For all of the complaining one could do in venting their pedantic man-child sized “gamer” frustration with German role-playing game developer Piranha Bytes‘ long history of struggleware, and we will get there at some point, most of that ire should sharply diffuse nearby completing any one of their charming, if not slightly busted games. Using their heavily modified in-house Genome Engine since 2006 and creating modestly sized yet ambitious open-world fantasy experiences with a team less than a few dozen people strong is an admirable independent feat for a (technically publically traded, well-backed) company. In keeping their stronghold scant and their ideals clear they’ve managed to sustain their own ever-evolving spiritus of classic (read: early 2000’s) PC open-world action role-playing games, presenting a hill to climb as prime motivation for the player’s persistence in exploiting various cryptic systems from all angles and fighting off “jank” with their own cheesy actions. The studio’s eighth game, and second within what is likely to be a trilogy, Elex II once again speaks to a pattern of obtuse combat systems, wobbly animation, satisfyingly over the top voice acting, jarring technical mishaps, and somewhat unforgiving difficulty dogging its opening moments. As an enormous fan of this series and the developer’s style, I wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact the major brilliancy of fighting against Elex II the whole way through is that it felt all the more satisfying to, eventually, have reached the point of conqueror strength and obliterate the multitudes of task at hand. If you are as ingenious as they’ve allowed you to be, it will be a walk, eh, jetpack ride in the park.
If you did not play Elex (2017) you can more-or-less catch up on some major story beats in my review of it, not only was I a bit edgier back then but so was that first game. You are Jax a former commander of the Albs, a cold and emotionless separatist sect of Borg-like militarists sharded from the Clerics, whom formed in response to the planet (Magalan) being hit by a giant meteor in a cataclysmic nigh world-ending event. From the comet came the world’s infusion with the titular substance Elex, a desirous ore which soon becomes known to the player as a malleable substance capable of being imbibed and transmuted with great potential for human evolution (XP, ability and learning points) to take place in the form of magic powers. The plot of the first game essentially resolves with you uniting the planet and defeating the tyrannical leader of the Albs as you (canonically) become more human and enact a great deal of change in the power structures between the various warring major factions on Magalan (Outlaws, Berzerkers, Clerics) and this includes sub-set factions Claws and Alb Separatists, whom exist merely to subvert the ‘powers that be’ if you are wily enough. At the end of Elex a beacon is sent by the defeated leader of the Albs, “The Hybrid” (aka the scientist Adam Dawkins) into space and Elex II picks up some years later, still focusing on a now fully human Jax as the hero of the greater tale but having taken quite a few concerning liberties with how everything turned out. To start you’ve procreated with Caja, the major faction sidekick from the Berzerkers in the first game and you’ve got an annoying, hideous child in the form of Dex (more on him later) wherein you’ve ultimately isolated from all factions and your family in the years since, becoming a self-sustaining hermit whom likes to chill and eat dinosaur steaks. Darkening skies portend a new, very purple Alb-but-cooler lookin’ monster mutating alien race landing in strategic locations all over Magalan and that includes your house. I’m pretty sure a Jonathan Davis (Korn) song named “Elex” plays during this cut-scene but that is the sort of trauma my mind naturally erases over time. Are you ready?
