Sometimes it’s good to be the bad guy. Piranha Bytes’ open-world science-fantasy RPG ELEX entices players to be an anti-hero, but without any humorous payoff or delicious deception. In fact, the only deception on display is the illusion of choice, because trying to take the righteous path is also the way to the poorhouse.
ELEX is filled with half-formed ideas, false starts and lore brimming with potential that is never realized. Overwrought voice acting, last-generation graphics, a broken economy, combat that doesn’t work and writing that takes itself too seriously have created a mish-mash of tropes and mechanics that’s a master class of everything wrong with open-world games.
ELEX demonstrates how open-world games have devolved into gigantic black holes where fun used to live. Sure, it will give you at least 50 hours of gameplay, but it’s an illusion of return on investment. Somehow the amount of hours you need to spend trying to finish this game will justify the money you spent on it. But ELEX is a cluster of watered down moments that should have died in development. It’s stuffed with mechanics that often don’t work well together, either thematically or in gameplay. The side missions are little more than padding as I fought to keep the thread of a main story that was dragged out over too many hours and not enough reward along the way.
Western RPGs have to carefully tread the line between quality and quantity. If the experience is streamlined to the point where the player doesn’t feel like they have agency in their own story, it’s not enough. But if there’s too much to do — the curse of icon removal, really — then the story is doomed before it has a chance to find its sweet spot.
ELEX has no idea what it’s trying to be, really
ELEX is set on the planet Magalan, where a comet has destroyed the majority of the world’s population. The comet’s collision created a crystal called elex, which is refined into consumable elixirs. According to the in-game lore, elex — namely the pursuit of it — was responsible for splitting the world into its various warring factions and introducing the mutant menace that plagues the Magalan wilds.
Elex’s addictive properties transformed some of the comet’s survivors into mindless zombies, whose only goal was to find and consume more of it. But the Albs, the game’s “evil” faction, found a way to harness the power of elex without succumbing to its addictive properties. Their hive-mind, known as the Hybrid, sends the Albs out into the world to possess all of the world’s supply of elex in order to push Alb evolution forward.
The Free People of Magalan make up the rest of the world’s population. The Free People are made up of three factions that skirmish over borders and how Magalan should be restored and rebuilt.
You play as Jax, a disgraced Alb commander. His ship was shot down in Edan and Kallax, Jax’s brother, was sent in to execute the commander for his failure to assassinate the Berserker’s leader, Thorgald the Pilgrim. Jax survives, of course, and makes it his mission to hunt down Kallax and take his revenge. He has to journey through Magalan, recruiting companions and securing alliances in order to bring down Kallax and the Alb leadership in Xacor.
There’s something rotten in Magalan
ELEX is the quintessential rotten apple. It looks perfectly fine at first glance, but taking a bite reveals a nauseating, mealy mouth feel. It tries its best to check the open-world RPG boxes—crafting, highly customizable weapons, base building, companions, lootable world to lose yourself in—but ultimately disappoints at every turn. This kind of immersion in an RPG requires quality, not quantity.
Companions could have been the best part of ELEX, if not for their inherent technical issues. The banal dialogue that permeates every NPC interaction is only bearable because of the interjections from companions along the way. Duras, the first companion that you can recruit, is the only multidimensional character that I came across in my travels. And, of course, the women that you can recruit are riddled with narrative tropes. Nasty the Outlaw feels like she was based off Jack from Mass Effect 2, but doesn’t have Jack’s adorably redeeming insecurities. Caja, a disgruntled former Berserker, is a cookie cutter rebel with a heart of gold — and has as much personality as stale cookies.
But worse than their collective boringness, companions are next to useless in combat. I expected to be able to control my companion and give them actions beyond “stay here” in non-combat dialogue. Unfortunately, companions are incapable of starting combat on their own. While narrative input is nice, these combat capable NPCs aren’t doing their jobs, relegating them to window dressing.
And this rotten apple is really, really ugly
It wouldn’t be so bad if companions were the only instance of style over substance in ELEX. Crafting has its uses (and its stat increases), but gathering both the materials and the appropriate skills is a grind. Armor, for the most part, does very little to protect you. It’s all plastic fur and poorly rendered metal for the sake of aesthetics. Even base building, which I had hoped was going to be more like Pillars of Eternity, is mostly about how your base looks, rather than how it functions.
ELEX looks like it was rendered for the tail-end of the Xbox 360 era. There were hints of what the world could have looked like, had it been rendered beautifully. The flora in the reclaimed landscapes in Edan, the first place you explore in Magalan, could have been gorgeous. Wandering around in the mountains is a throwback to my childhood in the Rockies, after all. But instead of gasping at the beauty of it all, much like I’ve done while playing Horizon Zero Dawn, I’m groaning in response to dropped framerates, unresponsive controls, and the low poly counts of something as simple as a field of grass.
When I first saw Jax, I was struck by how out of place the character design is. The characters have a cartoonish aesthetic, but the environment appears to have been designed with realism in mind. This ultimate falls flat, eroding any potential beauty in the surroundings. Magalan could have been gorgeous, if only it had been rendered better. But the characters, no matter how they were rendered, couldn’t escape those foundational failures. I didn’t think that I could find eyes deader than Addison’s in Mass Effect: Andromeda, but I sure found them in ELEX.
