For those not in the know, developer Piranha Bytes have previously been responsible for the Risen and Gothic series of RPG's, that have received mixed opinion from gamers and critics alike over the years, with some singing their praises, while others cast their games aside. These titles go back many years, and now it's time to kickstart a new IP. Question is; will Elex be able to convince fans of the genre that it's worth their time?
Elex is their ambitious open world, fantasy, post apocalyptic RPG. Set on the planet of Magalan, which is an Earth-like planet, and sees almost total devastation after an asteroid impact wipes out nearly all of humanity. The introductory sequence explains everything, and is actually an enjoyable experience. The asteroid brings with it a material known as Elex. It has powerful properties that soon become apparent to the player, and each of the worlds four remaining factions deal with it in a different way. But more on that later. I was excited by the prospect of diving into the world of Magalan, and already I had decided that I was going to invest a large chunk of my spare time into Elex.
The game begins with you, Jax, a high ranking member of the faction known as Alb. Your craft is mysteriously shot down during a mission, forcing you into a crash landing. The directive of the Hybrid states that this is unacceptable, and therefore a mission failure. The only way to deal with this, according to the conveniently placed Kallax, is execution. Thankfully, the resulting gun shot knocks you off a cliff instead, rendering you unconscious and allowing a nameless figure to strip you of all your equipment, before you finally rouse yourself from your bullet induced sleep. Waking up, you are bare bones for protection and have no weapon available until you find a nearby bow and iron pipe. I'd recommend getting used to these as this will be all you have for the first few hours. I'm not kidding either.
The opening area of Elex acts as a tutorial of sorts, and rather than informing you of what button does what, it lets you find out on your own, which gently eases you into the game mechanics and the ruined world of Magalan in which Jax resides. Once you exit this area however, the fun won't be far away and your journey begins.
Just after leaving the start area, picking up whatever junk I could find, and that's just what it is; I met a man by the name of Duras, who is a Berserker and introduced me to his faction after a fair old jaunt through the forest. It was here I found out that they have shunned technology to the point it is outlawed in their society, instead returning to a fantasy medieval lifestyle, favouring magic and melee for their combat. Their home, Goliet is as one would expect from this lifestyle choice. Wooden huts, fur and leather armour and a basic way of life.
What irks me about this almost forced direction in the game, is that it makes the other factions of Outlaws and Clerics feel like an afterthought. There's no neutral ground in a town or city where you get to discover them all, and choose your own adventure on your own terms. The only missions that you start off with all centre around working for the Berserkers at the start, although that's not to say you can avoid them and head over towards the other factions. But the problem that arises from this, is that there are no map markers or hint at their locations. They're not that hard to find, but given you have no armour and basic weapons, you're going to have a torrid time running over to them as they're a fair distance away. Even once areas are discovered, the only indication of what is on the map are teleporters and traders. Saying that, the 3 major locations are obvious to the eye.
One things I will say, is that all forms of life that wants you dead is brutally relentless. They will first notice you, as though warning that they are ready for battle. Once enraged, they will pursue you to Hades, baying for your blood and soul. It seems a harsh way for the developers to force this gameplay mechanic on you, but even at a low level, you can use this to your advantage, and kite these predators to another beast, or human. This can result in you making a quick exit, and watching from afar, as they tear each other limb from limb. It can also happen randomly in the wilderness, and a prime example that I came across was; a large troll-like creature, 4 humans, 3 critters and a biter. It was over for the lesser beasts rather quickly, but watching the humans tackle the lumbering troll was fascinating to watch. Until Arx made the worrying decision to shoot at them from the grassy hill I had taken to watching with popcorn in hand.
So overall, sticking it out with the Berserkers until you have something a bit better in terms of skills and gear is advisable. But it still doesn't make the combat any easier, with many enemies making quick work of you unless you master the controls. Dodge roll, party, even jet pack away if need be, but to think that you can hack and slash your way through enemies as in say, Skyrim, will leave you looking at that loading screen frequently.
