Developer: Piranha Bytes
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Platform: PC, PS4 and Xbox One
Release Date: October 17, 2017
ESRB: M for Mature
Note: This review is based on the PC version of the game
Most modern RPGs have favored diverse, emergent storytelling, where traditional gameplay tropes of the genre are eschewed for greater accessibility and player empowerment. The Elder Scrolls series is the most obvious and greatest example of this trend, but there remain bands of holdouts who prefer their RPGs a bit more hardcore. The most old-school fans of the genre have often turned to Piranha Bytes, a German studio with a repertoire of flawed gems.
The eccentric developer’s most recent release, ELEX, is much the same as the infamous Gothic and Risen series that have inspired it. You begin as nothing, and after hours of grinding, you’ll be only slightly more than nothing.
The sooner you figure out everything can and will kill you, the sooner you’ll be on your way to deciding the fate of ELEX’s expansive, dangerous world.
The Earth-like planet of Magalan is in rebuild after an apocalyptic meteor shower has left the landscape desolate. Humans huddle in small communes, from Mad Max-style bandits to nature-worshipping forest guardians. The planet’s surface is now scarred by strange blue crystals called elex. Some of the humans, known as Albs, have taken to ingesting the crystals in order to gain exponentially increased strength at the cost of their humanity. Believing the rest of the world to be a plague of free will, the Albs will stop at nothing to extinguish resistance and bring the world of Magalan under control.
Players take on the role of ex-Alb Jax, a former commander who’s left for dead after he fails an important mission. For some reason, Jax has to hunt down his brother who tried to kill him and take his revenge. Not much of this is really explained, save for some loading screen text, but the plot is more or less a pretext to go nuts. Players will come into contact with four different factions, each with their own set of quests to complete, fighting styles, and purchasable gear. After visiting each faction and getting some introductions out of the way, players are free to align with a given faction and pursue the associated main quest lines.
Many of the choices you’ll make throughout the various missions will impact later plot outcomes. It leaves a better sense of permanence and impact, even if the consequences aren’t immediately felt.
The side quests are equally engaging, focusing on the efforts of various faction members to make a living in a post-apocalyptic society. You’ll be doing as many supply runs and fetch quests as you will combat encounters. Despite the general similarity in quest types, it doesn’t always feel as rote as it sounds.
Part of this is due to the strong world design ELEX offers. Environments are generally varied, and there are always fun secrets and side quests hiding off the beaten path. Jax comes prepackaged with a jetpack, which means getting around to higher elevations is a breeze. Just be forewarned….the earlier levels make it difficult to traverse enemy-ridden areas. Your equipment is your only defense against Magalan’s steady stream of non-level scaled threats, so you’ll find avoiding conflict tends to be the best bet until your gear is improved. You’ll be doing a lot more running than fighting.
When fighting becomes unavoidable, ELEX fumbles a bit. There’s a combo-based combat system that’s a holdover from previous Piranha Bytes games (unless you’ve played Risen, you wouldn’t know this). Like many of ELEX’s systems, not much is explained. You’re left to deduce the combat mechanics on your own, which can lead to some frustration when you’re regularly getting caved in by mutant dogs. Melee is also the most useful method of combat, with ranged weaponry being mostly ineffective due to ammo/damage constraints.
ELEX is also a little rough around the edges on the technical side. You’ll see some funky bugs every now and then, including a bit of clipping or getting stuck on game-world objects. Some of the voice-acting can also come off a bit stilted, though I generally didn’t notice it that much. This is clearly an ambitious game limited by a smaller budget, but you’ll be too busy trying not to die to notice. What may frustrate you more is the hit-or-miss combat and the lack of clarity in how to navigate Magalan. ELEX is very old-school in its approach and pulls no punches in keeping you in your place, occasionally to detrimental effect.
If you like your RPGs a bit on the punishing side, ELEX will likely be up your alley.
It can be a beautiful, ambitious, and rewarding game. It can also be a maddeningly difficult and obtuse experience for the uninitiated. If you let ELEX unfold itself to you, you’ll find a deep, rich lore around decently-engaging exploration. Jax’s adventures don’t always land with a bang, but there’s probably something you’ll like in ELEX’s toybox approach to world-building and combat.
A rich, detailed game-world that is nowhere near as boring as the name
Plenty of freedom to decide who you want to align with or destroy
Surprisingly ambitious given the budgetary constraints, with plenty of things to see and do
Lacking polish on the technical side, and some stilted voice-acting/writing
Painfully difficult for beginners, even on the easiest setting
Overall Score: 7 (out of 10)
ELEX won’t reinvent the wheel, but what it does offer is charming, if occasionally maddening. Take the time dig into Pirahna Byte’s weird mash-up of sci-fi and fantasy tropes if you dare, but stay for the atmosphere and freedom.