ELEX 2 Review
Intriguing, dissimilar, rough
Developers Piranha Bytes have carved up a fairly interesting corner of the gaming market for themselves. They have been crafting intriguing RPGs for a few years now, and have become well known for their interesting stories, unique approaches, not following the Western design, and yet offering some very wonky gameplay mechanics, lack of polish at launch, and very dated presentation. With ELEX 2, the latest third person RPG from the studio, this trend continues, but steps – however small – are being made to move past the stereotypes, and hopefully towards better things in the future.
ELEX 2 takes place some time after the events of the first game. For newcomers, the sequel could have done a better job of bringing them up to speed on the events and characters of that world, especially given that many return. Players once again assume the role of a gruffly voiced protagonist named Jax. He is a defined character, so there's no visual customization at all. It's the first of many, many unique choices that the game makes that may appeal or discourage fans of more traditional western RPGs. After pretty much saving the fantasy world of Magalan in the first game, Jax has been trying to warn people about the new looming threat, but nobody took him seriously. One day, that threat finally arrives in the form of apparent alien life forms named Skyands, and in his first encounter with them he manages to get infected. Now suffering from an unknown ailment and without support, he encounters a scientist who is trying to stop the alien threat as well. The scientist promises to help Jax find a cure for his infection, if in return he helps form a new faction and unite the others in the fight against the aliens.
From here begins a lengthy narrative as Jax visits every faction in this open world, trying to win their favor and perhaps even join them as a member, all the while gaining companion allies and building up forces at the base called The Bastion. As far as factions go, there's the Albs, emotionless people who Jax was once a part of. The Berserkers and the Outlaws are rough and tough groups that do things their own way. And the Clerics and the Morkons are two factions that place their beliefs above all else. He will also encounter many characters from the previous game, who will be quick to remind him of their differences and personal history. There are even quick flashbacks, though they often don't have enough detail. The story carries a decent pace, and the quests will take you around the map to every faction eventually. The game does run into annoyances in its second half, where all your quests become treks to every far corner of the world, or having to eliminate a random large group of enemies, which gets repetitive.
Where ELEX 2 does succeed is creating an intriguing and believable world, through its writing and occasional player choices. The dialog is well crafted and uniquely laden with modern mannerisms and cursing, and yet it has a certain appeal. Jax's business-first attitude (which can change depending on your dialog selections) has a strange magnetism, and his self-assuredness carries the narrative, which helps justify why he isn't a customizable hero. As Jax visits these factions, he will have to convince them to join the cause by earning their trust – which usually means doing many quests. The quests again range in their quality, though most are at least endearing and off-beat, which is not something you'd find in a typical triple-A western production. With some extra polish and fine tuning, the story and quests would be possibly on par with what a much bigger studio would have delivered.
The open world of ELEX 2 is freely explorable from the outset; the map is fully revealed and teleporters are scattered around, free to use from anywhere, which helps speed up progress. Though they are small and easy to miss, and only activated when you are in touching distance. There are a few larger outposts, for each of the factions, where you will be running quests from and can interact with a variety of NPCs. The conversations can be interesting, and it's the sort of game that favors the unexpected. A character may tell you something, and the dialogue ends, but if you talk to them again and persist, a different outcome could occur. Little moments like that are, again, not commonly found in western RPGs.
As you venture around towns, you can talk to shop keepers, vendors, and various named characters. The game tries to be as hands-off as possible, so there are no UI markers to indicate your targets or important characters until you approach and see their name. It creates a sense of possibilities, that a new character can await around every corner – but that illusion is somewhat broken by so many of the nearly identical characters walking around, which we'll get to later. Similarly, interactive items are not highlighted in any way, and you just learn to be on the lookout for the popup that lets you pickup things. You can venture into private homes, which will raise suspicion, as does simply crouching. Still, you will probably return at night to sneak through and rob people blind, because why not. Though this again can produce some clever moments – in one outpost, where there is a rule not to steal, a character may ask Jax to fetch a single item from storage, so you naturally and thoughtlessly grab everything, and get punished for it.
ELEX 2 prides itself on its open structure not only in story, but also exploration and combat. This means that enemies do not have a level displayed, only their health and stamina, as well as an icon if they are particularly deadly to you (much higher level). Since the world is fully open, you can run into deadly creatures quickly, which means swift death for Jax after just a few blows. The game also refuses to pause when you open the inventory, so you can't just stuff your face with food mid-fight to recover health. Quests have no level requirements shown, so you could be walking into anything. You will have to face off against other humans, as well as androids, creatures of all kinds, both melee, ranged, and flying.
While the idea here is to create a dangerous and thrilling world, the reality is the extremely dated and cumbersome combat does it no favors. Jax can wield a variety of melee and ranged weapons, from one-handed axes and shields, to two-handed hammers, to bows and shotguns. You can also eventually delve into magic, which uses mana. No matter your weapon, the fighting is very awkward and trivial. The two combatants just freely swing at each other, and use canned animations to deliver their blows. It feels like an early version of Skyrim combat – a game from over a decade ago. When even MMO's like New World are able to deliver decent combat, ELEX 2 is just not good enough.