Moving onto combat, there is naturally going to be comparisons to a popular trilogy, which won't be mentioned, as that comparison is old hat by now. But whereas some games are hard, and require you get good, Elex feels unfair at times. In fact, it feels like it's a 10 year old game already with current mechanics. It's slow, clunky and unresponsive at times. A stamina bar drains quickly when you swing your weapon, and leaves you open to attack. It even drains when you use your dodge roll, and with enemies dishing out a ridiculous amount of damage with a single hit, you will soon find that your current weapon will be little to no damage in the beginning. It's made even more frustrating when you don't have a companion to assist you. Even then, they will sometimes stand there and watch you get killed before deciding to join in, and by then it's too late. Given this is a large part of an RPG, it feels broken. There have been so many games were the combat feels fluid and intuitive, and has been done right in the process. I could list a whole group of games older than Elex, but that would fill up this review. Weapons and armour are locked away from your use until you level up enough to spend attribute points in the respective skill slots to be able to wield a slightly better weapon. It does feel satisfying to finally get a new sword or whatever you're aiming for, and deal them precious few points of damage.
Despite this issue, Elex does have redeeming qualities that really help make it stand out. It is after all, a brand new RPG which is something that attracted me to it, as there hasn't been many in recent memory, with many being sequels of an existing game universe. The world is not only full of places to explore, but the landscape is vast and varied. From the green, lush forests of Edan and Abessa, to frozen tundra of Xacor, to harsh volcanic rock of Ignadon, and a scorched sandy desert of Tavar. Elex provides some stunning scenery. Even the moon that orbits Magalan rotates on its axis for you to see in the night sky, with its own satellite. A little touch like this goes a long way to adding immersion into the game. But a game can't just rely on small touches like this, if other areas suffer as a consequence.
Bathing the world in almost total darkness at night shows just how little light there is, and torches that are sporadically placed along pathways give off small amounts of light in the forest, hiding the ever present threat of danger making this time of the day and night cycle incredibly dangerous. During the day, the lighting effect provides shadows from trees, buildings and more and is very impressive. The amount of detail in the broken world, and locations you can visit, and how diverse they are shows that Piranha Byte's have invested a lot of time and effort into Elex. There was issues with some textures not looking as they should be. Occasionally I thought they were loading in behind schedule, but no. They ended up looking washed out, and plain ugly which given how detailed some areas looked was a bit disappointing. Frame rate drops when there's a lot of action is also a nightmare, and caused a few deaths for me.
Each faction deals with Elexit as they call it, in their own way. It's not only used for magical purposes, but as a source of power for the Albs, who consume it to give them great power, at the cost of their own emotions. Some can't handle it and transform into mutants. Outlaws hoard it for profit and Clerics use it to gain phenomenal magic abilities. Each faction has their own agenda, and all stand opposed to the Albs, who are easily interpreted as the bad guys.
With Jax as protagonist, a lot of focus will be directed towards him. It would be easy to claim that the voice actor is devoid of all emotion, and the voice flat without taking into account that he is now not consuming Elex and is essentially going "cold turkey", dealing with the return of his emotional feelings. Certainly trying times for a man living in a world where almost everything wants him dead. There is a system in place known as Cold. The more cold you become, the less human you present yourself to people. An alternative to the karma system found in Fallout, so choose your actions wisely.
A large part of the game is set in conversation. Almost every character has a name, and can be interacted with. Non essential NPC's are given the title of their job within the world of Magalan, and can be ignored. Dialogue is varied and offers choices that you can make which shape the future of the story for you. More so when you decide to work with a certain faction, and these choices can have far reaching consequences with regards to people either liking or disliking you. Even down to small dialogue choices with potential companions. If they like you enough, then they will join you in your quest. Arx being the first I encountered close by to The Domed City. An Alb that fled Xacor and even though he no longer associates with them or the Hybrid, still has Elex coursing through him. A cynical man, who uses logic over compassion and will see the actions of Jax that he favours to be those of an anti hero's choices. Each companion has their own weapon sets as well as personality, meaning you should choose wisely when it comes to deciding what kind of person your version of Ajax is going to be.
