Developer: Piranha Bytes
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC
ELEX is, without a doubt, one of the strangest games I’ve ever played, and you kind of need to play it yourself to find out why – it’s an experience. Piranha Bytes’ nutty open-world RPG isn’t quite like anything out there, which is both a strength and a weakness.
The backdrop: Magalan has been ravaged by a crashing comet, which turned society upside down and left everyone in factions with ELEX at the core of all the hostility. It means different things for different people; some nearly idolise it, others want nothing to do with it. The Albs harness ELEX’s properties to give them added strength and abilities, the Berserkers abhor it and rely on magic instead, the Outlaws view it as a valuable, and the Clerics avoid it all costs while also praising their god, Calaan. If you’re still with me and not yet thinking that this sounds like a misguided cross between The 100 and Mad Max, strap yourself in – we’re going to go to some weird places.
The aftereffects of the comet crash have left much of the planet a wasteland and mutated its animals, which always seem like an excuse for the developers to bring out the velociraptors than anything with rhyme or reason. It’s a perplexing mish-mash of science fiction and fantasy that will have you fighting deformed babies one second and getting utterly annihilated by leviathan robots the next. It’s incohesive and incoherent, but it somehow works, which is a running theme throughout the game.
“ELEX feels every inch like a game that came out a decade ago…”
Your avatar into this world is Jax, who looks like someone had selected a preset design in WWE 2K18 and rolled with it. His betrayal at the hands of his kin, the Albs, comes across so abruptly and jankily within the game’s first five minutes that it does more to draw you out of ELEX than in. The troubling framerate drops and ropey animations don’t help matters, either – ELEX feels every inch like a game that came out a decade ago, which, again, weirdly seems to work in its favour.
Just when you’re getting acclimated with its RPG conventions (kill some rats, scramble for random bits of tat, etc), it throws a mad spanner in the works by giving you a jetpack. This isn’t just a disappointing jetpack that you’ll see on Kickstarter, it’s a From Russia With Love deal that propels you skyward, helping you to traverse the landscape or to escape enemies. It’s also essential for shortcuts, helping you descend from heights quickly and easily with a simple boost when you’re just inches from becoming a crumpled mess. Falling countless feet before cheating death at the last second is a small joy and one that never really got old for me.
ELEX tries so hard to do as much as it can that it’s actually quite endearing. The team at Piranha Bytes clearly don’t have the same resources as some of their bigger peers, but that doesn’t stop them from trying their darnedest to emulate and even outdo them in some regards. If you were seriously let down by Fallout 4’s approach to dialogue, you won’t be disappointed by ELEX – it’s positively swimming in the stuff, even if it’s bloated with clumsy exposition and some bored sounding voicework.
With Jax betrayed and on his own, he must seek out a faction to join to reinvigorate his strength. ELEX withdrawal has made him far weaker and more susceptible to dying every five minutes, which you’ll find out quite harshly during the early grind of the game. It makes a very unwelcoming first impression, making you about as strong as a malnourished chihuahua with an inferiority complex, and considering how long you can go without getting to a respectable level, it creates a lot of early frustration that may be tough to overcome and look past for some.
ELEX’s brutal learning curve comes from the sheer volume of things to see and do versus the amount of seemingly steroid-enhanced enemies that you have to learn about by mainly getting killed by them. The only hint that they may be too powerful for you to take on comes from a skull icon next to their name, but even a “realistic” opponent is quite the challenge, largely thanks to how unforgiving and imprecise ELEX’s combat system is. I’ve seen many people defend it with a “git gud” mentality, but that doesn’t really wash with me. It’s janky and unpredictable with hitboxes that seem to surround the player by a square mile and never once feels fluid or satisfying in the game’s first ten hours or so. It improves a lot when you get better gear and can be more tactical than simply waiting for your scant stamina to refill, but it could still do with a lot of work. Stack it up against almost any game with slightly similar DNA and ELEX’s combat will be found wanting.
However, it’s in the mad depth of its content where ELEX shines. For every RPG that gets the dreaded “mainstream” approach to design, there needs to be games like ELEX that go hell for leather and try to do absolutely everything. The game world is huge and there’s plenty to see and find, which includes enough fetch quests to keep you going until the end of the year, but there’s also a lot of joy to come from simply strengthening yourself and coming across new interactions. The writing is very hit and miss and largely cliched, but there’s a lot of immersion to be enjoyed from simply talking to someone and trying to understand their motivations, as well as what Magalan was like before the comet, akin to Fallout’s post-apocalypse.
Luckily, you aren’t wandering this desolate planet on your own as ELEX has its fair share of companions. I favoured Nasty: a bad-mouthed Outlaw who takes no prisoners, but there’s also Duras, who helps you out in the early stages of the game, and Fenk, who is basically Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. There are many more with them all having their own interesting plotlines that help to flesh them out as characters and freshen up the gameplay loop.
In terms of gear and weaponry, ELEX is diverse, though anything worthwhile is cordoned off behind the later levels. When you do get them, however, it’s a different game altogether and one that is likely to keep dragging you back for the slightly superior sword or tweaked laser rifle – I told you the weaponry was diverse. When it comes to gear, I joined the Clerics faction as soon as I could after getting exhausted from the legwork of the Berserker’s initiation process and was decked out in armour that could then also be traded upwards with each new rung on the faction ladder. Saying that, though, I still had to pay a premium to acquire the armour; the Clerics are Scientologists, it seems.
In fact, all of the factions in Magalan are, well, dickheads. Only the Outlaws are upfront about it, whereas the Albs, Clerics, and Berserkers disguise their villainy as being for a greater good, whether that’s saving the planet for future generations or praising a higher power and not worrying about the bodies that stack up along the way. As inconsistently as ELEX is paced and laid out in terms of plot, the strife between the factions is almost always worth getting involved in.
It’s a shame, then, that the way ELEX presents itself is such a mess. It’s a smorgasbord of different styles that don’t really work, kind of like if Ark: Survival Evolved had a wild weekend with Fallout: New Vegas. It was always difficult for me to reconcile the sudden appearance of snowy mountains when I was just in a jungle, which contributes towards ELEX feeling like a game that’s design was decided with a dartboard and some post-it notes. ELEX’s biggest downfall, however, comes from something as simply as how it feels to play.
“It’s a smorgasbord of different styles that don’t really work…”
Piranha Bytes have their own way of making games and I am taking nothing away from anyone who enjoys their output, but ELEX is clearly running on some outdated foundations. Its technical problems are plentiful, often dropping to sub-30fps on a vanilla PS4 and threatening to sputter out completely when there’s more than a few enemies on-screen. Movement feels like wading through a lake of custard; cumbersome and far too weighty, which extends to player interactions. Most characters, Jax included, are incapable of showing more emotion than the most basic of expressions. I know living in a post-apocalyptic world is grim, but everyone is so gormless that it’s sometimes hard to care about their plights.
And yet, despite so much going against it, I absolutely could not stop playing ELEX. It’s weirdly compelling in a way that I struggle to define. I don’t know whether it’s the fascinating mish-mash of styles that caught my eye, the scope of what the game tries to do, or just how lovably janky almost every inch of it is, but I struggled to pull myself away from it.
Review code provided
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