Reviewed on: Playstation 4. Copy supplied by publisher.
Coming from Piranha Bytes, the same team behind cult RPG series, Gothic, as well as Risen, there’s quite some experience behind open world action RPG, Elex. Gothic has a lot of fans, but Risen is not exactly well known for its quality. This leaves Elex as a bit of a wild card, so how does it fare?
Elex is a sci-fi fantasy RPG that takes place on the planet Magalan. The planet was hit by a huge comet that wiped out the majority of the planet’s inhabitants, and left behind Elex, a strange, powerful substance. The survivors of the impact have split in various factions, each with their own beliefs, and use for the strange substance. The Berserkers are primitive warriors who use Elex for magic and shun technology; The Clerics worship machines and use Elex to create powerful tech; Outlaws are a Mad Max-style gang who use Elex in performance enhancing drugs. The final faction are the Albs, a very high tech group who use Elex in bioengineering, infusing soldiers with Elex to create super soldiers. The Albs are generally considered the most powerful faction and the ‘bad guys’ by the other three factions, although no factions particularly get along.
Enter protagonist, Jax. A high-ranking Alb commander who is shot down on an important solo mission and then shot and left for dead by his Alb brother. Jax wakes up some time later, with no Elex left in his system, and nothing but his thirst for vengeance.
From here it’s your task to decide on Jax’s fate, and how he’ll get said vengeance. Throughout the game you’ll encounter the various factions, recruit companions, and choose your alliances to form a team strong enough to tackle the Albs.
Starting out in the game I was immediately met with a fairly impressive looking world, one that’s actually quite varied and huge. Just a glance at the map reveals a mixture of lush, green forests, mountainous tundra, arid deserts, and volcanic regions. It all looks great, and the world contains some well-designed locations. Before you get chance to visit these, however, you’ll encounter many, many problems, of which will likely ruin any and all good things the game has to offer.
First up are the controls, which are clunky, awkward, and sluggish. Jax controls fairly well when just moving around the world, but in combat, even with light weapons, he’s a painfully slow mess. It’s all too easy to totally miss foes (even when locked on), and the stamina-controlled action system means you’ll often be unable to attack or avoid attacks as it’s just too unbalanced. Indeed, balance is without a doubt the game’s main issue.
By this, I mean there’s virtually no balance at all, and every single encounter you find yourself in is a nightmare of quick deaths, even on the game’s ‘easy’ difficulty. Beginning the game on the hardest difficulty, I was forced to slowly reduce the difficulty, so unfair and poorly designed were the enemies and combat in general. Even the lowliest of foes you encounter is able to one or two hit kill you, and before you feel even slightly capable in taking on even basic foes, you’ll need to invest at least 15-20 hours, the time it would usually take many other games to reach end-game status.
Simply put, the game is just far too hard, but not hard in a good way. It’s badly designed, poorly balanced, cheap, and the combat system in general is just painfully bad. You’d be forgiven for thinking ranged combat would be a good alternative, but even in a world full of energy weapons, bows, and other ranged weapons, ammo is scarce, and these guns are often ineffective. There’s a definite focus on melee combat, and this often leads to death after death.
Levelling could fix this, of course, but even this system is broken. Abilities are locked behind faction allegiances, and not available until you join said factions, and even then each faction’s skills are mostly copies of the other factions, and offer very little difference.
The worst part of levelling, however, comes with weapons and equipment. Elex is so damn stingy in loot, you’ll often have to buy items from vendors, but even then to use said weapons or gear, you’ll often need to meet the minimum requirements, mostly two different stats. These are, at least in your first 10-15 hours, often way out of reach, meaning you’ll be using the same old rusty axe you fond at the beginning of the game 10 hours in. It’s pitiful, and one of the worst progression and RPG-levelling systems I’ve ever seen. There are just so many restrictions and walls put in place of becoming at least a competent warrior, I suspect most players will just get fed up and move on before this point. If I wasn’t reviewing the game, I know I’d have given up long ago.
Outside of game mechanics, I also found the game suffered from regular slow-down, and what appeared to be a memory leak that gradually caused the game to perform worse and worse as I played, to the point the menu system took several seconds to open and respond, especially the map, which became almost unusable until I quit and reloaded the game.
All of this is a shame, because, surprisingly, Elex does have some very interesting lore, and many of the characters, especially your companions, have great back stories and progression arcs. The main story is decent, and the world design is pretty solid, with the game actually making medieval magic users, high tech soldiers and Mad Max gangs work together in a believable setting. There’s a lot of variety in locations, and missions and side quests are not at all bad, with quite some variety.
The politics and beliefs of the various factions make for an interesting dynamic in the world, especially when you come to decide which faction you’d like to follow, and this can affect how you play. It’s just such a shame that the game’s overall design and development is just so inept and bogged down with unforgivable issues that just can’t be ignored.
With a handful of patches and some back-to-the-drawing-board development of game systems, Elex could become a cult classic with a loyal fan base. As it stands, though, it’s a title I can only advise you avoid. There are far better open world RPGs around that are far more deserving of your cash.