The impetus for Elex II is actually pretty solid despite the full intrigue of the story taking hours upon hours of tedious task handling to finally begin to shape into an actual narrative. In the space of four Chapters gated by faction related progress and various main mission tasks of fealty Jax is set up to basically do it all over again in a shrunken, arguably impossibly united version of the Magalan we found in the first Elex game. Some locales are just wire-framed in and textured just enough that they act as crumpled background imagery when you’re jet-packing around while others are re-worked with new biome attributes (flora, rust/decay, and terraforming) such as the former Outlaw’s Fort which is now the major stronghold of the Berzerkers whom have since assimilated anyone opportunistic enough to take their side, killing off or exiling any resistance. Depending on your available recall of the original game there is in fact a shit-ton of the map missing. This includes Goliet, the original Berzerker stronghold and most of their territory Edan, the Clerics-ruled domed city and most all of Abessa, the majority of Cleric‘s home installation atop a (now sealed) volcanic mountain in Ignadon (including the Hort) all of which already shrinks Elex II to a third of the original game. The player has a fair amount of world to traverse between the Desert-to-Jungle transformation of Tavar (where the Fort is) and the now snow-covered but shrunken Ignadon which arrives minus any reasonable section of Xacor (the Albs territory). This is the biggest disappointment as a huge fan of the first game since it seems they’ve built out these new areas and shrunk it all down for the sake of introducing one new area and the associated faction — the previously sealed underground (pre-Elex infused comet disaster) death-worshipping folks the Morkons whom have now opened their gates to the world above in the previously inaccessible eastern region of the original map, a decayed and quite generic sadist-filled post-apocalyptic playground. The gist of it is that they’ve built a 40-60 hour RPG on top of a very shaky, somewhat bare landscape compared to Elex and Risen 3: Titan Lords and it isn’t a good first impression for returning players whom have likely shown up for the sake of exploration rather than exposition.
I’ve focused so much on the terrain, faction associated territories and biomes available to this now condensed patch of open world because it factors so heavily into the moment-to-moment gameplay of Piranha Bytes‘ signature game of Risk wherein you make an irreversible decision to join one of (usually 3-4) factions and that choice informs your ability to unite certain groups against the big bad menace. In this case you have access to the Berzerkers, Albs, Morkons as well as the choice to not join any faction up front as you are immediately tasked with joining and rallying support for the 6th Power at Adam Dawkins‘ (the former Hybrid) resistance locale the Bastion, a crumbling fort at the top of a mountain similar to the one you’d put together in the second half of Elex. The main mission proper is to gather intel on all faction activity and strength with the intent on finding allies against the new alien threat, whom are eventually identified as the Skyands. If you’re already sick of me extrapolating the plot and world building, I wouldn’t suggest buying the game because the gameplay ain’t that good and the intrigue of the story is all that this game really has that’ll stick with you once you’re done. What you do from this point will depend upon past experience with these types of games, the “right” way to play them entertains two thought processes dependent on your style of role-playing.
I am of the type whom assumes one very thorough playthrough will be enough and as such my choice of faction (which triggers the transition into Chapter II) isn’t decided until all quests and side-quests available prior are exhausted. This means exploring every single territory and naturally finding which philosophy and personalities work best for me, wherein my natural Chaotic Good and Lawful Neutral tendencies ended up fitting best with the Clerics, whom are devastated in numbers and in need of the most help in Elex II. In fact if you want to join the Clerics or the Outlaws (whom are inhabiting the junkheap crater left by the comet after being kicked out of the Fort) you’ll have to gather intelligence for them, steal numbers away from other factions, and do a bit of actual sleuthing to find their secret agents stationed within various other factions. Some players ultimately choose to do several shorter playthroughs seriously role-playing linear faction decisions but now more than ever this choice is limited by the prime directive of this game being unification of as many world powers as is possible, you’ll end up doing tasks for each faction no matter what. The Clerics give you the option of joining the Albs first to regain your strength and training while the Outlaws task you with infiltrating the Morkons or the Berzerkers, with the option of becoming one of the Claws. The only reason I’d suggest joining the Clerics is for the ridiculously strong Regent armor and the two additional resistance abilities granted by joining, which work well with both of the well-improved magic ability trees (Berzerker‘s fire + mana vs. Alb‘s ice + lightning) but keep in mind this choice philosophically aligns the player in such a way that the Morkons will be diametrically opposed to your very existence, do-gooder.
