Elex is an intricate mix of survival and action RPG, developed by the studio that brought us the Gothic and Risen series. While it is certainly more casual-friendly than its predecessors, it still saved a lot of room for agonizing failure, inventiveness in combat and a sense of pressure. Forcing players to push through a world that unfolds reluctantly, it rewards them with the stunning terrain, a sense of real influence and characters worth talking to.
Commander Jax used to be one of the Albs, a superior power submissive to a giant machine, Hybrid. The will of this frames-and-wires-enclosed voice from above dictates that the Albs evolve, which requires consuming Elex — a mysterious substance left as an aftermath of Magalan being hit by a comet. Up until the game's entry, Jax was a capable hand to fulfill this Directive. But one day he found himself betrayed, bereft of gear and powers and not particularly liked by anyone on this planet. After a near-death experience executed by his own brother Kallax, Jax wants answers and a way to get on with life.
The task, per usual, seems insurmountable at first: get to the Ice Palace in Xacor, find the treacherous sibling and deal with the family drama, along with the whole army of Elex-drugged soldiers, giant robots and the messy skirmishes of everyone with everyone else. For that Jax will need all the help he can get. At an early stage of the game you will be offered to join one of the three major factions: Berserkers, Clerics and Outlaws; although, with some exploration done, it is possible to found one of your own. Another group to consider are Albs Separatists who fled Xacor to fight against the cult of Hybrid. Interacting with them is decisive for the main plot development, however, the factions are what makes the world of Magalan complex and full of details the enrich your experience as a player.
The broader plot of Elex is defined by a great NPCs involvement and a decent player's agency. Narrative-wise it's strong enough for you to approach many missions differently and create a tale of your own. Supported by witty twists in stories of major non-playable characters, it caters a whole map of intertwined threads and believable motives that are occasionally conflicting and true to the lore and people's places in it.
The factions side quests complement the basic line of a war at the doorstep greatly. They add a sense of social belonging to Jax as outcast and overall play slightly differently: Berserkers would be concentrated on enforcement of the Law and preserving their archaic ways in the world of tech advancement; the Outlaws will be concerned with profit and internal power struggles; the Clerics will tend to their faith, machines and neat-and-tidy order. That said, all these running errands and chasing ranks ultimately only define what your path to gearing up is, as it all comes down to cooperation with Albs Separatists anyway.
While the story is full of ramifications, it misses a proper narration of loss, reclamation and discovery that Jax faces. As an Alb, Jax used to take pure Elex to enhance its abilities at cost of emotions, which he is being (re)acquainted to. Under such circumstances, he would presumably be going through a lot: a former addict coping with withdrawal whose life was ruined and he will possibly have to kill his own brother and other former comrades. Yet, this line is so annoyingly understated, even though the missions log reveals that Jax is practically torn apart by feelings. Such negligence of an important detail damages the main plot too, as with roughly 20 hours of sidequests and without a strong focus on Jax it gets easily blurred and lost in the numerous chores to do.
As a survival/action RPG mix, Elex entails a lot of combat. Unlike in the Gothic series, the control scheme in this game is more conventional. Piranha Bytes held on to its combos-tied attacks though; combine that with a quick stamina drain and a target lock that makes you unable to efficiently dodge numerous enemies' charges and you get a combat system that fits a 1×1 fighting game perfectly, but not the 'everything-here-wants-to-kill-you' design. Jetpack adds a bit of fun and unties your hands a bit in battle scenarios, but it only helps that much: no aerial evasive maneuvers are available, and some mobs, like a Stalker, will still get you mid-flight with one powerful hit. What presumably was supposed to be a quick to grasp and timing-defined challenge became an enemy avoidance simulator, where you often run or fly around to get stamina or to simply avoid being decimated. There is no swiftness and very little control over the fight when it comes to confronting mutants, especially when glitches occur. Humanoids are much easier to take down, but then again, only if it's not a group. Even if you triumph over a gang of Reavers or hostile Exiles, you won't be able to take their gear and weapons — as opposed to a very common, if not a standard quality-of-life feature in RPGs.
It's not just the combat system as such, but how enemies are leveled too. They grow in strength much quicker than you are, and they do not respawn, so going after weaker monsters to grind some experience is not an option. Ultimately, you will have to be prepared to die a lot and come up with a use of the terrain to win. Enemy AI is well-developed though, so they are likely to reach you one way or another, either by finding a way around to get closer or by powerful ranged attacks. In many cases, fights are a worthy challenge that you will find yourself too underprepared for.
