Elex is a third person open world action RPG that only barely survives the bargain bin for it’s ambitious delivery of a ‘worlds collide’ fusion of high fantasy, post-apocalyptic wasteland, and science fiction intrigue. What saves Elex from mediocrity is it’s intricately explorable set of four worlds/biomes set within one massive continent. Magalan has mutated beasts, sword swinging Berzerkers, gun-toting desert folk straight outta Fallout, and two technologically advanced civilizations light-years ahead of the others. They have stolen from each other, killed each other, and defected amongst one another for roughly two hundred years until the Albs (who are an Elex-addicted, separatist faction of the Clerics) gained a new leader (the Hybrid) intent on using giant machines to melt the world’s life down to extract Elex and feed his own evolution. Suffice to say, there is a lot to take away from the vast world of Magalan, changed forever by a extra-terrestrial guided comet and a mysterious crystalline substance (Elex) that forever changed the planet.
After a janky, broken looking cut-scene where the textures loaded in on a crashed ship you’ll meet your protagonist: Alb Commander Jax. Jax is stiff, wooden and Borg-like alongside the rest of the Albs. You’ll find that each faction here represents different Star Trek races in general and the Albs are essentially Borgs if they’d been born out of Vulcans. It makes sense that Jax’ voice actor is barrel-chested and mostly monotone at first, he was a high-ranking ‘chosen one’ leader and the story starts with his failure and immediate execution. That’s right! The Albs kill anyone who fails a mission immediately. This was the hugest plot hole early on because 1. They’d never keep up their numbers with a limited world population 2. He only crashed after being shot down, he hadn’t even started his mission. The guy makes for an interesting lead character because outside of the general rise-back-to-power fantasy angle a huge mechanic of which ending you get and which relationships factor into the game’s events is how much emotion you show in dialogue options and how you resolve quests. Elex is a true role-playing game where your choices affect the ending, relationships with others, and where your allegiances truly fall as the game progresses. This element of the game ultimately sold me and allowed me to look beyond the janky, brokenness of the game.
Elex is only as “broken” or buggy as a game like Fallout: New Vegas or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim were early in release. Beyond the stiff animations, texture pop-in, cheap and oddball voice acting there are several bugged/glitched minor quests that will either not make sense or be impossible to resolve if you did something out of order. The problems with Elex rarely negatively affect gameplay and it has already received huge patches for bugs and issues but what I haven’t seen is attention to smaller details. A great example of this is the constant misspellings in the game’s dialogue and item descriptions, some of the item descriptions appear to have been cheaply translated into English that doesn’t really use proper grammar. I guess you’ll still get the point and a lot of it is just flavor text that affects noting. Piranha Bytes are known for creating quality open world RPGs since Gothic and Risen series but they can’t shake the jank/glitched criticisms since they were forced to rush out Gothic 3 at the worst possible time when the genre was getting bigger and bigger for PC players. Elex isn’t perfect and especially not on my PS4 Pro which struggled to push the game out during the games larger battle scenes. The framerate would drop to about 15 fps during the final Alb confrontation and even crashed once. I got through it with minimal crashing and only a few major bug moments that were fixed by simply restarting the system.
Elex offers almost nothing but grey area in terms of morality among supporting cast, moral choices for Jax, and only occasionally forces you to make decisions without any foreshadowing of consequences. In this sense it compares really well with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in that for every quest that might get canceled for a decision you still almost always have a way to make up for missed content with other content. Piranha Bytes is so incredibly subtle with subverting your expectations for outcomes of quests that you might not realize you’re meant to fail several quests in order to achieve certain goals. A great example is if you’re trying to join the Berzerker faction: You’ll need to make the interim leader Ragnar impressed enough to welcome you into the faction. He gives you about 7 major quests in Goliet, a large multi-level jungle town, that branch out into about 20 other side-quests. Once you’ve completed half you’ll have inevitably failed most of them because the Berzerkers are honest and have incredibly strict laws. The quests allow no grey area but offer nothing but choices without clear consequences. The outcome? You will have to impress three smaller warlords through quests or Ragnar simply says “Pay me 2000 Elexit (currency) and all is forgotten.” and you’re sponsored for membership. The whole idea that everyone is an asshole, each faction are shitty in their own way, and “Money talks” isn’t new to Piranha Bytes games, and it might throw you off if you’re used to the more obvious choices in games like Mass Effect or The Elder Scrolls. My advice for your subverted expectations: Play this game and make choices on instinct, if a choice blocks you from certain goals (equipment gained, skills learned) roll back your save file.