As beautiful as the world is, there remains another issue that given how often you encounter it, should have been addressed. That is character model animation. Facial expressions, and the generic models that are constantly reused show a lack of time investment and many look the same as each other. An area that could have done with more work on, and this is a shame. It's a full price game, and that's something that everyone considers when making a purchase. Not to say that you shouldn't but the game, as it's really worth the time if you're willing to invest enough time into Elex. But a huge downside to this, is the actual time you need to spend playing before you even get anywhere to acquire weapons and armour that are even worth having. What I mean is; your skills need to be ridiculously high for the good stuff. Earning 10 points per level, you can increase your stats, like Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence etc, and work towards better gear for Jax. What bothers me for example; is that increasing your strength does nothing for character development. It doesn't mean you're going to increase the amount of damage you deal out. Unless this is hidden from view. But it does mean better weapons that require a higher strength or constitution are closer to your reach than the previous level. Attribute points for your secondary skills can only be applied via a trainer. They're everywhere around Magalan, but again, you need your primary skills to be a certain level before you can increase anything. Having all this locked away for so long in the game can feel like a tedious process, and will most certainly put off anyone thinking of buying it. The balance within is in dire need of attention.
It wasn't until I reached 24 hours, when I'd leveled up enough to get my attributes high enough, and joined the Berserkers, that my Jax had become a rather formidable opponent, and was more than capable of beating smaller enemies with a single hit in some instances. My horned sword is rather powerful, and with my cultivator armour, means I don't die so quickly when hit.
To say that Elex feels like it should have been released 10 years ago is an understatement. So much has gone wrong, and maybe Piranha Bytes are aware of this, maybe not. But the world of Magalan is full, diverse and quite stunning to look at, but when you spend more of your time running away from an oversized, featherless chicken you can't damage, you don't get the time to admire the world that they created. There is so much going on, and it would be a fantastic place to explore. But that exploration ideal just feels pointless when you consider that loot isn't even worth it. It's just scrap for the most part. No selection of better weapons or armour to find. Maybe some potions if you're lucky. It's an RPG! They're supposed to have loot. Elder Scrolls, Fallout, The Witcher, and I could easily go on. All these series offer loot hidden away for you to find. Elex doesn't, and this kills the exploration factor off like the dodo for me personally. It is still worth exploring everywhere, as there are useful items that will be vital to survival, and there is some weapons hidden around, but they're far less common.
To say that Elex is a terrible game is wrong in my own personal opinion. It isn't. But on the other hand, it's not great. The potential is most definitely there, and there is a great game just waiting to be found under the ancient mechanics, combat and such. The world is vast and varied enough to make you want to explore, but when it's held back behind an awful levelling system, and that's not mentioning the menu system. Nowhere can you find an overview screen of your character with all his gear equipped. A small thing for sure, but when you consider that other RPG's can do this, it made me wonder why it wasn't here. The menus feel cluttered and don't seem well thought out. Not the worst I've ever encountered, but could use some refinement.
I do feel that Elex could use an overhaul to get it up to date. A big ask, and yet it would work wonders for the game and developer. Even if it means waiting for a sequel. Huge potential is hidden away, and this is a shame as many may just avoid the game because of some overly negative press. Sure it takes a long time to get anywhere in Magalan to earn the good weapons and armour. But with patience comes great reward. A unique story, beautiful landscapes, diverse factions, and creatures that will test you in combat every time means Elex is worth a look in my estimations. Perhaps for the hardcore RPG adventurer though, as it will eat away at your time like nothing else. Don't be disheartened by it though, and if you're still unsure, then wait for a sale. It doesn't deserve to retreat into a cave all forgotten about in several months time. If you're a fan of the genre, it may just grow on you, albeit at a very slow rate. But with enough time, you may find yourself pushing on and discovering what lies ahead.
I awarded the score I did, and not a point lower, as once you've given it enough time, Elex can become an immensely fun game to explore. The good points outweigh the bad for me, even if it takes time to get going. A rich and wonderful world awaits those who are willing to dedicate a lot of hours of their time, and it will require a lot. It's not a casual RPG, it won't hold your hand one bit. Elex throws you into the deep end of the pool before you can swim, and doesn't care. You just have to deal with it the hard way and learn. If (and it's a big if at that) Elex had been brought up to date, it could well have ended up being one of 2017's biggest games.
Overall Score: 7/10
Developer: Piranha Bytes
Release Date: 17th October 2017
Price: £44.99 - Digital
File Size: 27GB
Available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Steam.
Xbox One copy provided for review purposes.
Reviewed by Graham Sherry