Oh boy. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt quite so conflicted by a game. At times frustrating, annoying and borderline unplayable, I can’t quite get it out of my head and keep coming back to it, lured by finding the next quest or location to see. Elex is an open-world RPG, with tones of Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age in it’s look and feel, scored by Mass Effect with a hint of Halo to it’s art direction. All solid influences, but from the off it’s clear that something is not right here. The opening motion-comic sets the scene hitting you with lore and backstory on all four of the factions in the game as well as setting up the premise. The planet Magalan has been hit by an object from space, causing destruction and creating a substance known as Elex. This provides superhuman power to the people who consume it, albeit at the expense of them mutating into cold, emotionless monsters as in the case of the games main enemies the Albs. Each faction, be it Berserkers, Outlaws, Cultists or Albs (the main antagonists, they want to enslave the people of Magalan) has their own idea of how this Elex should be used, and it is this that the main game is based around.
A lot of exposition is thrown at you from the off and all of the characters speak as though you have been in this world for years, with a complete knowledge of the history of the planet and all of it’s problems. I literally had no idea what was going on for the first few hours, not even realising I was playing as one of the bad guys! You play Jax, an Alb commander who is betrayed and left for dead. I don’t think anyone told Piranha Bytes that the bald space marine fad has passed though, as Jax it literally the baldest, manly man-type space warrior with a gravely, monotone voice and zero personality. This feeds in to the story of Albs being emotionless killers but his droning gets real old, real fast. Anyway, once you escape the opening area, you are free to explore at your leisure. It’s here that my first issues arose, in that the game is hard. Like, getting one hit killed by the base enemies hard. The combat system is quite deep, with various melee/long range weapons and magic but actually using these seems to be more luck than skill, especially in the early stages where one missed hit means you are left wide open to be insta-killed, forcing a load of a recent save (which takes far too long). Whilst there are no checkpoints, there is an autosave system which can be set to do so every 3 minutes, but this often finds you loading in right next to whatever just killed you. It’s super frustrating to sit through up to a minute of loading, only to spawn back next to the same enemy and get killed instantly, meaning another long load. There is a brief window to leg it, but just make sure you don’t accidentally run into another overpowered enemy…
Things pick up later in the game, when you acquire some decent armour and weapons, but it is still best to avoid conflict where possible. The slow response of the controls and rather poor animation make the combat and exploration needlessly hard too, your character quite happy to move when he feels like it, and not a moment sooner. Pressing X will jump and mantle scenery but it’s hit and miss whether you’ll get the right one when you need it. Combine this with a very limited stamina bar which until upgraded takes just 3 heavy attacks to fully deplete compounds the feeling you have no chance to successfully fight anything. Stamina also governs your dodge and block, so once it’s drained you are a sitting duck until it recharges which is quite quick but then that begs the question of why it is even there to begin with… There are various companions to recruit around the world, and if you hope to actually achieve anything, then do so with the first one you meet as soon as possible. The will get knocked out with ease, but at least they wake up soon enough and carry on fighting, saving you too much effort, plus you still get the XP to eventually level up enough to contribute.
The levelling system is both annoying over-complicated and actually quite interesting at the same time. Each level grants you 10 attribute points, to be spread over 5 stats and 1 skill point. Simple so far. You then have 7 different skill trees, each with multiple abilities that require 2 or more of these stats be over a certain level. OK, seems fair. You also need a certain amount of Elexit (the in-game currency), enough skill points AND the correctly skilled trainer to teach you. These can be found in the towns and are marked on the map once you’ve found them, but if you are in the middle of nowhere and level up, it’s either back to a village to up your skills or wait it out, possible going in to a situation under prepared. I like to dedication to the more hardcore styling, but it would be nice to upgrade yourself as and when, without so many pre-requisites. I had a mass of skill points built up as i either lacked the attributes, elexit, trainer or all of these to do anything with them. At once point, i managed to align the stars to upgrade my long range combat skill as i was enjoying the bow and arrow. However, I presume due to not having a long range gun it wouldn’t let me upgrade. I never did get round to doing it as I then focused my points elsewhere, but this just added another hurdle to enjoying the game my way.
I feel like i’m being too negative, but as I said, it’s been a long time that a game has shown me so much potential and yet been hampered at every turn seemingly by design. I do really like the soundtrack, some pseudo sci-fi electric ambient music, with some more classical and rock style pieces thrown in. Even if the combat was grating me i at least could just zone out as my corpse lay there again and enjoy the music for a bit. I’d even go so far to say that i’d add this to my ever growing library of game soundtracks down the line, it really is quite good. The art direction is mostly great too, from the opening motion comic, some pretty great vistas and designs of the towns and general landscape and the main cast get a decent go of it too, with some detailed armour and clothing. The faces and animation don’t receive quite the same love, in at lest one town i spoke to 2 quest givers yards apart who were the exact same model. Not even a different hair colour or clothing. The creatures throughout the land range from mutated rats, through velociraptors and trolls, but none are particularly memorable or interesting. And we’re back towards the negatives again. Just like playing the game, it starts out promising, but one too many deaths or a long grind to try to raise a single skill and the negativity comes creeping back.
Quests are handled in a really rather wonderful way, and is the only part of the game I hope to see influence other games of this genre. Taking a quest at a World Heart as an example: The guard at this World Heart, plants that eat the Elex and nullify its harmful effects, informs you that the cultivator (think World Heart gardener) has left for supplies a few days back and hasn’t returned. Can you go find him blah blah blah, because of course it’s you, The Main Protagonist, who must do everyone’s errands. Find the young man, and he tells you that he wishes to run away and join the Outlaws, but he needs you help blah blah blah etc. Now, you have 2 contradicting quests. It’s entirely up to you whether you help him, betray him and tell the guard his plan, pay or convince him to return or straight up threaten him. Each has it’s own consequences and you can’t please everyone so fulfilling one quest will fail the other. Might you have got better rewards for a different option? Maybe you just have a sympathetic heart, or a callous one? It does do a good job of sucking you into the role, properly role playing as it were, reminding me of the Telltale games of action and reaction. There are many other examples of this occurring, and it’s part of the reason i keep heading back to it, eager to see the next moral choice sneaking up on me. Dialogue with characters never explicitly shows you quest options either, so quests pop up out of nowhere frequently, just from asking a question or 2. Most fall into the old fetch-return-now get me 10 more-no-it was me all along tropes, but there are these curve-balls thrown in there for good measure.
If only the controls were more responsive and it ran at more than 20fps for the most part and I would be completely enamoured with this game. Elex has some really great ideas, some excellent music and some real potential to be a rival to the big hitters. Unfortunately, it’s let down by an overly complicated skill system, poor controls and performance, and just a sense that a great game is trying to show but it can’t quite get there. I really hope that THQ Nordic allow the team to take this base and build off of it, so that next time they can hit it out of the park.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.