A huge issue people have with this game and Risen series is the combat system. It is a mixture of Divinity II-like sword slashing, The Witcher II level of difficult anti-spam button inputs, and the buddy system of Dragon’s Dogma. You start out very weak and somewhat slow with one-handed Axes offering the easiest stat requirements. You won’t get any good armor or unique skills until you join a faction. So you’re stuck running away from difficult enemies who spot you from miles away and literally never give up on chasing you. Enemies have ranged attacks that have status effects and typically kill you in 1-3 hits. How can you survive? This is the biggest downfall of the game as you’re forced to work for the Berzerkers and put skill points into what you need now and not what is best for later when you choose a faction to join. You’ll need a Companion and the first one you’re introduced to is Duras, a Berzerker who saves folks out in the wild by bringing them into Goliet for a chance at their anti-technology lifestyle. Through questing and dialogue options you’ll gain access to your drone robot, a (surprise!) android made by Clerics, a Berzerker mage who you can sleep with, a powerful Outlaw who you can sleep with, a gun-for-hire Outlaw, and an Alb separatist that I never came across for whatever reason. They’re all tied into the main quest in important ways and recruiting them might be vital to the later events in the game. You can only take one along with you at a time and I generally went with the android Falk because I knew I was going to go with the Cleric class because of the Mass Effect-like powers and swords.
Now, when I said anti-spam button inputs for combat I meant that if you smash buttons in combat you’re just going to die a lot. You have to learn the timing for each weapon and understand that sometime the enemies you fight don’t get hit. They glitch out and dodge every combo, they predict your movements with projectiles, and they are often mercilessly murderous and overpowered. Success boils down to damage numbers and learning to dodge rather than block. Attacking either without a shield or with a two-handed weapon is the only way to succeed with melee attacks in this game. A shield will not block the more deadly attacks in this game and knocking back enemies with it is only effective against small numbers of human enemies. Don’t waste your time with shields if you’re going melee, focus on getting your stats up for better weapons (you -need- to do at least 50 dmg per hit!) and learning to dodge enemies. Don’t forget you have a jetpack in case you need to run away or escape when things get hairy, and you’re almost always better off pulling off a complete combo rather than chipping away at enemy health. A full strong attack combo can take out most enemies for at least 60% health unless they are giants/trolls/cyclops. If you’re going with ranged attacks, which are very powerful, I would suggest Clerics or Berzerkers for energy weapons/bow and arrow. The strongest skills that buff ranged attacks come from these faction’s skill trees, and once you pick a faction you are blocked from the other faction’s skill trees. The Outlaws might have guns and grenade launchers but they are slower, hinder jumping, and rely on status effects that don’t generally help against the tougher fights in the game. I might be biased, I went back and murdered the entire Outlaw settlement after they didn’t help fight the Albs in the final story sequence.
Exploration, killing enemies, and stealing/looting is the major hook of this and most any other open world RPG. By taking long trips out in the wilderness looting ruins, stealing from each main city, finding legendary weapons in challenging areas, and generally making currency from killing beasts and Reavers/Forlorn (cannibals, shrouded mutant-lovers) camps is entirely necessary. If you just follow up with questing early on you’ll gain enough levels to become increasingly capable for these murder safaris around the open world. Not only does Elex have a thrilling verticality in it’s design but you get a jetpack that you can use to get around. Having a jetpack is like having a fast-forward button on climbing mechanics. Need to get anywhere? Use your jetpack! Legendary weapons are very important finds even if they’re not as strong as upgraded level III weapons with magical properties infused (you can craft these easily, just need skill points after you’ve picked a faction). Factions determine which magical properties you can infuse, I found that Poison and Electricity/Energy were most effective in terms of the two major types of enemies in the game: Beasts and Machines. I was into the sword combat in the game so I quickly found Snake Bite (Poison Sword) in Goliet and then the Sword of Advent (Lightning Sword) in the dome city. I was able to complete the game with the Sword of Advent as it makes killing machines and Albs very easy unless you’ve chosen a hard difficulty. Those damage-over-time effects are important, but pure damage works just as well and I was able to do much more damage with upgraded Chainsaw Swords (Chainsaber II specifically) which are Outlaw weapons that do tons of damage quickly. Ultimately I ended up with a Energy Regent Sword III which does double the amount of damage as the Sword of Advent with a similar Energy effect to the Lighting damage. For ranged weapons I typically used Grenades, and for energy weapons I used The Redeemer and the Executor but they were obsolete by then because I had ranged Cleric Spells that do massive damage.
