Review: ELEX is a scrappy RPG that suffers on the technical front
Existing fans of Piranha Bytes will be satisfied, but it won’t win over many new ones.
Platforms: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, PS4
Developer: Piranha Bytes
Publisher: THQ Nordic
It’s quite easy to be drawn to ELEX at first glance, particularly if you are a fan of open world Action RPGs. Its world stretches for miles in every direction and consists of diverse biomes that are home to warring factions that are just as distinct. Perhaps best of all is that it’s up to the player which of these factions you wish to take up arms with (or none at all), to which you customize the hero Jax’s look around.
Unfortunately, with the plethora of choices surrounding how to play ELEX, your hero is a static and ordinary “fallen soldier hellbent on revenge against those who wrong him” cliche. But if you can ignore Jax’s uninspired character and backstory (which is pretty easy to do), ELEX is filled with little stories of power struggles and betrayal, so it hardly matters.
What does matter is that ELEX is something of a double-edged sword, and depending on your tastes, there are those that will thoroughly enjoy it and those who will hate within the first few hours and never touch it again. If you’ve ever played a Piranha Bytes game before, then you know that their games have a fair amount of performance and technical hiccups, and ELEX is no different. These things are sure to turn away a fair amount of people, but for those who can hang with the game, there’s a rewarding experience buried underneath the mess.
Here’s what you need to know about ELEX:
If you’re a fan of Piranha Bytes, you’ll be a fan of ELEX.
ELEX has just about everything you’d expect from the developer, right down to how it starts. Your character, Jax is shot down, left for dead, and stripped of all of his gear, forcing players to build him back up from nothing. And nothing is precisely what you are.
Your first weapon is a lead pipe, which is barely enough to scrape by against the lowest monsters. The difficulty is a part of the experience, and there’s a lot of trial and error as you come to grips with what monsters you can defeat, and which ones will kick your ass. This is liable to turn off a fair number of people, as there are times when you will inadvertently find yourself in encounters you can’t win, by virtue of an inconsistent AI or enemy placement that can be at odds with what seems rational.
For example, there was one segment of the game where I was jetpacking between alcoves on the side of a desert mountain. Common sense would dictate that the aggressive and dangerous land animals that were lurking below and that I was trying to avoid wouldn’t be able to reach these spots. However, I met a rather unfortunate end when it turns out one did spawn in one of these high up areas that I wasn’t expecting. It’s not a regular thing that the game throws at you, but it does happen from time to time, and it can easily frustrate.
Regarding technical performance, there are moments where ELEX will stutter, particularly in towns with a lot of NPCs on the ground. On top of that, environmental features and most notably enemies, won’t always render on screen right when you'd think they should, which can be problematic when you’re trying to avoid combat. Speaking of avoiding combat.
You’ll find yourself avoiding combat a lot more than engaging in it.
The game isn’t shy about throwing enemies you aren’t ready for in the path between you and your objective, so you are frequently forced to find alternative routes to get where you need to go. This has two distinct effects, one of which leads to a rather organic means of exploring the environment that even big games like Assassin’s Creed: Origins can’t quite master. There’s a lot of verticality to ELEX’s open world of Magaland, and it’s clear that Piranha Bytes’ intention is for you to explore that space.
The other is that it’s easy to become combat-averse, which can make it difficult to grind for materials, loot, and experience from monsters. To be fair, most of your experience comes from completing quest objectives, while a lot of monsters, particularly the early ones, only give you between 5 to 10 points worth of experience and not much in the way of loot. It’s entirely possible that this is the developer’s intention, but it doesn’t make for the most satisfying experience.
One of the other things that will keep you from getting your hands dirty is the fact that ELEX just doesn’t toss you new gear or weapons all that often. Again, this feels like an intentional design choice, as it fits within the recurring theme of struggling to survive in a punishing world. ELEX wants you to earn every penny, and it isn’t afraid to remind you how weak you are.
The most exciting stories take place in the world around you.
As mentioned earlier, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about the hero Jax or his quest for revenge against the Empire-like Albs. But, you will find a lot to like about the denizens of ELEX’s open world, their relationships, and the conflicts that are simmering away from the public eye with each faction. ELEX’s story is at its best when you go off the beaten path and engage in the many sidequests the game has to offer.
There’s a particularly compelling sidequest in the early hours of the game where you are tasked with solving a murder for the Berserker faction. The player is given five potential suspects who are scattered outside of the Berserker stronghold, once again forcing the player to explore the environment. Once you figure out who the killer is, you are given several choices for what to do with them, and it’s not as simple as pointing the finger at the evil-doer and watch them be taken away.
No, the story behind it, and the ramifications of revealing the killer’s identity to the leadership of the Berserkers is far more complicated, and there are legitimate in-game benefits to pointing the finger at an innocent person (who isn’t entirely honest). So often will game narratives boil things down to a simplistic “good guys are unquestionably righteous, bad guys are irredeemably evil” formula, so it’s nice to see a game like ELEX give that whole notion the finger, and force you to consider your options before taking action. The actions you do choose, have consequences, both in the story, and regarding how you play the game, and ELEX does this better than a lot of bigger titles who boast about having this sort of feature.
Much like how ELEX treats its narrative, determining how good this game is, is not that simple, and is entirely dependent on the tastes of the player. The way the game pushes you around, presenting many seemingly (and actually) unfair combat encounters can be either a deal breaker or a point of intrigue. ELEX is a game built on a stricter budget than most, and you can tell by the way it clearly reuses its character models, or when you stumble upon the awkward in-game cutscene when you’re being chased by a beast, and your companion will continue to battle it while you and the NPC you’re talking to just chatting away like nothing is happening. If you can get past its shortcomings (of which there are many), there is a game to be enjoyed here with ELEX. You just have to be willing to sift through the mess to get there.