Official artwork and logo for Elex

Elex is a true Piranha Bytes RPG. Its overly ambitious, clunky and riddled with bugs, yet despite all of its flaws I simply couldn't put it down until I reached the finish line. This is partly due to a world that seems to have a life of its own outside of serving the player, and partly because of how much my actions influenced the opinions of those around me. Elex might not be anything special when it comes to pure gameplay, but in terms of immersion its one of the most impressive RPGs I've played in recent years.

So if you're interested in seeing what exactly Elex does right, as well as what sort of traps it jumps into face-first, allow me to share my thoughts after a rather lengthy playthrough.

Elex screenshot of the Schakal enemy

Running away is a valid (and often recommended) strategy in Elex

Unlike the past few games I've reviewed, Elex did not start me off on a positive note. After a fairly enjoyable hand-drawn story intro I was immediately flung into one of the most generic and bland cutscenes out there. The camera angles and pacing were amateurish at best, while certain armor textures were so blocky and muddy you could probably transplant them into Minecraft without much trouble. You want to know the funny thing though? The moment that sensory barrage ended I was left in a colorful and visually pleasing area, and even my character's gear looked pretty damn good! 

I can only assume this introductory cinematic was slapped together over the course of a single day because its by far the worst one Elex has to offer, but at least it set the tone for everything that was to come. What I mean by this is that Elex is game of extremes, a game where absolutely brilliant ideas constantly intermingle with terrible or poorly executed ones. For example, the progression system is downright amazing and it really makes you feel like you're growing in power throughout the campaign, yet the combat system is so clunky and unpolished that it consistently hampers your power trip. In true Piranha Bytes fashion the bad never outweighs the good, but its always there to remind you of what could've been if the developers went with a more focused game instead.

Elex has some very strange graphical issues

The helmet and background are bad, but the shoulder textures are something else entirely

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the first few hours. With no equipment, weapons, or healing potions you are essentially a walking buffet for the savage wildlife, so in order to even survive you will need to do what is basically menial chores for the local population. However, while most of the quest objectives are lifted straight from every other generic RPG, the ways you can solve them and the effect they have is beyond impressive.

Just about every single quest has numerous ways to approach it, everything from beating up all of the 'baddies' in a certain area, using blackmail and thievery, or just talking your way through things. Most of this is fairly standard stuff for an RPG, but Elex takes things a step further by asking: "What happens afterwards?" If you try to cut corners during certain quests in order to speed up the process and get your rewards sooner, your lack of attention might come to bite you further down the line when the people involved realize how much you screwed them over.

Elex screenshot of a Outlaw in armor

Needless to say, you don't want to annoy people dressed like this

There's a quest early on where an outpost asks you to secure them a food delivery, which you can complete by either collecting an absurd amount of consumables or by giving them a bunch of old bread you found behind the house. As with most RPGs, choosing either of these options will finish the quest and give you your reward. However, if you go with the easy route the outpost will eventually get food poisoning and start hating your guts, all because you decided to be 'clever' and finish the quest in the most optimal way possible!

I wasn't aware of this when I first started, so imagine my surprise when the local Warlord came up to my face to tell me that he's going to exile me from the city because of how much the locals hate me! As it turns out, all of my super-efficient ways of solving quests and lending a hand were causing more problems than solving them, with the end result being a city full of people who would love nothing more than to throw me to the ravenous Rotboars.

All of this might sound a bit harsh now, but in context it makes perfect sense. I willingly took shortcuts in order to power up my character as quickly as possible, fully secure in the knowledge that "its just a game", so when Elex brought in actually realistic responses I was left to bear the weight of my laziness. It is moments like these that really sucked me into Elex, moments that made me feel like I'm a genuine part of the world and not just some sort of human-like automaton, moments that were so impactful they made it very easy to ignore most of Elex's flaws.

Elex screenshot of how actions have consequences

Whoooooooops...

Speaking of automatons, let's talk about our protagonist. Instead of being able to create your own character, Elex puts you in the shoes of an already preestablished one, which in most circumstances wouldn't be a big problem. However, your character in Elex is the most boring man imaginable, and his voice constantly sounds like he's gargling gravel while speaking. For a game as focused on immersion as Elex the lackluster quality of the main voice actor is quite frankly shocking, especially when you consider just how often he talks to other, more likable characters. I know there is a very good story reason for this to be the case, but Geralt from The Witcher series also has dulled emotions and yet his voice still carries a great deal of personality with it. There is simply no reason an RPG character should ever sound like he's halfheartedly reading lines off a script!

