The year 2017 wasn’t a kind one for the RPG genre despite some incredibly high scores for the few titles that we have been getting. Sequels and spiritual successors have failed, more or less, to deliver on promises and expectation, while postponements ruined any chances of redemption. At the end of a troubled year stands ELEX, a Piranha Bytes RPG. Those of us who have played the games of this studio before could easily be swept into a paradoxical state of emotions. It’s a time for excitement and worry as we remember the flawed masterpieces of old succeeded by some questionable titles. All of Piranha Bytes’ games use the same base formula sharing a gameplay and atmosphere filled with nostalgia and joy but at the same time carrying the weight of old problems. Where does ELEX fit into this balance of praise and disappointment that followed Piranha Bytes for over almost two decades?
Welcome to Magalan, a planet greatly resembling a post-apocalyptic Earth but without all the doors and children. This was a cradle of civilization, until the comet struck and brought ruin and with it, elex. Elex is a material of incredible properties, capable of powering technology and reshaping life. From the ashes of the comet a new world has risen, shaped by the elex. A world where the thirst for this new material and its immense powers drives into conflict the existing factions. In the fiery mountains of Ignadon is the fortress of the Clerics, small in numbers but extremely mechanized and guided by their god, Calaan. In the deserts of Tavar dwell the Outlaws, a faction of individual freedom where the strong thrive and the weak pay the price. Lastly, deep within the lively Edan are the Berserkers, a group of people who refused the charms of elex and technology in favor of nature and magic. The ideologies and the interests of these factions clash, each having its own perception over the future of Magalan and how elex should be used. None is in the right and their internal struggles and past conflicts left the free people open to a much bigger threat, the Albs, a faction who has no empathy for any other, turned to pragmatism and driven emotionless through the consumption of elex. The Albs want nothing more than all the elex for themselves and they have no empathy for those standing in their way. This is where the game’s story begins, as Commander Jax, (a less expressive version of Jason Statham) renowned leader of the Albs is crash landing into the lands of the free people after his ship was shot down. In a turn of events that looks extremely staged, Jax is sentenced to death at the crash site for failing his mission by no other than his own brother. Shot in the chest, Jax survives his execution and wakes up to see the world of the free people without the veil of elex addiction.
Cheating death doesn’t make Jax’s life any easier. As an ex-alb he has to get along with the people who not so long ago felt threatened by his very existence while emotions are pouring into his mind and body for the first time in decades. However, Jax is no ordinary man. He integrates quickly into the society of free people, adjusting to situations by helping those in need or just helping himself. Without being blinded by the power of elex and the enigmatic leader of the Albs faction, Jax learns about the horrific things he has committed and the problems the world of Magalan is currently facing. He starts on a path of vengeance against those who have betrayed him, a path that evolves in something much bigger with an outcome decided by the player’s actions. In order to succeed in this quest a help from one of Magalan’s factions is required (for the cool looking armors, obviously!). The choice of faction has deeper implications over the gameplay and story that will last throughout the whole game. That being said, the biggest help comes from the companions who join Jax’s quest on pragmatism or necessity but who evolve alongside the protagonist forming strong bonds or losing any connection completely.
The narrative of ELEX follows a familiar path. The protagonist is losing power after an unexpected incident and he has to regain it through a slow process that involves the same elements used in most of Piranha Bytes’ games. One would say this makes the game predictable and that would be right if these were the defining components of the story instead of guiding elements of the narrative. This is actually what makes each one of Piranha Bytes’ games feel unique and familiar at the same time. The ever present factions are part of this tradition serving the role of presenting the world‘s variety and conflict but at the same time providing the player with a game changing choice from the start. However, while we experience the same basis for the narrative, the story always takes different directions. In the case of ELEX it leads us to a fascinating science-fantasy setting that caters to the fundamentals of the RPG genre. The story comes together through an intricate web of decisions that sometimes have long lasting consequences, empowering the player into setting the narrative path and choosing its ending.
The story feels detached from what we often get to experience in large scale games as its focal point is on the present. Lore is only used to set the scenery for this new play that starts unfolding when Jax’s ship crashes into the mountains of Edan. Whatever mysteries are brewing are only meant to drive the player to find revelations. And without having many secrets left, the story still makes you wonder about what’s to come by connecting opposite events to lead to a common point in the story’s apex, which is probably one of ELEX’s strongest suits.
