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An ambitious open-world scifi adventure with fun exploration and iffy combat.

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There’s been some degree of pushback against the open-world paradigm in games lately, and it’s not difficult to see why; it’s been popular and in the games industry “popular” means “run it into the ground.” There have been good and bad implementations of the idea, but generally I’m a fan; I appreciate the opportunities for emergent gameplay and exploration that an open-world provides.

Case in point: ELEX, an action-RPG that’s all about exploring an open-world and finding your way in it; this is a game that shines thanks to its rich environments and setting, allowing it to excel even despite some pressing gameplay issues.

The world of Magalan was a planet not unlike our own…until the Comet came. Turns out a stellar object colliding with your planet can cause some pretty bad stuff to happen. Magalan was torn asunder and its society went to pieces in the ensuing destruction, but the Comet also brought a gift in the form of Elex, a sort of all-purpose fuel/magical catalyst/drug that can be processed to do all sorts of things. Elex and its many uses gave rise to new societies on Magalan in the form of the magic-focused Berserkers, the opportunistic Outlaws and the tech-centric Clerics.

Your character, Jax, wasn’t part of any of those factions; instead, he was an Alb, a member of an antagonistic fourth faction that seeks to claim all of the Elex on Magalan for themselves. After being betrayed by his fellow Albs, Jax ends up unarmed, unarmored and stuck with a bad case of Elex withdrawal. Jax will have to pull himself together and find a way to get back in fighting form before venturing out to find some answers…and maybe even a little revenge.

This is an open-world action-RPG from Piranha Bytes! You may remember them from such open-world action-RPGs as Gothic and Risen. If you do, then you’ll be right at home here, as Elex owes much to those titles; you wouldn’t be very far off the mark calling this “sci-fi Gothic.” This means that many of the pros and cons of those series came along for the ride here, in particular Piranha Bytes’ characteristic fleshed-out worlds and crushing difficulty.

The latter probably bears mention first, given the recent non-troversies over Games Being Too Hard: ELEX is a hard game. Really, really hard. In fact, I’d almost call it…gasp…inaccessible to many players because of how difficult it is. Turns out that Elex withdrawal has quite the kick; Jax is pretty much defenseless at the start of the game, only capable of taking on the equivalent of half-dead rats with two legs and one eye missing, and even then he’s got to chug some health potions just to be sure. When the game not-so-subtly hints that you want to join one of the three non-Alb factions for your own safety, it’s absolutely not joking, and you won’t have much success in combat for several hours at the very least. Even then, I found it helpful to rely on grenade and PSI-power spam to get past some of the more brutal encounters I ran into throughout the game.

The process of joining one of those factions and how it changes your gameplay style is ELEX’s central conceit. It’s so core to the game, in fact, that it serves as the biggest contributor to that fleshed-out world that Piranha Bytes endeavors to build. Each faction has their own plans for the new post-Elex Magalan. You can be part of those plans…if you can prove your worth, as it’s not just a matter of walking up to a guild leader and asking to join. The first five or six hours of the game, in fact, will revolve around Jax’s efforts to join a faction; you can choose to stay unaligned but, well, good luck with that. The faction you join will change the gear and skills available to you on a fundamental level, drastically altering how ELEX plays.

The Berserkers, for instance, are your magic users and, as their name suggests, tend to be pretty good melee fighters as well. They seek to cleanse Magalan of what they view as corruption spread by Elex, and to that end they collect and dismantle any and all technology in order to recover and purify the Elex it contains. The game pushes you to become a Berserker just a tiny bit, as they’re the first faction you interact with and you’re dropped off at their faction base early on. The Clerics are the exact opposite, embracing the potential of Elex-based technology and using it to open their mind to deadly PSI powers. Finally, the Outlaws are Mad Max-style raiders who consume Elex like a drug to enhance their combat proficiency. You can work for all three factions to some extent, but actually joining a side is a one-time affair that can’t be reversed.

Your chosen faction will offer their own skill tree and gear, thus having a great effect on how you fight. No matter which one you pick, though, don’t expect too much out of combat. I’m not sure any game epitomizes the term “jank” quite as much as ELEX does when it comes to fighting. Melee combat, favored by your typical Berserker, appears to be going for a sort of pseudo-Souls feel but ends up looking like two marionettes flailing at the air around each other, while ranged combat tends to feel piddling and weak. As mentioned, your character is also incredibly weak early on and it takes quite some time to reach a point where anything but the most pathetic enemies won’t gobble you up.

This is both incredibly frustrating and incredibly fulfilling when you’re finally able to defeat a hated foe without falling back on PSI or grenades – though you’ll want to keep the latter around just to be sure. You never know. Seriously, keep those grenades stocked.

ELEX is in an interesting place, in other words, because unlike most RPGs combat is by far the least enjoyable part of the game. It’s much more fun to roam around Magalan, learning more about the world and the people in it, finding hidden treasure and getting stuck into quests here and there. Sure, most of those quests will eventually lead to a fight, but that’s what grenades are for! The spirit of exploration that this game seeks to instill even extends to the skill and leveling system; you can increase your personal attributes like Strength and Intelligence yourself, but as in the Gothic games you’ll need to find trainers to teach you if you want to spend your skill points.

This adds greater perceived value to certain skills – in particular, I found that finding a reliable Crafting skill trainer, allowing me to use the various junk I was picking up throughout Magalan, was a pain in the butt that entailed no small amount of questing. In the end, I found myself appreciating my advancement that much more because I’d paid for it in blood, sweat and tears – that’s an unusual feeling in modern gaming.

Presentation-wise we’ve got a mixed bag; ELEX’s environments really stand out, especially if you’re a fan of the post-apocalyptic vibe in its many forms. Character design is also pretty solid as well…until they start moving, anyway, as animation continues to be one of the areas where Piranha Bytes falters a bit. Likewise, ELEX’s music is great and its sound effects are passable, but characters are voiced and you’ll quickly wish they weren’t. One assumes that in their native German they’re a little less grating. Jax in particular is trying really, really hard to sound like a hardened badass, which is great and all except as mentioned you start out weaker than a newborn puppy.

Regarding performance, I played on a high-end PC and didn’t run into any issues, but wouldn’t at all be surprised to see consoles choking on this one – the same happened with the console ports of the Risen games.

There are some flaws, but none of them is enough to stop me from recommending this game. I played ELEX without access to a guide or any hints and found it to be an incredibly fulfilling experience despite the goofy combat and laughable voice acting. There’s much to love here if you’re willing to accept that it’s going to fight you for it every step of the way. Fans of the Gothic and Risen games know what I’m talking about: there’s something special about being dropped in a hostile world and managing to carve out a niche for yourself. ELEX is a flawed gem, but a gem nonetheless, and definitely an RPG that’s worth checking out.

About the Author: Cory Galliher