What surprised me the most, however, is how poorly the prestablished character was implemented into the story. Before I move on, let me just say that I won't go into any spoilers, and that all of the information you'll read from now onward is told to you within the first 5 minutes. With that in mind, your character is essentially a commander of the bad guys that gets betrayed due to an internal power struggle. A good reason to start us off without any equipment, but a terrible reason for us to be completely useless in a fight. Lore-wise our character is supposed to be an absolute badass, and even though he's no longer powered by ELEX he's still trained in all sorts of combat styles, scouting, survival tactics, and the operation of complex technology. Yet none of this is present in game, and you basically start off as if you were a completely random nobody.

Things become especially ridiculous when your character starts trying to help out the nature-loving Berserkers, a faction he was sent to wipe out! It makes sense from a player perspective, but if you take even a second to think about your character's point of view it becomes utterly absurd. He's a high-ranking officer that has shown his dedication to the cause, so why in the blazing hells would he ever join a bunch of tree-hugging hippies that shun the very technology he has embedded in his own flesh? Just imagine if Darth Vader crash-landed onto Tatooine, decided to join the Rebellion, and then eventually became a moisture farmer - that's the kind of nonsense I'm talking about here! All of this could've been avoided by having the main character start off as a random nobody, and it would've actually improved the roleplaying aspects of Elex, but alas that is not the case and we get to play as Commander Boring instead.

Elex screenshot of our protagonist as an Alb commander

Our protagonist (pictured above) is supposed to be an absolute badass, yet none of that is seen in-game

Since I'm already talking about characters and stories, its worth mentioning that the main narrative is really not that bad. It has some interesting twists and turns, inter-faction politics and power struggles, and most importantly, an intriguing bunch of characters to interact with. I did find it to be a bit too slow and predictable at times, and the writing quality was a roller coaster from the very beginning to the very end, but overall the main storyline kept me engaged enough to follow it all the way through. That's a lot more than I can say for most open-world games out there - I still haven't actually finished Skyrim despite playing through it around four times now.

While the main story mostly serves as a guiding light for your explorations, it is the side-quests where Elex truly shines. It doesn't matter which faction you decide to work for, simply talking to people and figuring out what's happening is an absolute blast as you're never held by the hand. There's no yellow exclamation marks pointing you towards quests or obvious danger, its all up to you to discover who needs help and whether its even worth helping them. Sometimes this will land you in traps, other times it will give you access to new weapons and armor, but no matter the outcome its always an interesting ordeal. All of this might sound a bit archaic from an outside viewpoint, but it gives Elex a very realistic tone while also greatly rewarding those with a knack for exploration.

Elex screenshot of a Cleric in full armor

Its also worth mentioning that the quests give you some pretty damn awesome armor!

Besides seeing the sights and getting killed by all of the natives, the reason you want to explore in Elex is experience, something that doesn't really matter in most other games. If you want to wield the best weapons you're going to have to invest a lot of stat points into relevant attributes such as Strength or Dexterity, which means that your Charisma and Intelligence based skills will suffer. However, unless you want to go through the entire campaign as an absolute moron with a giant stick you will need to invest some stat points into pretty much all of the attributes, which is where things get really interesting. You simply do not have the points to be a jack-of-all trades, so throughout your entire journey you will have to make some incredibly tough decisions about the direction of your character. This not only reinforces the whole immersion aspect of Elex, but it also gives you the ability to have wildly different playthroughs.

Now, do you remember how I said Elex counterbalances every good decision with a terrible one? Well, this is where I need to invoke that rule yet again. Elex has a plethora of different talents you can learn, both combat and non-combat orientated ones, yet trying to experiment with them is a beginner's trap. Where the problem arises is in the simple fact that anyone not leveling combat talents first and foremost is shooting themselves in the foot with a laser rifle, which unfortunately leaves a gaping wound that they'll only notice about 5 hours in... and yes, I am speaking from experience here.

You can level up your looting, bartering, thievery, or even bonus experience skills, but at the end of the day Elex is an action RPG, which means you are going to have a lot more fights than opportunities to gain a tiny bit of extra experience from reading books. So if you want to have a good time with Elex, heed my advice and leave the non-combat skills for later. This goes doubly so for attribute points because if you don't pour everything into Strength and Dexterity early on you're going to have to fight heavily armored opponents with nothing more than a rusty pipe.