I very much enjoyed the narrative journey that ELEX had to offer. It’s rich in writing variety and always provided more than I expected. The dialogues, while not without problems, often made me wonder if I’m saying the right thing as I quickly came to learn that choices matter and the consequences are not to be taken lightly. I was often surprised by how my actions unfolded leading to a feeling of excitement for the next dialogue line. This made the world of Magalan feel more compelling and would have been extremely immersive if misplaced dialogues didn’t often invalidate my actions.
It’s becoming rather difficult to fully appreciate an open world game for some of us who feel a fatigue for this overused trend. Many of these worlds feel shallow, meant only to check a box for the mass consumer’s preferences. So it’s natural for somebody like me to be worried when the action of a game that interests me takes place in an open world environment. Luckily, Piranha Bytes didn’t abandon the old ways of world design and Magalan is a beautiful handcrafted sandbox welcoming virtual explorers to find its riches and face its challenges.
Magalan is a small but concentrated world formed out of multiple biomes ranging from lush forests to snowy mountains and rivers of lava. The combination of environments makes for sensational vistas that successfully overcome, through artistic design, the game’s technical shortcomings. But a world is nothing without its inhabitants and Magalan is as alive as a virtual place can be. The flora is rich with alien and familiarly looking plants adapted to survive in specific environments. The fauna beats any expectations with a wide variety of animals and beasts scaling from small to gigantic and with a natural behavior with creatures having a pattern of roaming, feeding and sleeping. This intricate behavioral system is applied to the humans as well but using more complex patterns that separate settlements based on their faction affiliation. The NPCs take full of the day/night cycle waking up in the morning and going to sleep at night with different guarding shifts between the two. During their awake hours humans talk, work and interact with the environment in such specific and detailed ways that often made me wonder about the effort that was put into this feature alone.
From a gameplay perspective Magalan provides a great platform for exploration and activities. There are plenty of unique locations that paint quite a visual picture of the world’s past and present, stimulating the imagination with small details and just a few lore notes. I felt a true sense of discovery while exploring the ruins of the old world or visiting the settlements rose from the ashes left by the comet. There is always something to find, be it valuable resources, useful items, new enemies or hidden quests. Each location feels like it has meaning to the world and the player is rewarded for trying to find that meaning. The addition of the jetpack makes the exploration all the better allowing developers to add more verticality while giving the players the ability to skip over most geographic obstacles. However, ELEX’s exploration has been contaminated by some of today’s features, luring the players into using the map’s exact GPS marking. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive sight to watch the world of Magalan in motion and the experience only gets better when you take part of this motion.
With all the good narrative and world building I wish I could say that the gameplay is fluid to take advantage of these elements, but it’s a combination of good mechanics put together in an extremely clunky package. The first hours spent in ELEX felt like a survival game as the artificial difficulty forced me to abuse the more powerful companions while playing a game of hit and run. Weirdly enough it was somewhat satisfying to go through this clearly frustrating experience as it improved the sense of progression tremendously. There is a certain need of specializing early on as every level counts and every point is meaningful.
The character’s progression system is similar to that of previous Piranha Bytes RPGs (surprise!). There are a few base attributes that increase the character’s capabilities and serve as requirements for abilities and weapons. The abilities are split between multiple categories meant to enhance combat, survival, stealth, crafting and social skills. Joining a faction will also unlock a new set of abilities that work with that faction’s specific gear. But before Jax is strong enough to face his enemies on his own, he will have to spend a good amount of time doing the work for others while abusing the power of his newly gained companions.
From a conceptual standpoint Elex’s combat system is pretty good. It has a Souls-like vibe using timed dodges, blocking, combos, stamina management and the jetpack capabilities as primary mechanics for the melee combat. A decent variety of melee weapons with different move sets provide options based on the player’s style. The twist here is an actual ranged combat system that takes advantage of the setting to provide a good variation of old and futuristic guns some having multiple fire modes for different uses. In theory these features sound really good, but the transition to practice meant implementing them into the game’s sketchy engine and here is where the gameplay screws break loose. It all starts with the analog controls with clunky animations that often make the fights harder than they should be and from here the problems just start to pile up. The hitboxes are smaller than the enemy’s actual model. The damage mitigation of enemies with higher levels forces the players into running, dying or just cheesing. The companion’s AI is completely brain dead at times, idling in the middle of the fight or doing anything else than being useful. ELEX tries to overcome for these problems by going from one extreme to the other. While the various issues and the questionable design choices make the early game harder, the balance breaks and it’s never coming back somewhere in the mid-game. Stun-locking weapons and elex potions make for a swift jump from being everyone’s punching bag to being an unstoppable killing machine.
