I’ve been mulling over when to write up my review of Elex, a new sci-RPG from Piranha Bytes (initially of Gothic fame and later Risen) but the game is huge and I thought I’d share some early impressions of dozen or so hours in the lush region of Edan. This is a true “hardcore” (as much as I dislike that term) RPG in which complex role-playing and gameplay mechanics are king and everything else feels secondary.
It’s not that the gameplay is only thing going for it; the story is reasonably engaging, the writing is not cringe worthy, and the presentation has its moments. However, the stat-driven gameplay is always front and center, especially when you’re being violently murdered by the first creature you encounter outside of the tutorial area.
Elex has a ton of attributes and skill trees to consider. Sure, you get a healthy chunk of attribute points to invest with each level but the requirements for the most powerful skills, armour and weapons are high. It’s almost impossible to build a jack-of-all-trades character, at least in the opening hours before you can recruit a traveling companion – a task requiring a potentially deadly side quest. I stumbled onto my cleric companion while exploring sci-fi ruins in which every enemy had a skull icon next to their health bar. Only careful baiting of individual enemies and the waste of dozens of once-off items and healing potions got me through.
Combat in Elex is best kept as a last resort. When possible, try diplomacy or getting enemies to fight amongst themselves while you shamelessly snipe from a distance.
Choice is the name of the game and combat can (and should) be avoided wherever possible. Resolving quests provides the most XP and the myriad of side-quests doled out in major settlements often have diplomatic solutions if you play your cards (i.e. skills) right. Rack up some XP, boost a few skills (you’ll need to find skill trainers), and horde Elexit (i.e. cash), and you’ll eventually find yourself with a set of stylish-looking armour, a stash of basic healing potions and hopefully a weapon that actually dents the health bar of the deadly foes you’ll encounter in the post-apocalyptic open world.
At this point, about 5 hours in for me, I finally took a breather and could take in the narrative and setting – the ruined world of Magalan, devastated by a comet impact that also introduced the titular “Elex”. After the fall of society, several factions emerged: the nature-loving Berserkers on a quest to rid the world of Elex, the freedom-loving Outlaws that value strength and wealth, the technology-obsessed Clerics who worship an AI god, and the Albs, a warlike offshoot of humanity that literally consumes Elex for strength (at the expense of emotions).
I’m still trying to go lone-wolf but it seems the game is pushing me to join a faction to drive the main quest forward. To further motivate you, each faction offers a unique skill tree and training in specific weapons. The Berserkers offer magic and summons but this is paired with medieval weapon types like swords and bows. The Outlaws offer a Mad Max-esque selection of old-world weapons and barbaric-looking melee weapons. The Clerics, my current favorite, offer Mass Effect-ish armour, plasma guns and energy swords. Each faction has one particular skill focus that keeps combat balanced.
The world has a ton of verticality – often providing some beautiful vistas – and the jetpack is essential for navigating the steep terrain. Just don’t run out of fuel this high up.
If you take the melee approach, with swords, shields or double-handed monstrosities, you get to deal with rudimentary active combat system, replete with dodgy lock system, light and heavy attacks, parrying, and a dodge roll; all governed by a stamina meter. I’d recommend everyone invest at least a few points here, as ammunition is scarce in the opening hours, and focus on acquiring a companion ASAP (if only to serve as damage-soaking distraction).
If you use range attacks, be that firearms or magic, the game plays a lot like a clunky third-person shooter, not dissimilar to the first Mass Effect. Auto-aim is generous and damage is high, yet ammunition is an issue and fighting in close quarters a nightmare (though you can get shotgun-type weapons and flamethrowers later). To offset a reliance on long-distance sniping, most enemies in the world have at least a basic ranged attack to retaliate.
If you’re taking the pacifist(ish) approach, there are a myriad of skills dedicated to charisma, suggestions and threats. However, combat and a crafting skills also provide unique dialogue options, allowing any specialization to influence conversations. There are no percentage chances and no save scumming, you either have the ability to respond or not, and it feels a lot like Fallout: New Vegas - in the best possible way.
At the right time of day, the lighting manages to inject the sprawling environments with a ton of brooding atmosphere, enhancing the sense of exploring a post-apocalyptic world with few survivors.
Regardless of whether you focus on combat or diplomacy, you’ll always have access to a jetpack that is essential for navigation and vital for escaping from tough foes that litter the game world with zero-regard for your character level. This mobility has the added benefit of allowing you to draw out enemies to tackle them one-on-one (fighting groups is suicide) or you can lure enemies towards one another to trigger conflict between them. I survived many a fight well above my level by luring dangerous beasts to bandit camps.
These mechanics, although clunky and exploitable by modern standards, feel fantastically fresh in light of the excessive hand-holding in most recent games. The world is hard and brutal, progression feels painfully slow at times, yet the ability to survive a tough scrap thanks to some desperate jet packing and leading tough enemies into battle with one another is incredibly rewarding. For those wondering, your companions also get jetpacks and the game does a fantastic job of ensuring they keep up, barring the odd occasion they decide not to defend you in combat, and I’ve often had my companion perched on a tiny ledge on the side of cliff with me.
I’ve made a lot of comparisons to older titles and that’s partially because Elex wouldn’t look out of place on a last-gen console. It has some nice foliage, lighting and shadowing, but the low-resolution textures, simple geometry and stiff animations all fall short of modern standards. Thankfully, the voice acting is solid (helped by some inoffensive writing) and the music is outstanding; it’s the one aspect of presentation that Piranha Bytes clearly didn’t skimp on. From the dramatic opening theme to the haunting, piano-heavy tracks that accompany exploration of the wasteland, it does a great job of generating atmosphere where the visuals elements fail. It had me thinking back to Inon Zur’s excellent Fallout soundtrack and that’s about as high a praise as I can give.
Elex is without doubt another clunky AA-style RPG from Piranha Bytes but I feel the new sci-if/fantasy story and deep role-playing mechanics are doing a great job of elevating the experience above its sub-par visuals and clunky combat. If you’ve played Gothic or Risen, you’ll know what you’re getting into. If you enjoyed those titles, this is their most ambitious and refined game for years. If you can survive the opening hours, invest the time in carefully planning your character build, and exploit every combat opportunity, Elex is a fresh experience by virtue of being a classic experience.
Enjoys games with awesome stories and characters, along with new and interesting hardware. Dislikes day-one patches and driver updates.
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