Eh, so what do you do in Elex II? If you’ve just stepped out of the unearthly immersion and striking beauty of Elden Ring at this point it should be understood that this is a much smaller budget title with a completely dated niche approach to open world RPG design, this is especially true when it comes to combat, fetch-or-kill quests, and dialogue heavy interaction. It is the sort of game that’ll feel entirely natural to players whom eventually graduated beyond games like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion in the PC only European RPG space whom also appreciate the Mass Effect trilogy’s companion focused story development and science fiction intrigue. Think along the lines of the combat, gear and magic systems of the (underrated) Divinity II: Ego Draconis wherein animations don’t interact well with terrain, weapon strikes don’t always collide properly, and huge spikes of difficulty factor heavily into your initial exploration but the greater charm of the game sells itself with some persistence on the player’s part. The major difference? You’ve got a fuckin’ jet pack. This time around the jet pack gets its own upgrade tree which features stabilizing jets, the ability to burst-dash forward like Superman for a bit, allows hovering in place, and expands the moveset for flying melee combat. You’re still hindered by fall damage if you go ham on the jets but you can find countless emergency booster items which can be installed to prevent fatal fall damage. For those whom still feel limited by this constraint, keep in mind once you’ve beaten the final boss and decide to do some post-game cleanup the jetpack is set to unlimited, allowing you to roam the map like an airship. Anyhow, I found airborne combat a worthwhile way to introduce my choice of sword to enemy skulls, usually landing a slight stun before chopping away at them and chugging potions, a bit like a bad Skyrim run with low melee skill.
Is this open world RPG too hard to start? In this case I’d consider it has more to do with you being a bit stupid with your choices rather than the game’s unforgiving nature. You can easily run around Magalan with a companion for a couple hours and begin to collect fast travel points, quick-saving and (eventually) running right up to the very last area of the game without getting outright killed. What does this mean? Well, the usable gear scattered around the world can be collected to provide goals for your stat allocation or it can be sold for endgame level cash. Much like the Two Worlds series, conquering the economy of Elex II should be first priority in a world where Elexit (money) talks absolutely everywhere you go and always has vital use in a game where you can literally buy and craft potions which give you XP, attribute points, and ability points. A quick run and grab through the tougher areas of the game will easily mint enough cash to buy your way into easier movement and survivability. Slow as the game is to dole out the good stuff otherwise, the only thing they’ve done this time around to halt too early progress beyond high stat requirements for murder gear is introduce a system of weapon crafting dependent on finding broken versions of weapons (usually collected off folks you’ve killed) and combining 2-3 of them to make a proper version; Make 2-3 proper weapons from the scrapped ones and then combine those to make an upgraded version of the base weapon. Even if you’ve got a better weapon it is worth keeping and crafting/upgrading everything you find as it typically costs minor resources and, at worst, a load of Elex for the strongest weapons (such as the Cleric’s Savior mace) since the crafted and upgraded versions of weapons sell for a lot of Elexit. Elex II isn’t as much of a looter as Elex was, and they throw a lot less inconsequential junk at you early on but it is worth grabbing everything and sorting it out later since you’ll eventually find Legendary or Unique weapons which will likely end up being your endgame option. If you aren’t kicking ass, or at least getting good at knowing when to run away, after a few hours this likely comes down to ingenuity rather than an entitled expectation of combat competency granted up front.
