ELEX Review – A New Setting Doesn’t Prevent The Same Outcome
ELEXOctober 17th, 2017
ELEX is a game I've been following since its announcement at Gamescom 2015. As an RPG fan, I couldn't but be hopeful that a new IP and a new science-fantasy hybrid setting would be the perfect opportunity for German studio Piranha Bytes to flourish once again.
In an industry where most developers often switch genres with relative ease, Piranha Bytes have religiously stuck with making roleplaying games since their founding. So far, we've gotten three trilogies from them: Gothic, which to this day remains their highest rated production, and Risen.
Whereas Gothic was set in a fairly traditional medieval fantasy world, Risen switched things up by adding a pirate undertone to the fantasy backdrop. ELEX, on the other hand, can be easily classified as set in a science fantasy world, one where magic, jetpacks and laser based weaponry exist all at once. Traditionally, few RPGs have chosen this setting, the most notable ones being Star Ocean and Shadowrun.
Magalan, that is the name of the planet, used to host a civilization of billions much like our current Earth until one day a meteor hit, delivering untold destruction. It also brought over the titular ELEX, though, an alien substance capable of changing life forms, powering technology and enabling magic skills.
As usual, Piranha Bytes decided to go with a predefined main character. That's a decision that may not sit well with those who'd prefer to customize the main character to their liking, but it's one I can respect for many reasons. It's much easier for developers to create a deep, compelling story if they know exactly who we'll be playing as.
In ELEX, you'll step into the shoes of Jax, a feared Commander of the Albs faction. Hailing from the frosty mountains of Xacor, the Albs have decided to consume pure ELEX in order to become stronger and conquer all of Magalan. The side effect of this is being rendered emotionless, which may well be why they don't have any qualms whatsoever in crushing everyone standing in their path.
Right at the beginning of the game, though, Jax is betrayed by another Albs Commander (Kallax) while on a mission, his jet brought down by a rocket. Left for dead by Kallax, Jax finds himself stripped of all equipment and, for the first time, filled with emotions due to the lack of ELEX in his system.
The great news is that the world is completely open straight from the beginning of the game. And it's a huge, completely seamless world; Piranha Bytes told us that it's around 1.5 times the size of Gothic 3's, and they were not kidding. It's made even bigger by virtue of the lack of drivable vehicles or mounts; there is a fast travel system, but you need to unlock the teleporters by literally standing on them and sometimes they're easy to miss, too. For the most part, then, you'll be on foot, running for as long as your stamina allows before a brief recovery.
Unsurprisingly for fans of both Gothic and Risen, the world is the best part of ELEX. There are four big regions to explore, each with its own unique environment. The desert of Tavar, the home of the Outlaws, is an arid wasteland; Ignadon, the original site of the meteor strike, is a volcanic area inhabited by the Clerics, while Edan is a forest which the Berserkers are tirelessly trying to expand through their World Hearts, giant trees imbued with Mana (transmuted ELEX). Abessa looks much like Edan and it's interesting in that its main hub, the Domed City, is the only place where all factions live together (albeit not without tensions) and try to work together against the Albs, the common enemy.
Featuring a potpourri design with elements from each faction, the Domed City also hosts a group of Separatists, Albs who have cut ties with the homeland and want to fight Xacor alongside the so-called Free People. Understandably, some of the others are doubtful of their intentions and that's an example of the best gameplay ELEX can offer. You're called to be an active part of the ongoing struggles between factions and can sway the balance of power in several different directions depending on the quests. Not only that, but you can also lie in certain cases if you'd like to get rid of a certain individual or group of people.
While quests in the majority of RPGs are linear, requiring you to complete the task assigned by the quest giver NPC, in ELEX you may often go against the very wishes of that NPC and even kill him outright. Not all NPCs are killable, of course, and I did encounter a couple unkillable ones that weren't that important for the main story. There's a mission in Tavar's main outpost where you have to collect money from a beggar on behalf of a bar's owner. The beggar doesn't have the money and instead proposes a perplexing scheme, asking Jax to steal from the bar's owner and providing him with her treasure chest's key to commit the theft while he distracts the woman.
