A strange but compelling aggregate of RPG tropes that rises above its shortcomings
Piranha Bytes are becoming an increasingly rare sort of developer. Despite a small team size, and regardless of what else is happening in the world of video game trends, these guys have been steadily putting out unique, challenging, ambitious and somewhat unpolished RPGs that don’t really seem to be getting made anywhere else. Elex, the first game in a new IP from the veteran German RPG developers, is probably their most challenging and ambitious offering since the Gothic games. The scale, complexity and challenge of this game eclipses anything in the Risen series by a healthy margin. This ambition ultimately comes at the cost of polish, as Elex is not as smooth a game to play as Risen 3, the developer’s previous effort. Whether players will be able to get past the game’s slow start and rough edges to find the fantastic RPG at its core will vary from person to person and depend on their priorities.
The biggest thing that differentiates Elex from Piranha Bytes’ previous work is the quasi sci-fi, post-apocalyptic setting. The game takes place on a planet called Magalan, although this fictional world can be seen as a proxy for Earth as it looks quite similar and is populated by humans. This planet was fully built up and civilized much as Earth is right now, but a huge meteor crashed into the planet, destroying modern civilization and introducing a powerful substance known as, well, Elex. The story starts off a while after this incident, with surviving humans divided into different factions, some of whom have found ways to make use of the old-world technology, some who consume Elex to make themselves powerful, and one group who forbid the use of any kind of modern technology.
As is the custom in Piranha Bytes games, you are dropped into this huge, complex, dangerous world with the strength and abilities of a new-born babe. The setup is that Jax, the player character, was once a powerful commander in the forces of the Albs, the group who consume Elex to gain strength. After failing a mission, the Albs attempt to execute Jax, but fail to verify his death. The game begins with Jax waking up after this failed execution, but with the Elex gone from his system, and all of his strength gone with it. From here you must slowly start exploring the world and talking to its citizens to figure out what is going on while you begin to regain your strength.
Even though slow, challenging starts are nothing new from this development team, Elex is particularly unforgiving early on. You are free to explore pretty much the entire world from the get-go, but that world is incredibly dangerous. The entire map, which is far larger than anything in the Risen series, has a mix of lower and higher level enemies. At the start of the game, you can only fight the weakest of foes, and will have no choice but to run from anything stronger.
As such, you will pretty much be confined to the cities for a while if you want to make any meaningful progress in leveling up your character and getting stronger. The first city you will most likely get to is Goliet, the main hub of the Berserkers. This faction opposes any kind of modern technology and use Medieval-level weapons and armor in addition to more traditional magical spells. As a result, the opening hours of Elex might feel more like a fantasy game than a post-apocalyptic one.
As you continue playing, you will learn of the existence of two other joinable factions, the Clerics and the Outlaws. The Clerics are a highly religious group who believe it is their duty to understand and advance technology, and to spread it to everyone else. With access to laser and plasma weapons and futuristic towns, it can be hard to believe they exist within the same world as the Berserkers. The Outlaws feel more like your typical post-apocalyptic group, with settlements consisting of ramshackle structures housing foul-mouthed individuals who believe in nothing but profit at any cost, and use chemical substances or ‘Stims’ to improve their resistances and combat abilities.
Although you will run into other groups and individuals who don’t belong to any of these factions, these three bear special significance because you will have the opportunity to join one of them. The idea of multiple factions which the player must choose between is something that has been in Piranha Bytes games for some time, most recently in Risen 3, though it is executed particularly well here. Although you will eventually need to align yourself with one of the factions in order to progress the main story, you can remain independent for a very long time, and complete lengthy questlines for all three factions before making a decision.
Eventually, everything starts to coalesce as you learn that the three groups, while not exactly friendly with each other, are busier fighting a greater threat in the Alb armies who invade their lands in search of Elex. The main story sees Jax trying to get revenge on the Alb leader who ordered his execution. Elex follows in the footsteps of previous Piranha Bytes games by having a main storyline that is less interesting than the world-building that supports it, and while I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the world of Magalan and doing quests for the different factions, the actual storyline running through the middle of it can feel muddled and hard to follow, though it does contain some good quests and sub-plots.
If all of this sounds rather complicated, that’s because it is. Elex is incredibly ambitious in its design, and slowly unraveling this complexity while exploring the huge, hand crafted world is a major contributing factor in making it remarkable. The other big factor is the quest design, which is mostly excellent. In addition to the major decision you must make about choosing a faction to join, there are a lot of smaller choices to be made when completing quests.
What impressed me most was how many of these choices can be fairly nuanced. In one case, I found a group of individuals out in the woods who due to their affiliations would normally be considered enemies of the Berserker clan. Their leader suggested they wanted to seek peace with the Berserkers, and asked me to parlay on their behalf. The Berserker I took this information to seemed skeptical, but eventually agreed to try negotiating with the group if I gave them their location. At this point the game gives you the option of providing the actual location of the peace-seeking group, or lying and providing a false location. I decided to give the true location, and upon returning there later, found the Berserkers had run in and killed them without attempting negotiations.