As you explore, happen upon various settlements and begin to accept quests from each you’ll definitely have to plan your stat allocation around weaponry to start but I’d stress that your use of Ability points is far more crucial than actual levelling, since the difficulty of enemies continues to scale over time. You cannot reallocate your points, nor can you change factions so it is entirely worth it to read up (in game or otherwise) as to what kind of requirements you need to use certain abilities and weaponry. Ability points are best spent on survival and “level up” dependent abilities first, these not only make combat survivable but boost the gains from levels over the course of the entire game. Choosing between getting 10 extra stat points and being able to use a cooler weapon is counterintuitive to start but it is best to capitalize upon long-term boons while the levels are coming in hot, roughly level ~5 through 20 being the most key period of character growth. Finding ability teachers in various settlements and knowing all of your options ends up being a lot to keep track of but you’ll be that much better off having gotten skills that grant “more HP capacity per level”, “more XP for reading books”, “more XP from killing enemies” or “more attribute points per level” early on even if it’d extended the difficulty of combat encounters for another hour or two. If you are ever unsure about the worthiness of your build or combat skills as they develop, grab a companion and run up to one of the Skyand Formers (as in terraformers) and fight every beast you see, this will gauge your readiness for the severity of combat encounters later in the game. If you breeze through those, you’ve literally got nothing in your way. As your roadmap and build becomes more decisively set and survivability becomes less of a challenge Elex II insists upon NPC interaction, more kill-or-collect questlines, and a bit of espionage for its major story intrigue and getting to know major characters. The somewhat desperate, quickly shifting philosophies of each faction at the end of days overtakes the threat of wandering monstrosities for the majority of the game’s midsection despite Jax‘ insistence that the aliens are the major threat to the planet.
The supposition on the part of the developer is that the player, and their main demographic in general judging by the weird in-game Billy Idol concert (performing the seven year-old single “Whiskey and Pills“) and the Korn-related song included, will be interested in the fetish gear strapped nihilistic Morkon sect enough to join on a first playthrough but, yeah, they’re entirely inconsequential to the larger plot of the game. The sort of Mad Max aggro personae of the faction, whom are strapped in bones and expensive bondage gear, is instantly and especially grating — Even if we consider literally everyone in Magalan completely miserable pieces of shit by default. This renders the by-vague-association impact of the Outlaws being the yee-haw badass gun-totin’ roughnecks null as, even when they are joined, the major intrigue of the story never centers around the Morkons beyond weakening the other factions. Because Outlaw powers are limited to crafting “chems” (which boost certain resistances in combat) and Morkon abilities are largely based on similar combat resistances and boons to stats when damaged, both skill trees combined make for a lot of fiddling with crafting and ammo to start. Since I’d ultimately decided against joining I was locked out of the cult of Kriiton, a resistance sect in secret opposition to the Ravaac worshipping majority of the Morkons, but this arc is apparently small and doesn’t yield any real change to the faction or main story. Take this all with a grain of salt, though, since you’ll have to play through the game at least three times focusing on each Faction to yield a different result in terms of Chapters II and III, directing who attacks whom and where your seat of power shifts before Chapter IV becomes largely concerned with tidying up the conquer of Skyand forces.
Though the scale of the game is disappointing, the NPCs are generally miserable assholes en masse, and there were a lot of glitched interactions and impossible to complete quests (bugs, not player errors) I’d have to say that Elex II was far more fun to pick up and play than Elex in terms of combat and easier accessibility of options. Melee combat doesn’t have any sort of satisfying weight or any real flow to its movement but elemental status effects and proper weaponry do eventually create satisfying capability. Ranged combat is, eh, not without its issues as auto-aim features heavily into a lot of bow and gun fought encounters being fraught with misses due to controller drift, an issue of software and not my controller. The real fun to be had on my part lies within builds that mix magic powers with melee combat, as these are both consistently efficient and sometimes flashy. I’d chosen Alb powers as my main focus once I’d seen Clerics and Albs fighting out in the wild with impressive visual effects for the lightning and frost-based skills. Berzerker fire-based spells and high-fantasy swordplay are integrated in syncretism with Outlaws‘ junk armor aesthetic and (upon entering into a second playthrough as a Berzerker) I’d found myself unimpressed with both aesthetics and fire damage (versus the stun offered by lightning-based damage), and despite the damage over time of fire weapons being very good against beasts and Skyands. Having the Cleric android companion Falk along for the ride with a two-handed fire axe generally satisfied the need for blunt damage plus DOT effect and in choosing my own lightning-based weapon. Caja‘s fire spells and C.R.O.N.Y. 04‘s lightning damage were equally if not more effective in most cases, though their defense was lacking.
