with the middle two episodes (about three-quarters of the game’s seven-hour playtime) putting it on the back burner to focus on (admittedly chewy) puzzling. With Aurora also sidelined, staying with the ship while Dexter explores, it was hard to keep in mind that the fate of humanity was hanging in the balance while I was trying to trick an AI into giving me free tacos.
As the credits roll, though, it’s hard to feel too grumpy about some pacing issues. Dexter Stardust comes to us from simpler, happier times, when the Universe was brimming with possibility and malevolent villains could be defeated by a can-do attitude and a grin. Its cartoony depictions of imaginative worlds teeming with life, engaging hero, and zany puzzles make it easy to like, and even easier to recommend to anyone who needs a break from all the gloom of the modern world, or just fancies a burrito.
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