RPGs have to be some of my favourite games, primarily because they usually offer rich and deep worlds and a wide variety of character builds and perks to explore. My only issue with them is that, like most other popular genres, a lot of them begin to look and feel the same after a while. They usually opt for some sort of fantasy/medieval setting and rely on period-appropriate weaponry to build combat systems off of. Sure there are other titles like Fallout that come to mind that break that monotony, but they bring their own issues with their nebulous cut and paste content. This is where Piranha Bytes looked to break from the norm with Elex. Unfortunately, while their work is ambitious and intriguing, it misses the mark on various levels resulting in a game that is infuriatingly clunky, uneven and poorly made in too many ways.
Elex is a sci-fi-meets-fantasy action-RPG developed by Piranha Bytes and published by THQ Nordic, set on the planet of Magalan, which is still feeling the aftermath of a meteor crash. Asides from obliterating the landscape, the meteor brings the element for which the game is named. As it turns out, Elex is rather useful for powering machines, bestowing magic abilities, and also imbibing as a drug to suppress emotion, making soldiers more cold and logical (a practice favoured by a military outfit known as the Albs). The world of Elex is one of struggle for survival, and three main factions have arisen in the aftermath of the meteor strike, with each having different moral codes and views regarding the use of Elex. The fanatic Clerics forbid the use of Elex at all, whereas the Outlaws are all for the use of Elex to craft into combat drugs. The Berserkers on the other hand use refined Elex to power magical abilities, and the politics and interplay between these factions is what drives Elex’s world.
The story picks up with our nameless protagonist surviving an attempted assassination, and finding himself going through Elex withdrawals. As an ex-member of the Albs, his long-term abuse of Elex to suppress his emotions has made him a bit of a wreck, and the cold turkey halting of this abuse means he must come to terms with his newfound thoughts and feelings in a world that is increasingly harsh and unforgiving.
In terms of the world itself, I would say that Elex does a decent job at placing the player within a setting that feels as harsh as it is intriguing. Enemy design can be strange, but also helps make the world feel different from your stock standard RPG world. The areas have some cool design to them, my favourite being the first town you visit, Goliet. It doesn’t rely on the typical dilapidated infrastructure as much as most games set within a post-apocalyptic world do, and has enough personality and charm to be more memorable than most. Elex’s world and general premise is perhaps its strongest asset, however unfortunately almost every other aspect in terms of gameplay and presentation is passable at best, and atrocious at worst.
Great for rain shelter
Being an action-RPG, you’ll be dabbling in a fair amount of combat, and the game wastes no time introducing you to its sub-par combat system. The combat is similar to your standard third-person RPG combat in the vein of something like The Witcher series. You have your light attacks, heavy attacks, block/parry and dodging; there’s nothing new here. But in terms of execution, the combat is just a clunky mess, and has an overly slow speed to it. Hitboxes make no sense, and the lock-on system is awful. Locking on to an enemy actually makes your movement even more restricted (which is saying something). Every aspect of combat and movement feels janky, unresponsive and heavy. Seeing as combat is introduced almost instantly when you fire up the game, it’s a poor first impression.
Unfortunately, you’re only as good as your weakest link and the clunky gameplay just makes traversing this world a frustrating task. Where most games would opt for an automatic vaulting system for pulling your character up from a ledge. This is where Elex looks to change things and requires you to stand in a very specific and finicky position to bring up a prompt which allows you to vault up a ledge. Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue but the game gives you a jetpack very early on so verticality is a major facet of the general gameplay, and the lack of automatic vaulting seems counterintuitive.
It’s not all terrible though, and the depth of Elex’s RPG mechanics is where the game actually impressed me. It seems like Piranha knew what they were doing when it came to crafting and designing unique skill trees, which all aim to achieve the same goal but in very different routes. As mentioned previously, there are three main factions in Elex’s world, and aligning with one gives you access to unique abilities and skill trees. Each tree feels potent enough to base a build off of, but not so powerful as to make the other trees feel obsolete. However, while the RPG mechanics are rich and deep, the UI is somewhat of an eyesore. The sci-fi cheesiness of the futuristic looking UI makes it a pain to navigate and a pain to look at. In most RPGs where you can completely ignore the UI this wouldn’t be an issue, but in Elex you use your UI quite a bit so you are often faced with finding your way through it.
Bring me the horizon
In terms of audiovisuals, Elex passes in some aspects but is terrible in others. While texture quality isn’t that great, the lighting is decent and the bright colour palette of the game helps give some reprieve from the stale and clunky gameplay. In a setting where most games would go down the dull-coloured route, Elex elects to go make liberal use of greenery and contains some surprisingly pretty landscapes. Where the game falls woefully short is in its sound design however. With voice acting that is patchy at best, I chose to skip through the dialogue rather than endure the audial torture. There’s also a jarring pitch of the sound that occurs when you hit enemies that legitimately hurt my ears at one point, and the mixing levels in general just don’t feel right.
Elex also suffers from some severe technical issues. From the get-go you are met with a cutscene that struggles to achieve 24 fps, and coming out of this cutscene you are immediately shown the texture popping and rendering issues that the game suffers from on the PS4. Couple this with the various crashes I experienced during my time playing the game and I started to wonder if Piranha Bytes took a page out of Bethesda Softworks’ book and opted for as little quality control as possible as these issues are all too frequent to be ignored. There were even times where severe frame drops occurred when there was essentially nothing going on. I can be forgiving for some technical issues within a game (there’s no such thing as a game without bugs), but the amount of issues that riddle this game is downright ridiculous, and the game seemingly goes out of its way to hamper your enjoyment.
Elex is an unfortunate case of an intriguing world ruined by most of game which the world is tied to. With average gameplay, horrid combat, bad voice acting, bad sound design and a myriad of technical issues, Elex does little to encourage players to invest time in its vast landscapes, deep RPG mechanics and interesting ideas. This is a title that I would definitely not recommend.
Reviewed on PS4