The morning sun creeps over the desolate horizon and peeks through the rippling leaves. Crumpled pylons litter the deserted skyline like skeletal husks of a past long forgotten. Meandering rivers carve their way through the radiation soaked earth and snake their way to lifeless, empty oceans.
Behold the world of ELEX, a post-apocalyptic science-fantasy open-world RPG from Piranha Bytes, the German-based developer of the Risen and Gothic series. Suit up, roll out; you’re in for a long journey. And thankfully, it’s quite a surprisingly fun one, if you’re willing to endure some of its rougher technical aspects.
Mid-tier open-world RPGs from small teams are pretty much a dying breed these days. Though French developer Spiders keep knocking out the occasional soiled gems, like The Technomancer and Bound By Flame, Piranha Bytes is a similar studio that’s spent most of its career chasing the coattails of its bigger budget genre brethren like the Fallout, Dragon Age and The Elder Scrolls series. One can only respect the developer’s David vs. Goliath moxie.
The futuristic world of ELEX – dubbed Magalan in-game – has been decimated by a rogue meteor which crash landed into the planet many centuries ago. This lump of rock and mineral has brought with it a brand new element: the titular Elex (pronounced eelix), a mysterious and powerful crystal-like substance that harbours unknown raw alchemistic potential.
Since the planet-wide disaster, pockets of civilization have formed and taken root, each with their own distinct cultures, technologies and beliefs. The hippie-esque Berserkers, for example, are fairly primitive and opt for magic over state-of-the-art technology. They’re a welcoming bunch and – for the most part – a peaceful society, particularly compared to their arch-rivals, the Albs, who are – by stark comparison – a more militarized organization with advanced technology though devoid of emotion.
The Albs use Elex much like a drug, which heightens their fighting prowess but at the surrender of their humanity. Their large, foreboding mechanical converters are scattered across the wastelands of Magalan and are the place where human life is sacrificed in their bid to extract even more valuable Elex from the earth; saying they’re not the nicest folks in the world would be a bit of an understatement.
The twist is, your character Jax is actually a famous Alb general. After surviving an underhanded assassination attempt, you must make your way though the post-apocalyptic world of Magalan on a sort of path to redemption, as you assist other factions in their battle against the growing Alb threat that’s sweeping across the nation. It’s your job to stop the spreading icy menace of the Albs and bring peace to the crumbling world of Magalan. Of course, you could simply be an unhelpful asshole to everyone you meet. The choice is ultimately yours, which adds a little welcome personalized freedom to the overall experience.
In the spirit of Dragon Age and Fallout, there are some dialogue choices you can make that impact the overarching narrative. Completing quests a certain way will occasionally “fail” the progression of other quests, for example. Characters will sometimes “remember,” “dislike,” or “respect” what you say (the game will explicitly tell you this, much akin to Telltale Games’ titles). These choices are mostly tied to a pretty basic karma system, though they do assist in adding some flexibility to a few of the conversations nonetheless.
Sadly, the writing is mostly passable stuff. At its worst, dialogue can be nonsensical, with flat voice acting and bad lip-syncing adding insult to injury. Truth is, there’s a lot of dialogue in ELEX, and the bulk of it is less The Witcher 3 and more, well, Risen 3. That said, there is a faint air of B-movie charm to the majority of proceedings, but your mileage may vary. If discussions between characters get a little too long in the tooth, there’s always the option to quickly gloss over them and focus on following the quest’s objective markers post-conversation.
Onto the gameplay, then, and it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Combat is real-time with both melee and ranged options at your disposal. It’s undoubtedly a tighter combat system than Piranha Bytes’ previous title Risen 3, but it’s still playing catchup with the other big-hitters in the genre. Battling with Magalan’s varied mutant menagerie can occasionally feel clunky when compared to other RPG staples, though, once you get used to the ebb and flow of combat (and get past the obnoxious tutorials), you’ll discover a serviceable system that simply lacks that extra layer of polish players are used to in action-RPGs in 2017. A simple combo system helps to add some extra spice to skirmishes; once you’ve executed a few attacks and filled your combo meter, you’re able to unleash a special critical upon your opponents that’ll see them pushing up the daisies.
Optional companions can also join your party (only one at a time), and while its addition is hardly groundbreaking, it does help add a wee more depth to an otherwise average combat experience. Further, these optional companions really assist in alleviating some of the dastardly difficulty spikes the game throws at you. Watch out for those mobs of nasty swamp spiders!
The wealth of mutated monsters you’ll meet on your travels don’t scale, so get used to getting nailed by overpowered mutants in the early-game. Once you’ve acquired enough XP, however, you’ll be able to level up, and begin upgrading your various stats. Once certain requirements are met, you’ll also be able to unlock skills by visiting certain trainers that are peppered throughout the game’s myriad of settlements. Health, stamina, and attack power upgrades, along with a multitude of diverse perks can be unlocked, and these help shape your character in a more personalized way. The character progression in ELEX is addictive enough that you’ll be looking forward to acquiring all the new skills the game’s variety of trainers have to offer.
Now, the main saving grace of ELEX is its wonderful sense of exploration and discovery in a world that both feels and looks authentically lived in. There are some breathtaking vistas to take in and the lighting is also pretty impressive. The subtle, atmospheric audio further complements the densely overgrown, dilapidated environments that have succumb to nature’s perennial tooth and claw.
It’s a lovely feeling simply wandering the post-apocalyptic wastelands and going wherever the wind takes you, collecting herbs for crafting and battling the occasional critter to harvest some meat for cooking — it’s a world that feels surprisingly alive. Even though many of the NPCs you meet on your travels have little to say, there are enough quest-giving characters with a story to tell that offsets this and it becomes fairly easy to forgive many of the game’s technical missteps.
Furthermore, you’re gifted a jetpack early on in your main quest and it’s a really sweet addition. Controls can feel a touch floaty (pun unintended), but once you’ve gotten used to gliding across ravines and sailing up the sides of derelict buildings, it becomes clear that there’s a fair amount of verticality baked into the level design. It’s a great accompaniment that helps to accentuate the terrific sense of discovery that ELEX offers up.
Ultimately, there’s a great game hidden somewhere in ELEX, but there are just too many technical missteps and niggling bugs to give a wholehearted blanket recommendation to all RPG fans out there. Nevertheless, if you don’t mind your games having a few rough edges, and aren’t desperate for every aspect of your RPG experience to be the best of the best, then ELEX may just be the diamond in the post-apocalyptic rough that you’ve been waiting for. And did I mention you get a jetpack? Jetpacks make everything better.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which was provided to us by THQ Nordic.
There’s a great game hidden somewhere in ELEX, but there are just too many technical missteps and niggling bugs to give a wholehearted blanket recommendation to all RPG fans.