So yes, you could run into a deadly enemy at any time that could kill you in one hit, but it's so easy to avoid them – even without resorting to cheesy tactics, because the AI is just so basic and poor. Sometimes they give up the chase after a few moments, other times they seem to chase you forever. You can run literal circles around them, simply run away, or use your jetpack to get away. Indeed, most humans in this world have a personal jetpack, because why not. This allows you to get around faster, and also get out of combat without a second thought. The other thing you can do is just bring a companion along, and watch as they do the brunt of the work. The second half of this 30+ hour adventure starts giving you endless combat-focused quests, so you'll be doing a ton of fighting. In all, while the combat can be extremely unforgiving, it's also so easy to avoid or abuse, that it's not really a factor. The game also saves every 10 minutes or so, helping ease the pain of an unexpected death.
Companions are an aspect of ELEX 2 that is functional, but comparatively unoriginal. You meet these characters throughout the game – if you don't, there is a quest later on that highlights them all so you can recruit them across the game world. You can only have one with you at a time, and they range from the typical young rebel, to your ex-wife (Jax also has a kid in all this), to a rude bodyguard and a floating robot. They sometimes react to your dialog choices and pipe-in during quests, but are mostly just there as a great distraction for all the enemies and have no inventories to manage. They all have the expected personal side quests to follow up on, and a relationship rating towards Jax. However, this rating seems trivial, and even if a character hates you it doesn’t seem to affect much. Another rating that Jax has is for his Destructiveness (i.e. if he is rude and combative, or tries to negotiate), which changes depending on your actions and choices, but again its effects are not apparent even when maxed out.
You earn experience from quests and combat, and with each level-up you can spend attribute points in the five typical areas – strength, health, intelligence, and so on. All the weapons and armor have certain attribute requirements, and they grow very quickly, so you'll have to focus on only a few areas in order to be effective. You can forget about dabbling in more than one aspect of combat. There is probably a need for better balancing – there's simply not enough XP to level up both your melee and ranged damage output, because that requires a ton of points.
Each level increase also nets you a skill point to use, and here ELEX 2 once again has a unique approach. The skills are broken up into many short trees, but each having quite steep attribute requirements to level up (just like weapons and armor). To actually spend your points, you have to find vendors who are able to train Jax. It also costs a decent amount of money, so your progress in skills will be mostly limited by available funds and attributes, rather than skill points to spend. There are skill sections for everything from melee combat to crafting upgrades for your jetpack. It's an interesting approach that requires careful planning.
ELEX 2 isn't a loot heavy game, and crafting is pretty simple. You can buy new gear and recipes from vendors, and use crafting stations to create new items. New weapons, potions, ammo, and more await, but again only if you've chosen to level up the relevant attributes and unlocked the skills first. This means you could not even bother with crafting at all.
It's probably good that these systems are simple because the user interface is very barebones. There is a single inventory screen that you have to scroll through, with items grouped by type (weapons, armor, materials, etc). It's very cumbersome, and while you can bind items to a quick-select wheel, there's no sorting or custom grouping. The interface for quest management is equally barebones and yet feels unresponsive, as you manually tag what you want to follow. Quests always have an objective marker, though annoyingly you can only track one quest at a time. The radar is also totally lacking in detail, and custom placed markers don’t appear unless you are close to them. The dialog text boxes, and most of the in-game text overlays, are just plain white font that feels like a placeholder.
The primitive UI are just the tip of the iceberg that is the game's presentation. If we can compare the combat to a game from over a decade ago, the visuals also match this description. Sure, the game world has some bits of decent design – tall trees sway in the wind, rock formations and rivers cross the landscape, and a variety of structures dot the land, from remnants of old industrial factories to more recently hastily put-together encampments and collapsed highways. The lighting effects and the day/night cycle helps the setting feel occasionally engrossing. The game loads extremely quickly on an SSD, as well.
But most of it is for naught, given the rest of the experience. As already mentioned, the animations both in and out of combat and during conversations are extremely basic. Lip syncing is rather dire, as are the general facial expressions. Textures are mostly low detail, as is the geometry of most objects. And as hinted at earlier, the game re-uses the same characters often, so you might spot someone important on the street, but it turns out to be just a clone of a quest NPC. While the music is decent, it's also fairly forgettable and lower budget. Voice acting quality fluctuates, but is mostly supported by good writing. The framerate can fluctuate strongly, and given how average the game looks, the performance issues are harder to forgive.
While much of ELEX 2 makes it feel like a lower budget production – and to be fair it does carry a lower than standard price tag – one aspect that may surprise players is the relatively bug-free nature of the game. Fans of games such as this may have come to expect, from experience, the game to have a variety of technical hiccups. But in our many, many hours with the title, we were pleasantly shocked. Your companion AI can follow you flawlessly through the highest jetpack jumps with no problem, and across a myriad of quests that have you escorting/following an NPC, not one pathfinding or scripting issue occurred. No quests or events failed to trigger or got stuck, and there were no gameplay issues encountered that needed a reload of a save. There are minor things of course – the AI is pretty lackluster in combat, and on occasion the world starts to flicker and objects/textures disappear momentarily, but it sorts itself out quickly. Given the reputation of games such as this, the technical stability of ELEX 2 is a pleasant surprise.
ELEX 2 is an example of another European-made RPG that’s unafraid to take the path less traveled. It's got very dated combat and visuals, and plenty of areas that are pointlessly frustrating – under the guise of high difficulty, and too many quality of life features are absent. But it's a no-hand-holding experience that offers a surprisingly engaging world and storyline, tries to do things differently, and is surprisingly bug-free. While Piranha Bytes have earned themselves a reputation of creating RPGs in this manner, it's probably time to move up in production value and improve on the gameplay, because there's clearly potential here for some quality storytelling. It's just too bad it continues to be wrapped up in an often janky experience.