There is endless content to get into in Elex’ world of Magalan and I’d love to write on and on about my interactions with each faction and why I chose Clerics despite their asshole nature. But I will say that I did every single possible side-quest and spent a total of 70 hours playing this game for a reason! It was similarly engaging as The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt with similar combat quirks and exploits, a dry main character, and a lot of subverted expectations in long, detailed quests. The first playthrough might not be the only one for me, considering the game might run better once return to try a different faction allegiance, and I would really like to see how the game changes if you become a Berzerker or Outlaw as opposed to a Cleric. I left this game with hesitation, and I really could have spent 30 more hours in the world digging through every nook and cranny, every building has something to find or a new group of enemies to wipe out. For how ugly and messy the game’s execution was it turned out to be one of the best games I played in 2017 and would have been on my top 10 if I’d finished it before the year was up. For all of the silly jank, broken moments, and cheap storytelling Elex is a great open world action RPG that comes very close to greatness and is perhaps more memorable for the things it gets right (being an actual RPG game) rather than what it does wrong or poorly.
A few Important things Elex doesn’t tell you:
- Once you get Elex Potion, Strong Elex Potion Recipe(s) you should immediately figure out where to get Liquor and Natural Elex from Shops and start making them and drinking them. Elex Potions give you 2 Attribute Points each and Strong Elex Potions give you 1 Skill Point each. This will greatly enhance your ability to meet stat requirements for weapons and learn many important skills. All you need is Elexit (cash) to make it happen. Vendors that sell Natural Elex: Separatist in their Converter base, go up to the second level on the elevator. Once you are the leader of the Camp at the Center, you can buy a Vendor installation for 2000 Elexit. He will always have at least 10 Natural Elex for sale everytime you talk to him.
- You don’t have to join any Faction until you’ve seen every city and done quests for each Faction. You could potentially be level 25 or higher before needing to progress the main story into Chapter 2 and by then you might have done all of the quests for Chapter 3. Once you join a Faction you can’t switch, so read up and choose wisely based off of the Faction specific Skill Trees before you pick.
- Emotion/Coldness ranking greatly impacts the course of events in the game and how major characters act towards you. Make compassionate or angry choices and you’ll reduce Coldness enough to end the game with compromise. Make cold and murderous choices, devaluing the Free People who damn the world. This system is not explained by the game. Drinking Elex potions barely affects Coldness ranking despite the game telling you it does.
- Skulls over enemy life bars indicates that they are above the suggested level to fight. But don’t run away constantly because it only seems to pull that icon out based on level and not on overall damage you’re capable. You might be level 10 and doing as much damage as folks do at level 20, depending on your potion-making and sourced/upgraded weapons.
- You can buy back anything you sell to a Vendor but ONLY that vendor. Find the Central City and do the work to make it your own home base as soon as possible so that you can buy the Vendor for the town and only sell to him for Elexit. That way if you need to buy back an important item you can always find it.
- Weapon efficiency and damage is not mitigated by statistics but by Perks you’ve bought off of the skill trees. Don’t go above 90 on any Stat because no Weapon, Perk or Skill will be enhanced by it (only enabled by it).
As a final note I wanted to mention the world of Elex as whole is noticeably entirely whitewashed. All characters are white/Caucasian and heterosexual and there are no LGBTQ+ characters or options in the role-playing or dialogue itself. If you want to get Nasty or Caja up to their highest companion favor you’re going to have to sleep with one of them no matter what. This is a small note and it doesn’t detract from the game but I can imagine people of color, divergent sexuality or identity won’t feel particularly represented in the very white world of Magalan. It felt only slightly odd for a game that takes so much from Mass Effect, Skyrim/Fallout, Divinity, and The Witcher series otherwise.
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