The ranged combat is serviceable and could easily make the game feel like a walk in the park. The melee combat on the other hand could be more challenging than Dark Souls itself, however, not because of the game’s good design. ELEX would benefit greatly from a more elegant animation system and smoother controls, but for this game, that ship has sailed.
ELEX is a labor of love. But while appreciating all the effort put into this game by such a small team of developers, it’s hard not to get annoyed by some visible laziness. The game launched with some sketchy controls and other gameplay related problems that were patched through. However, there are plenty of shortcomings still in the game. The UI has a truly ugly looking design and lacks essential features like informative stats or proper custom markers for the map. Even the immersion takes some serious blows through reused face models for countless NPCs with only three models for females.
The list of cutting corners could easily fill half of this review and some are bigger than others. But as someone who suffered through the game’s many problems for more than 80 hours, I still think ELEX was worth the pain.
Elex’s problems stemming from a limited development budget can be felt at every step, yet no area had to suffer as much as the graphics. This is a visually dated game that tries its best to look as modern as possible. A lot of artistic power has been put into creating the world of Magalan and filling it with handcrafted content that’s meant to feel unique. There is real beauty in every landscape and a distinguished atmosphere in each area. There is a particular focus on the lighting and how the world is affected by it. The day/night cycle has actual gameplay changing elements forcing the players to adjust to them. During the day the landscape plays a game of light and shadows mildly affected by weather effects. The night is dark and lonely with light sources turning into precious resources. When the electrical lights fade away in the distance, luminous plants will provide guidance through the dark of the night and a torch can become the most trusted ally.
Magaln’s post-apocalyptic landscape is a place of indisputable artistic beauty, but the spell cast begins to fade revealing its technological gaps the closer you get to it. The texture work has a low quality even for a 3rd person game and it’s not taking advantage of nowadays common technologies like advanced bump mapping or tessellation. The character models suffer from a similar problem with little details put into their facial features and an extreme reuse of the same models that makes the repetitive peasants of The Witcher 3 a worthy achieving goal. The animations are no better controlling rather clunky with choppy combat moves (and jiggly boobs) that telegraph poorly on rough terrain. One would say that all these problems are a trademark of Piranha Bytes, and looking at their past games that could be considered true. However, no matter the state of melancholy they trigger, these are serious issues that have been haunting this developer since the beginning and we should not put up with them.
As with the graphics, the developers have put a lot of thought and effort into making the audio as good as possible, yet it let me wanting more. The quantity of sound that went into making the world of ELEX come to life is quite impressive. There’s a huge variety of fauna, each creature type with its own growls and combat sounds, and an even bigger amount of NPCs with fully voice acted dialogues. But this high amount of sounds just makes it so much easier to spot the low quality of the audio design. The sounds of the world of ELEX often feel like being generated on the computer, lacking the proper processing or the natural component that makes it compelling. The NPCs voice acting isn’t any better. While a few characters do sound really good, the reused voice actors and the delivery that’s most of the time out of touch with the character’s personality made for awkward if not laughable dialogue scenes. For some players a fully voice acted game is a plus, and I understand that, but I think in ELEX’s case this is in the game’s detriment.
Despite its questionable quality, the sound design does manage to fit within the vibe of some of the locations, contributing at creating a powerful and sometimes tension atmosphere. The music has a few good tracks which are not memorable but do serve their purpose.
Overall, ELEX’s sound quality is nothing worth praising but serviceable. There a few moments of absolute audio pleasure but also many laughs to be had on the account of the voice acting.
It’s hard to make a defensive case for ELEX and the developers have pretty much ruined any attempt when charging 50$ for it. The game is in a rough technical state and no matter how much you are willing to ignore that for the sake of immersion and nostalgia, the problems will eventually get to you. ELEX is haunted at every step by a limited production budget that forced a small team of developers to cut many corners in order to deliver the grand vision for their game. However,ELEX follows in the footsteps of Gothic 2 like no other game that I played, providing a true RPG experience in an actually well designed open world. It has many problems, but that won’t stop me from eagerly waiting for the sequel the same way I waited for Gothic 3, hopefully not with the same end result. It’s understandable to avoid a full price purchase. But if you are a fan of the genre, give it time, wait for the patches (maybe an EE?!) and the price cuts, because it would be a shame to skip on this game altogether.
+ Captivating story
+ A complex system of choices and consequences
+ Cool companions
+ Excellent world design
+ Great sense of progression
+ Plenty of quality content
+ Gothic nostalgia
– Outdated graphics
– Questionable voice acting
– Clunky animations and controls
– Ugly and lackluster UI
– Some lazy oversights
– Plenty of bugs
– Quite pricey for all its problems