Up until a week ago, I had never heard of ELEX, and I imagine the same goes for a lot of gamers out there. In a month where some truly huge titles have been dropping left and right, Piranha Bytes’ science-fantasy RPG will likely receive far less attention and appreciation than it deserves. Which is a shame considering how much fun I had during my time with it.
The World of Elex is Vast and Full of Wonder
ELEX is set in the post-apocalyptic world of Magalan. After being struck by a meteor, which devastated the planet, the rare element, Elex, was discovered. Having a diverse array of uses, Elex became highly sought after and divided the people of Magalan into different factions, who disagreed on how this precious new element should be used.
The main story is interesting if not somewhat predictable. You play as Jax, a former Alb Commander, betrayed by your people and left for dead. It’s a familiar tale of revenge, so nothing too special there. But because of your past identity, it makes exploring the rest of the world consistently suspenseful as you never know how people will react to your background. That’s if you choose to tell them, of course.
And as you go about your journey, ELEX's hand-crafted open-world is beautiful and fantastic. You get the sense that Piranha Bytes went over every inch of Magalan with a fine tooth-comb trying to jam pack locations with environmental stories akin to something that you'd see in a Fallout game. And with just a compass and no mini-map to rely on, the exploration feels real and intuitive.
The eponymous element is one of ELEX’s greatest strengths, as is the vast amount of quests that are practically dumped on you by every NPC you can bear to converse with. And as with any story centered around futuristic elements and sci-fi tropes, NPCs are unsurprisingly often pledged to specific factions, adding even more layers to the game.
Of the four main factions, each represents completely different affiliations and ideals. The antagonistic faction, the Albs, consume Elex, making them stronger but emotionless and myopic. Addicted to the substance, Albs seek to conquer the world to claim all Elex for themselves.
The Beserkers seek to restore the world to its natural green, lush state and reject all technology. They live by a strict set of honor-based rules and represent the fantasy aspects of the game as they prefer to use swords, bows, and magic.
Then there’s the desert-dwelling Outlaws, who look like they've been ripped straight out of Mad Max, studded-leather outfits and all. With little respect for anyone (including each other) the Outlaws hold freedom to do whatever-the-hell-they-want above all else.
Finally, the Clerics are a faction that fully embraces technology, donning Mass Effect-esque suits of armor and wielding laser weapons. They silence all who speak against their god using the Power of Suggestion, which is basically a Jedi mind trick.
This mish-mash of genre tropes is what makes Elex such a compelling world to explore as there’s plenty of ideological conflicts to get involved with, drawing parallels with some hot-button issues in our real-world politics.
You’re only able to join one of the factions, however, which I felt was unnecessarily restrictive due to the handful of abilities locked to each faction. For example, my favorite faction was the Outlaws, but I was shooting myself in the foot by joining them as they have the weakest set of exclusive abilities by far -- no Power of Suggestion or big laser cannons like the Clerics, and no magic like the Beserkers. Sure, you can only modify weapons if you’re an Outlaw, but that pales in comparison to the other factions’ abilities.
It would have been infinitely more interesting if I could have joined one faction, learned some of their skills, and then defected to another. So you can imagine my frustration when I met a character in ELEX who had done just that -- she was raised a Beserker, defected to the Outlaws, and then finally decided to ally with the Clerics. If in the game’s lore it’s possible to switch between factions at least once, then the player should be given the same opportunity. This would give you a rounded set of skills and a chance to be involved with each faction, ultimately making for a more enjoyable experience.
ELEX Isn't an Easy Game, Combat is Difficult to Master, and ... Bugs
I think it’s important that you know how difficult this game is right from the get go. In classic Piranha Bytes fashion, the first few hours of ELEX are going to be rough. Even the weakest mutated rats will relentlessly destroy you (and your soul) if you give them the chance. And enemies with skull icons next to their health bars? Forget about it. Do yourself a favor and run.
The combat consists of heavy, light, and special attacks and is difficult to master due to its stamina based system similar to Dark Souls. Some hit detection issues, which see you taking damage even when it’s clear that the enemy made no contact with you, impact the flow of combat and cheapens some undeserved deaths.
The game also has several annoying bugs that, although will most likely be fixed via future patches, are worth mentioning. An unsheddable hobgoblin is the falling animation, which is very temperamental. Sometimes you'll be falling from a great height while Jax is just casually standing upright, which is frustrating if you don't know how far you're falling from.
The companions that you can recruit to fight beside you, (who are incredibly useful most of the time) sometimes won’t defend you from attacking enemies. They just hang around like nothing’s happening until you attack an enemy, at which point they stop daydreaming and jump into action. Again, this is all small stuff compared to what ELEX does right, but it did affect my perception of the overall game.
Overall, ELEX is a fun, engrossing experience. And like with almost any game, it has its issues -- some that keep it from being truly great. From voice acting that feels forced at times to the inability to change factions and a few wonky bugs, ELEX has a few blemishes. But those are blemishes that can be overlooked.
The game world is engrossing and the combat is fun overall despite a few hiccups. And did I mention you get a jetpack? Adding verticality to the game, the jetpack makes exploring ELEX a blast -- and nailing awesome landings after jumping off tall mountain peaks never gets old.
I was very impressed by ELEX and I'm glad I didn't take the game at face value. If you're willing to put in the few hours it takes to figure out why ELEX is so great, then you'll be rewarded with an awesome and memorable experience -- especially if you’re an RPG fan. You'd be doing yourself a huge disservice if you don’t at least give ELEX a chance -- purely because of the vast and hugely interesting world that the team behind Gothic and Risen have created.
You can purchase ELEX on Amazon.
[Note: A copy of ELEX was provided by the developer for the purpose of this review.]