Asset reuse is inevitable in huge games, but when the bulk of the game is running around and talking to a ton of characters, it’s disconcerting to find the same people showing up all over the map. In the game’s first major town, Goliet, the only two women that I could talk to looked exactly the same, right down their eyebrow shape, cheekbones and outfit. The only difference was their hairstyle. Later in the game, I ran into the same problem in the town of Abessa, about 10 hours after I left Goliet for the last time. Sure, the men have a lot of those same issues, but during my time in Magalan, I didn’t find a lot of quest-giving NPCs that were women. Perhaps an eighth of them, in total, were women. And for the most part, they looked the same. Even Nasty, one of the Outlaw companions you can get in Tavar, falls into the trap of sameness, minus her haircut and her clothing.
Modern open-world games encourage quantity over quality
But that’s one of the biggest problems that ELEX has: quantity has overthrown quality at every turn. More quests, more NPCs, more to explore — but it’s all shoddily thrown together. Worse, NPCs are simply jarring to look at, with animation and voiceover woefully out of sync throughout. If that were the only glaring issue, ELEX still could have delivered an enjoyable experience.
Visual problems aren’t usually enough to drive me away from a Western RPG. I can forgive a lot. I can push past shoddy gameplay mechanics, too. (At least in part.) But the cardinal sin of any RPG is a trite, boring story that lacks any originality.
ELEX is devoid of empathy, often asking players to check their own at the door. Jax is clearly an anti-hero, the evil Alb commander gone rogue and seeking justice for Albs and the Free Peoples of Magalan. But his characterization is shallow and one-dimensional. Regardless of how warm or cold he is while interacting with NPCs in Magalan, he’s still a self-possessed, arrogant, duplicitous prick. Engaging anti-heroes require a redeeming quality. Jax has none.
But, for what it’s worth, ELEX really does give narrative its best shot, especially when you look at how it’s framed. There’s so much potential in the factions, especially.
The Berserkers — the magic users — believe that all technology is evil and led to Magalan’s downfall. The Outlaws are, well, outlaws. They don’t play nice with others. They barely play nice with each other. Clerics consider themselves to be the protectors of the Free People. Their society is pious, devoted to the worship of their god, Calaan. And finally, there are the factionless Free People and the Separatist Albs. The factionless folks in Magalan are holed up in two places: Abessa and Origin.
You’d think with all of that interesting lore that there’d be an equally interesting in-game narrative lurking in the shadows. But ELEX’s story is incohesive and entirely inconsistent. It’s a revenge story that’s alarmingly simple for all of the hoops that the game makes you jump through in order to progress in any meaningful way. There are parts of the narrative that seem almost okay, until you realize that underneath that thready story is a broken economy.
Choice isn’t really a choice when being a dick makes you the most money
ELEX’s progression system is tied directly to how much elexit — the game’s currency — you earn. That all depends on how much of a dick you’re going to be to NPCs in order to part them from their money.
Say yes to a drug ring and earn yourself a tidy profit. Bug the satellite in Abessa and spy on the Clerics to rake in some sweet elexit. Murder, extortion, and theft are the difference between a few shards of elexit and a few hundred. These are the “difficult moral choices” that the game touts as a feature, but the way that the in-game economy is set up, it isn’t a choice at all — it’s a necessity. Without the elex shards to pay your trainers and purchase the gear that absolutely doesn’t drop in the wild, your progression will slow to a halt.
Character progression requires you to turn in quests, kill monsters and play nice with the locals of whatever land you’re hitting up for work. The latter is easy. Running around talking to people has been the bulk of my ELEX experience. But combat is, by far, the worst part of the game. And it’s the most necessary.
ELEX’s combat is by far its worst feature
The hit-box and auto-lock features during combat are fairly forgiving, truth be told, but there’s one big issue that holds combat back from being enjoyable: your stamina meter. The stamina meter affects all physical exertion, which includes melee combat, rolling in combat, and sprinting. For the first part of the game, all you can purchase with your meagre elexit is crude Berserker melee weapons and a bow. Unfortunately, the bow is almost useless and swinging a melee weapon eats up quite a bit of stamina.
When you run out of stamina, you can’t do anything in battle. You can’t swing a sword. You can’t dodge. You can’t draw your bowstring. The only thing you can do is circle strafe around and try to kite the mobs toward a settlement in order to get support from NPCs that’ll actually be useful in combat. Your companions won’t pick up their weapons until an enemy hits them and there’s no way to direct them to take up arms. There is nothing to be learned from the all too frequent death screen, other than the potent reminder that you don’t have enough money to improve your stats, skills and gear.
It wasn’t until I hit level 10 (on Normal mode, mind you) that I was able to hold my own in combat with more than one creature in a mob. I still can’t take down the heavy-duty mech that will allow me to finally finish the game, because of course I need more elexit to buy the skills and the big bad weapons to take that sucker down.
I guess I need to go and bomb the desert to get that elexit the Clerics were promising me.
ELEX suffers from game design and narrative that is “everything AND the kitchen sink”
ELEX is a game that should have been made for me — the grandiose science-fantasy setting and the traditional RPG conceits could have been brilliant. But ELEX is lost in its numerous, poorly conceived parts.
ELEX might have delivered on its concept if the visuals were the only drawback. It may have satisfied if a solid story compensated for weak combat mechanics. It had the potential to delight, if only Jax had been well-written or the economy didn’t inhibit progress so severely. Sadly, ELEX manages to fall apart in every category.
No “day one patch” could save ELEX from poor design decisions and an insipid story that doesn’t say anything beyond “evil people are evil, and we need to save the world.”