Elex screenshot of a monster lying in ambush

Let's just say that there are some things in this world that you don't want to try and clobber with a bit of metal

Due to how the leveling system is designed you are going to be absolutely worthless at everything when you first start out. You'll have the charisma of a drunken troll, the hitting power of a slightly annoyed squirrel, no actual knowledge of weapons or survival tactics, and about 5% chance to live through a combat encounter with even the weakest of foes. And if that wasn't scary enough, there is no level scaling in Elex, so if you run into a giant monster its just about guaranteed to smash you into a fine paste until you come back better equipped. 

Its a soul-crushingly brutal start, there's no denying that, but its a highly necessary one for the kind of game Elex is. If you spend the first few hours getting annihilated by just about everything, gaining even tiny amounts of power will feel beyond exhilarating. For example, I cannot remember the last game I was excited to equip any sort of defensive item, yet in Elex a tiny wooden shield gave me so much joy because I spent more than 2 hours questing in order to get it! Things do eventually speed up, so don't worry about the whole "2 hours for a shield" thing, that's just at the start. What you should keep in mind, however, is that becoming more powerful in Elex is a very slow, very noticeable, and most importantly, a very satisfying process. And for an RPG as focused on player-freedom and character growth as Elex, that is a major positive. There are very few things more empowering in gaming than coming back to an enemy that repeatedly smashed you into the ground, only to casually incinerate them with your newfound powers! 

What's not so positive is the amount of bugs you'll encounter while roaming the world, especially the type that result in you getting stuck behind some sort of rock. While I won't excuse the sheer amount of them, I will commend Piranha Bytes for giving us the very best means of avoiding bugs - a jetpack! As with most other things in Elex, the jetpack is clunky and full of strange design choices that limit how enjoyable it can actually be, but even so its still a jetpack and as such awesome! What I especially love is that you gain it at the very start which gives you the ability to go just about everywhere, even if you're not meant to be there for at least another dozen hours or so. Elex really does respect you as a player when it comes to things like this, and that is something I can certainly appreciate!

Elex screenshot of a Jetpack in action

Its the least impressive jetpack ever, but its still a jetpack!

While I would love to say otherwise, especially since Elex is an action-focused RPG, the actual combat is a bit of a mess. Its pretty much the same combat system you might know from Risen, though with a couple of bells, whistles, and laserguns added to spice things up. In many ways I can also compare the melee combat to the one from Dark Souls as they both use stamina and timing in a very similar fashion. However, while Dark Souls is a highly polished game with perfectly executed attacks and dodges, Elex feels like you're constantly playing on 500 ping. The attacks aren't fluid, the enemies don't always react the way you would expect, you often get hit even though you clearly dodged an attack, sometimes you even get rubber-banded backwards in order to get smacked by an absolutely brutal area-of-effect ability, and the problems keep piling on. A similar story applies to both ranged combat and magic. Everything is functional and you can definitely have a bit of fun with it, but that feeling of "this is just not right" is sadly never going to go away.

Also, don't overly-specialize in ranged combat because ammo is highly limited, so whether you like it or not you're going to be spending a lot of time beating up enemies with futuristic swords - a notion that should have me frothing at the mouth with excitement, yet only results in a "meh". A real shame since with a highly polished combat system Elex would be one of the best RPGs of this decade, yet sadly its destined to only be just above average. While its obviously too late right now, I can't help but feel that Piranha Bytes stretched themselves far too thin trying to design so many different weapons and spells. It might've been better to just say "its all about guns" or "its all about melee weapons" and then polish those up to a mirror sheen, as trying to have it both ways has only resulted in multiple layers of mediocrity.

Elex screenshot of a deadly raptor

The AI isn't the best either. A lot of the enemies don't know how to react to you circle-strafing around them.

Closing Thoughts

Elex is a clunky mess riddled with bugs, yet what it does well it does so damn well I simply cannot hate it! The combination of brutal difficulty, satisfying leveling, quests with open-ended solutions, and a world that reacts to everything you do proved to be quite mesmerizing for me. I cannot in good conscience recommend Elex to anyone but the most diehard of fans, at least not at full price, but if you're willing to overlook its flaws you will find a truly wondrous world to explore, one that is not afraid to let you go off the beaten path. I certainly had a great deal of fun with it, so here's to hoping that post-launch patches will manage to work miracles and transform Elex into something special.

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