Too bad that as soon as you open the chest, the beggar comes charging in and reports you. I tried to kill the woman, but she was unkillable. I loaded an earlier save and tried to take the key from the beggar, but he wouldn't give it away and I couldn't pick it up from his corpse because he, too, was unkillable. There appeared to be no way for me to complete this particular quest the way I wanted to.
Still, this example aside, overall ELEX fares better than most genre competitors when it comes to player agency and it's certainly an important win for Piranha Bytes.
Of course, beyond the main towns (Goliet in Edan, Hort in Ignadon and the Fort in Tavar) there are countless interesting caves and abandoned buildings to check out in the wild, too. As usual in games these days, the developers have scattered throughout the zones plenty of audio logs and notes from the pre-apocalypse world, thus expanding the game's lore.
On the whole, exploring Magalan is a pleasurable experience mostly thanks to the jetpack, which is the first item recovered by Jax after waking up. With players no longer bound by the usual constraints, the level designers have been able to exploit this opportunity to offer a degree of verticality that's missing in most roleplaying games.
That said, it's time to start noting the shortcomings of the game at this point. To begin with, there aren't many memorable enemies and encounters to be found in Magalan. In fact, enemy variety is rather poor and you'll often run into some variation of raptors, hounds, trolls and the likes, with the occasional exception.
Technical aspects aside (I'll get back to those later), even the art style is unimpressive and a tad too generic. Still, those are far from the worst flaws ELEX exhibits in this final release.
Perhaps the most infuriating ones are AI related, particularly your companions'. Throughout the journey in Magalan, Jax encounters various NPCs who are willing to stick with him; only one is able to follow Jax at a time, while the others will wait in his camp.
Companions are usually one of my favorite parts in RPGs, but they're really disappointing here. Companions are supposed to help the player character and complement his/her play style, but that's hardly the case in ELEX. More than once they just sat there doing nothing when my character was fighting for his life; even more frequently they switched between fighting mode and walking mode while the fight was still very much going on.
Not only you can't direct them in any way when it comes to battle tactics, you can't upgrade them at all with the exception of a generalized perk for companions. You can't buy them better equipment, you can't acquire new skills, et cetera.
You can't even revive them, and they cannot revive you. In fact, their durability is generally poor and once they're down the time it takes them to get up is wildly inconsistent. Sometimes they get up in a matter of seconds while on other occasions they remain unconscious for minutes.
It's not a stretch to say that Dragon's Dogma's Pawn system outclasses the companions in this game in every single facet despite originally launching in 2012 for less powerful platforms (PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360).
This is just one part of ELEX's combat related disappointments, anyway. The game's combat system feels really clunky more often than not, mostly due to the mediocre animations involved in hitting and rolling away from enemies (which is also often less responsive than I'd like).
Melee combat fares slightly better than ranged combat in this regard. There's a combo system in place but it appears to be tacked on for good measure and doesn't truly add anything to the combat experience.
What makes it even worse is the severe unbalance of the RPG systems currently on display. The loot system is underwhelming to say the least when it comes to providing new and more powerful equipment, an absolute staple of the genre. It's hard to find powerful new weapons or armor while adventuring and even when you do, ELEX can dial down your excitement rather quickly.
For example, I stumbled occasionally on a sword stuck in a rock while escaping a monster with my jetpack. It had all the markings of one of those happy surprises you expect when playing a game like this. After picking it up, I immediately noticed it had much higher damage than the meager sword I was using at the time. A split-second later, I also realized that I couldn't equip it yet due to lacking the necessary attributes.
Except that the attribute requirements were utterly insane. To equip this sword my character would need over 60 points in both Strength and Dexterity, something that I haven't been able to achieve even twenty hours into the game. Not only that, but the in-game description only mentions Dexterity as the main attribute for ranged combat, so why is it a requirement for a sword?
