From the developers of the classic PC-exclusive Gothic franchise, ELEX is a sci-fi open world RPG which was regarded as the “Skyrim-killer” prior to its release back in October. These claims were based mostly on the promise of a seamless open world that’s just as immersive as the cold Skyrim itself. In this post-apocalyptics setting, four factions fight for power, each being characterized by a core genre. Yes, a genre. Whereas other RPGs define their factions through core ideas, ELEX does so through genres such as fantasy and sci-fi.
The game, yet another hundred-hour sandbox RPG, takes place in Magalan, a planet much like our own. The peoples of this Earth-like world lived peacefully enough until a comet hit its atmosphere, causing massive destruction. This comet is responsible for a substance known as elex, which seems to be damaging the planet whilst providing all sorts of benefits to its inhabitants. The four factions fighting for survival in the post-apocalyptic Magalan all have some sort of connection to elex: the berserkers extract mana from it, which allows them to cast magic, the clerics use its energy to power their advanced technology and weaponry, the outlaws use it as stimulants, and the albs became addicted to the power it gives them.
The backdrop, though interesting at first, quickly becomes mundane. Players control Jax, an alb commander who’s so generic, he might as well be called Dudex. Not only is he the usual macho man some Western developers seem to cling so desperately to but he’s void of personality. I like to compare him to the nameless “hero” of Two Worlds 2, who is also unnecessary and poorly written. As annoying as Kyra’s brother is, however, he has some degree of personality. He’s a rudely playful type whose comments make up some of the funniest scenes in the game, such as the unforgettable (at least for me) quest where a drunk sod takes him for his dead mother. While Jax can be sharp enough depending on the situation and the player’s choice, his lines are delivered with so little energy and impact that you’d think the developers hired Google Translate instead of a proper actor.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t get any better than its epic background suggests. After being sent on a secret mission that would define the future of the albs, Jax’s plane crashes. Kallax, another generic boring dude, shows up and shoots him in the chest for reasons, but of course, that doesn’t kill the almighty Jax. Instead, he wakes up a few days later free from elex’s influence and with a handful of objectives: to find the thief who “stole” his armor, find some equipment, and figure out why Kallax tried to kill him. Shortly after the tutorial, the world opens up with possibilities and Jax is engulfed in a conflict between factions, although each seems to have more problems with themselves rather than with one another. While there’s enough dialogue to make you feel as if every character has something relevant to say, ELEX’s world building is rather weak thanks to static environments (as in, it never feels as if anything is happening anywhere at any given time), bland NPCs, and an inconsistent lore to an already frail plot. Everything about its storytelling feels underdeveloped, each scenario playing off as a theme park attraction rather than a story.
There’s nothing particularly impressive in any of ELEX’s other departments—at least not for the average gamer. The soundtrack is far from epic and awe-inspiring but it also won’t make your ears bleed. Meanwhile, the graphics fit this generation but are easily undermined by clunky movements and painfully outdated combat physics. Jax’s melee attacks always seem off with their heavy swings and lack of impact. Add to that the fact that Mr. Dudex is a porcelain doll for the first five to 10 hours and you have many reasons to uninstall and hide the game from your library A.S.A.P. ELEX is my first Piranha Bytes release and after 7h struggling to make any progress whatsoever, I learned that the painfully slow progress is a common theme in their games. To my knowledge, Gothic fans may find ELEX’s slow progress pleasing, but those unfamiliar with the developer’s concept will be frustrated at best. There is enjoyment to be had after you carefully make your way through Magalan to gain some levels, gear, and perhaps even a companion or two—but you’ll still have to deal with its other problems.
Having played The Witcher 3 for the first time a few months ago, I was relieved that ELEX didn’t waste 20 minutes explaining its UI. While its simplicity makes it easy enough to navigate to anyone used to RPGs, the mechanics detailed throughout the many tabs are confusing for the first 10 hours. For instance, upon leveling up you get to distribute Jax’s attribute points as you would in any other RPG. However, certain choices presented during dialogues (even in the first two hours or so) can’t be selected because they require abilities such as combat, charisma, or even the cleric-exclusive “suggestion.” Turns out that you have to train these abilities separately with a trainer. Each ability will have a set of skills suited to their description (for instance, “crafting” encompasses lockpicking, pickpocketing, chemistry, and even hacking) and each skill requires specific attributes to be learned (e.g. “hack” requires one skill point for its first level and 15 points in both intelligence and cunning). Not only is this mechanic convoluted, but the game makes no effort to let you know it even exists.
To be fair, ELEX’s concept of factions is well realized. Since his own people betrayed him, Jax has the option to join the remaining three factions, each with their preferences and advantages. For instance, the berserkers detest technology. So much as accessing the character menu (the player views statuses, missions, and even Magalan’s map from an implant in Jax’s left forearm) within the walls of Goliat will prompt nearby NPCs to call you out. I didn’t flaunt technology left and right to see what would happen if the characters were exposed to it for too long, but I don’t doubt nothing good comes out of it considering how fussed they get whenever you step into their homes without an invitation.
The factions also define the game’s core experience as joining one is fundamental in moving the story forward. Before joining one of them, I had access to a very limited amount of equipment that didn’t provide a lot of survivability. The factions each have their own ranking systems and the higher Jax goes, the better the armor and abilities he has access to. On top of it, leaders and faction-related NPCs may have quests suited for certain ranks and as it’s expected, each rank comes with its own quest line that leads to the next one. The way this aspect is designed and the fact choices actually matter make engaging in stories that send you from one end of the map to the other rather entertaining despite the lackluster plot. It’s not much that individual quests have interesting stories to tell, but that their outcomes are fun to watch due to how they may impact the game flow.
For what it offers, ELEX is decently priced. This is hardly the “Skyrim-killer” people were talking about a year or so ago, but its world design and content distribution are entertaining enough to justify its price. Piranha Bytes fans might be rather pleased with this release and how difficult it is. Meanwhile, those who know of Gothic only by name might be a little disappointed if they’re looking for a Dragonborn alternative. With at least 10 hours where you have no idea what to do, ELEX is a tough sell for gamers used to regular RPGs with perfectly laid out plots and fluid mechanics. If you’re hesitant, remember to check on the Steam discussions the best ways to make significant progress as there are many threads on the subject. As long as you’re willing to overlook its problems and the fact it always feels as if it didn’t go through any sort of QA testing, ELEX can be rather fun with its choices and their consequences and its seamless open world.
- An interesting attempt at a literal take on genre mixing, with areas dedicated to sci-fi themes while others evoke fantasy and even post-apocalyptic feelings
- Likely an all-around good game for Piranha Bytes fans
- Well-designed seamless open world with very distinct regions
- Choices actually matter
- Anyone looking for a challenge might be pleased by how the game, instead of holding your hands, throws you off a cliff
- For the most part, the first 10 hours are poorly balanced
- Outdated mechanics
- Tough to get into without prior knowledge of its unforgiving difficulty
- Generic story and characters undermine the experience
- A static world where nothing actually seems to happen despite the narrative's efforts