These types of complex, unpredictable situations are common in Elex, and add a lot of depth and meaning to the game. You will be given opportunities to play both sides in a conflict, or ruthlessly betray others for your own gain. The way the game world and quests adapt to player actions is remarkable, as you will often encounter quest-related characters or events that you can mess with, yet I never encountered any broken quests, apart from a scripting error where I didn’t receive some armor that was promised to me as a reward.
Unfortunately, this same level of polish is not present on the gameplay side of things. Combat and movement in Piranha Bytes' games have always been sticking points, though the last Risen game had improved these elements significantly. Unfortunately, the act of moving around the world in Elex, as well as dispatching foes, generally feels clunky. Magalan has a lot of verticality, with rocky peaks, deep valleys and a lot of uneven ground. Moving across flat surfaces feels ok, but Jax tends to get caught up on more complex terrain. Perhaps most annoying is how Jax will enter an awkward falling animation when falling even extremely short distances, during which you have no control over him. This has the effect of making the movement feel stiff and unresponsive at times.
To help you cope with the verticality and rough terrain, Jax is equipped with a jet pack. This manages to simultaneously be one of the best and worst elements of the game, as it can save you a lot of time and frustration when trying to get up and down mountains or escape tough enemies. It also has the effect of letting you get into places you probably weren’t meant to see, with plenty of hideous geometry, low resolution textures and places to get stuck when you stray too far from the beaten path. It generally feels a bit clumsy and unresponsive to use, though I think at the end of the day its presence is a good thing.
As for combat, you can choose between a variety of weapons and combat approaches, but none of them feel great. The melee combat involves stringing together heavy and light attacks to perform combos which fill up a meter. The more the meter is filled, the more damage you do, and eventually you can perform a special move if you fill the meter enough. You can block and dodge as well, but must keep an eye on a rapidly draining stamina meter.
There is a decent melee combat system in here somewhere as the rhythm of combos feels good and weapons have a decent sense of weight to them, but it feels unrefined. As you attack, you tend to lunge forwards and push enemies backward. This means that lengthy combos can move both yourself and your opponent across the terrain in a random direction which can lead to enemies getting stuck and other buggy moments. Hit boxes can be really wonky, as you might take damage from an enemy who appears to be attacking the air several feet away from you. The lock-on system can also be finicky, especially when fighting groups of enemies. Foes can seem overly aggressive and will chase you for almost comical amounts of time on the default settings, though you can alter some aspects of enemy AI behavior in the highly customizable difficulty settings.
If you would rather avoid the melee combat, there is a good variety of ranged weaponry available. Ranged combat is extremely simplistic; you can generally switch between a few fire modes for the different weapons but that is about it. Most ranged weapons have mediocre sound effects and poor feedback, unless you are using one of the heavier weapons that knock back foes. It is pretty easy to exploit the ranged combat by jet-packing up to an area that enemies can’t reach and using heavy weapons that knock them down repeatedly, though you will still need to dodge their own ranged attacks. Fortunately, combat isn’t a major focus in Elex as it is certainly the weakest aspect of the game.
Otherwise, Elex plays like a typical Piranha Bytes RPG. You will spend a lot of time exploring and talking to Magalan’s colorful citizens. The writing and voice acting is of similar quality to the Risen series, meaning it is somewhat stilted but on average of fairly good quality for a small team effort and can be charming. The voice acting for Jax is unfortunately rather monotone and lifeless, though there is some basis for this in the story. To improve your character, you must level up and obtain learning points which let you learn special skills from trainers which range from lock-picking to improved combat performance to better social skills that can make completing some quests easier.
Even though it gets off to an extremely slow start, progression in Elex is very satisfying as you will gradually go from weak and ineffective at the start to an absolute powerhouse later on as enemies do not scale with your level whatsoever. There are five or so companions you can recruit who all have their own quest lines and prove quite capable travel companions, keeping pace on even the most precarious jet-pack expeditions, though their level doesn’t scale with yours so their usefulness in combat degrades over time unless you find ways to strengthen them. You even get access to a sort of base of operations where your companions will hang out when not with you, and you can spend extra money on improvements like crafting benches and fancy furniture for your personal quarters.
Elex appears to run on the same engine as the Risen games, and produces comparable visual quality. Great lighting and a day-night cycle combined with the often aesthetically pleasing and extremely varied environments produce regular and diverse moments of beauty, but scrutiny reveals lots of rough textures and geometry, and the character models and facial animations are definitely dated. The game runs very well for the most part, though I did experience a couple of hard freezes and some strange cursor lag when using the map with a controller. Audio is equally inconsistent, with some environmental sounds and footsteps being far too loud at times. The original score while reasonably appropriate is not as good as the music that existed in the Risen games.
Elex is a difficult game to sum up because it has a huge number of moving parts that vary wildly in quality. I can’t think of another game that offers such a diverse range of settings and themes, from medieval fantasy to post-apocalyptic to science fiction. There are flashes of brilliance in its quest and world design that evoke the feelings I had when first playing through some classic open world RPGs like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind or more recently Fallout: New Vegas. If you have enjoyed Piranha Bytes' previous work, I can easily recommend Elex. Otherwise, if you enjoy open world RPGs and are willing to put up with some rough edges and a slow start, you might want to give this game a try.