To even the odds a bit, you can invest in Attributes and special abilities or make potions and modify weapons. Depending on the faction Jax joins, there are 3 strands of weapons and enhancement available to you. Berserkers stick to melee and magic, Clerics rely on Elex-powered hardware and psionic abilities, Outlaws gobble chems and go all trigger-happy with the Old World guns. Essentially, they are different in a way they do the same things: Fireball for a Berserker is replicated by one of the rifles for a Cleric and so on. Navigating in combat styles and improving your gear is a fun and inventive process. But even there you are more likely to lose than you are to gain. Leveling up in Elex is not a quick matter; nor will it shower you with Attribute Points. Past 30 points each Attribute actually takes twice as much to upgrade. Learning and crafting are grabby too, as they are tied to the game's greedy economy too much. While paying trainers for their services makes sense, it is still too much to afford both advance, equipment and consumables. The in-game currency is even involved in crafting, making you pay a handsome sum when tinkering with your trusty weapon or making an amulet. This is, perhaps, the first recent game that begs for microtransactions but wouldn't even give you that.
For the diversity's sake, there are also 'minigames' like hacking and lockpicking. For a game with such scale, the mechanics in these look underdeveloped and something that was done very quickly and merely to be present. More often than not, engaging in these activities will result in a generic stock of raw materials and junk to sell.
But it all becomes so petty once you get down to exploration and interaction with NPCs. The world is open to you right away, and you are free to roam around in the lush greenery of Edan, the desiccated yet full of life lands of
Mojave Wasteland Tavar, the icy steeps of Xacor, the high-tech volcano-heated Clerics' domain of Ignadon or a little bit of this and that in Abessa. It is really worth taking time to venture off on long routes, especially those with 'climatic' transitions. Dedicated exploration makes the game really open up to you and undiscloses things you may have missed, such as notes, records, propaganda posters or rusty, verdurous vehicles that give it a much richer context. The NPCs react to most of the Jax's responses and actions intelligently, with personality and plot impact, making the storyline more flexible and social interactions — more enjoyable.
graphics & Sound
Piranha Bytes managed to create a spectacular setting that presents itself with anything but monotony, aided by the main aesthetics of each area and level design. It is a vast and captivating playground for exciting discoveries, and with the jetpack equipped, it feels like there is no limit to this exploration. It's lively enough to fully deliver the tremendous change brought by the Elex substance, yet it is not overpopulated to convey that this change dragged a lot of devastation and danger along. The little moments like seeing Seedlings glow in the waterfall of Goliet at night are absolutely enchanting. Even your companion will comment on what stands out about this location the most from time to time, pointing out that the decorations for Jax's journey are worth taking a moment to appreciate.
Elex does not shy away from flaunting a mixture of sci-fi and medieval in its post-apocalyptic environment. But this is an identity that seems to draw too much from other games to be truly original and wholesome. Visually, it tries to be Fable III, Mass Effect, Fallout and Killzone 4 at once, leaving you with nothing precise to describe the game's uniqueness. The lack of individualism in characters' design is just as upsetting, and the animation is Piranha-Bytes-special-gauche. The graphics make an impression that Elex is a 2005 game that was resurrected by fans' efforts with a lot of modding and retexturizing.
The strongest part of the game is, perhaps, the sound. The voiceover is done stunningly in a way that makes you assume it was originally written out and done in English. It masterfully builds the NPCs and factions' identity by how people speak and what they say, making the world more of a social system rather than a bunch of walking quest handout points on the map. The soundtrack is deeply coherent with what's happening on the screen, whether it's an exploration or encounter scenario, Valley of the Damned or the Domed City, day or night; on top of that, it is immersive, yet understated, allowing you to engage with the game while not getting distracted by background sounds.
I have a lot of questions to Elex and to Piranha Bytes in particular. Why creating a beckoning and seemingly accepting world full of unfair punishment and annoying inconveniences in battles? Why must people pay for crafting without being awarded with experience in return? Why are likable, believable characters so drably designed? Why should players feel like they need to deserve a right to exploit the possibilities offered by the game? Why are the visual 'inspirations' so in-your-face-fpirprominent? 'Why?' a lot of things. But it's a distinct treat for the die-hard RPG fan community at least in terms of scope and variance. At the very same time, it is obvious that in a lot of aspects Piranha Bytes decided to go with a compromise that only made it worse. Perhaps, Elex will improve tremendously after patches, but at this point, the game is a combination of the retrograde game design, technical issues, imbalance and identity crisis coated in a beguiling setting, refreshing amount of freedom and a set of diverse, humane NPCs. It teases with a lot of promises and brings you down with twice as much mistreatment.
|+ Beautifully designed ambient,||– Inadequate rewards|
|+ Compelling and complex story||– Standard QoL features missing or lacking|
|+ Characters that feel very real||– Intersection of economy and crafting|
|+ Freedom of exploration and progress||– Combat system not designed for multiple enemies|
|+ Great challenge||– Combat dominating missions' completion|
|– Mobs' development is way ahead of Jax's|
|– Uneven AI development|
|– Lack of uniqueness in visuals|