Needless to say, I had to trudge on with whatever weapon and armor I had. In fact, it's a real slog for the first fifteen hours or so as none of the factions will give you access to decent equipment, with the excuse that you don't have the necessary rank yet. This reverberates badly on the combat itself because damaging foes becomes incredibly hard between the dumb companions and the inadequate equipment you have access to.
Hard games are fine and all when they are challenging due to the high-skill ceiling, like Dark Souls, Lords of the Fallen, The Surge and Nioh. In ELEX, the problem is simply that most foes will utterly crush you with their strikes at this point in the game while your hits barely scratch their health bar, and that's even with the difficulty turned all the way down to Easy. I'm not talking about bosses or anything like that, just the common monsters and enemies you find in the world, even near roads.
I had to resort to alternative tactics to deal with this problem. Whenever possible I'd lure my adversaries all the way to friendly NPCs so that they would help me deal with them. When this wasn't possible and the quest merely required me to collect some item on the ground, I rushed in and immediately ran away from harm, something that's quite easy between the fact that Jax outruns everything and everyone and his jetpack.
Sometimes neither opportunity was available, though, and I was forced to move onto other quests that didn't necessarily focus on combat. In hindsight, this was a boon as those are often the best kind of quests in ELEX, but that doesn't excuse these shortcomings.
If the above wasn't enough, acquiring new skills is also needlessly troublesome. Finding a trainer is almost the gaming equivalent of looking for a needle in a haystack, with no direction at all provided by the game. You'll have to talk to all available NPCs, search for the 'Teach me' dialogue option and subsequently pray that this trainer is the one you were looking for. Then, of course, you'll need to make sure you meet the usually exaggerate requirements to purchase the skill you're interested in.
Long story short, some twenty hours in I still haven't been able to unlock any of the combat skills which certainly didn't help with the aforementioned issues.
The stealth system is also inconsistent, in case you were wondering. Sometimes the NPCs will make a fuss and even draw their weapons simply because you walked in the wrong room or building, while other times you need merely to stay out of their sight, even if they're still just outside, to steal everything you want and then walk out without any issues.
Graphics quality is another area where ELEX swings wildly. When the stars align, usually at nighttime with several light sources nearby, it can look quite nice. Most of the time, on the other hand, it shows shoddy texture work, mediocre animations (particularly facial and combat ones) and other flaws that make it look almost like a last generation game.
Of course, playing on a PC at 4K resolution and max settings helps a lot but then again the gap with other RPGs stays the same. At least the game is well optimized at launch.
There's one thing that's worth praising from a technical standpoint - the loading times are extremely fast, at least on an SSD, from the game's launch to loading your latest save. You can be back in Malagan in a matter of seconds after clicking the icon on your Desktop and that's not something many games can claim. This is an even more impressive feat once you take into account that there are no further loadings to be done once you're in the vast, sprawling game world.
As with previous games by Piranha Bytes, ELEX is more than the mere sum of its parts. It's a game that RPG aficionados will want to play as long as they're willing to put up with its many weak points. I certainly did want to keep playing and exploring in spite of them. It might be a good idea to wait for a sale, though, as by that time comes the developers may have fixed at least some of the balance issues.
Still, in today's exceedingly competitive RPG market (Middle-earth: Shadow of War and Assassin's Creed Origins have both significantly expanded their RPG systems compared to previous entries, for instance) ELEX must confront the harsh truth there are more exciting games to play.
Reviewed on PC (code provided by the publisher). You can buy it on Amazon.
ELEX is pretty much the gaming incarnation of a mixed bag. While exploring the massive world of Magalan is an enjoyable experience and the lore easily pulls players in with lots of interesting quests, the mediocre combat, poor companions AI and severe balance issues prevent it from securing a spot in the ever more crowded RPG limelight.
- Tons of interesting quests
- Player agency is on the higher end of the spectrum
- The jetpack adds another dimension to exploration and combat
- Massive seamless world to explore
- Companions are a huge disappointment
- Poor AI
- Mediocre combat
- Severe balance issues
- Lack of enemy variety and epic fights