Combat gets better if you find a lane and flesh out your options, yet the story eventually hits the drain. A couple of completely idiotic moments eventually took Elex II‘s story down a few pegs as it developed toward its conclusion. After the anti-climactic act of joining a faction yields a handful of side-quests that build fealty and rank (plus access to better armor) most all require reaching level 30 to complete, at that point you should potentially be able to handle considerable hordes of enemies and exploit a number of skill-up potions to gain an edge in combat. Whenever you do decide to progress into Chapter II you’ll find any trip to the Bastion will involve multiple companion characters insisting upon their personal quests being fulfilled. This is the “meat” and the heart of the game spread out over each chapter as their character development is also Jax‘ chance to explore his own personality in relation with the world around him as he realizes he is an incredibly powerful being for some very sordid reasons. If you decide not to attend to their whims and deeds they will potentially leave you or not help during the final battles of the game and you will miss out on the only valuable interactions within the main story arc. Working for the “bad guy” from the first game in creating a power that will save the world pans out into a total flatline, wherein Jax basically super heroes his ass around the planet killing all of the Skyands himself, stopping other Faction’s internal wars by killing a few robots or invaders until finally getting a bit of help from his creepy kid Dex and drone C.R.O.N.Y. 04 in clearing out and taking control of the 4-5 formers which landed on Magalan. Gaining access to the Main Former and the final boss encounter only happens thanks to the self-sacrifice of Dex whom wills himself into an… alien crib (?) and merges with the Skyand main AI consciousness, essentially killing himself so that Jax can kill an “highest evolved” being which farts out purple dust during ~ten minutes of exposition on how you’ve basically not done shit to stop the Singularity from reclaiming all Elex (which was originally a part of the Singularity) that’d been infused into the comet that destroyed Magalan’s surface. Wait, what?
The first game’s focus on “blue Elex“, a pure form that allowed physical and technological leaps, evolutionary advancements in humans and mutations in beasts, finds its equalizing counterpart in “purple Elex” or dark Elex in this game which causes more drastic evolutionary mutation in those it infects, a sort of adaptive immortality is implied as the major result of becoming infused with both forms. This is made to seem sinister for the sake of dark Elex acting like an infection rather than a choice, or an addictive substance, and this seems to be a way of centering Elex II‘s main plot around willpower and further emphasizing the importance of free will among individuals whom find no real haven in progress-oriented civilization. The way the game’s writers implement this into the main story is initially strong, a sort of typical benevolent hero making his “I know what to do, but I can’t get the world to stop squabbling long enough to accept unity” statement before feebly attempting a small-scaled militaristic globalization. The major synopsis of messaging implied here more-or-less boils down to “progress equals destruction for all, when all of humanity intends to fight their way to the top and leave their mark”. Eh, paraphrased for effect of course.
Where it all falls apart is within the increasingly inane science fiction exposition that happens within the generic, purple-veined and monster ridden halls of each Former where Jax discovers the true nature of Dawkins as the catalyst for the Singularity‘s arrival, revealing him as the main scientist amongst a crew assembled to secretly take advantage of Elex while the comet was discovered to be on trajectory with the planet. His team of scientists infused the comet with blue Elex to begin with and for this reason they’d incited the arrival of the Singularity looming in the sky. While Dawkins returned to Magalan to prepare the dregs of humanity left on the planet for the coming of the supernatural celestial body of unknown incredible evolutionary power he’d grown power hungry and became the leader of the Clerics and then the Albs (as in “the Hybrid” from Elex) and in the process he’d infused his own ‘ready Elex infused genetics into Jax‘, unbeknownst to him, setting our hero up as the always second-most powerful being on the planet next to Dawkins himself. Ok, so, this might appear a bit hard to follow but basically we’re talking about centuries-old scientists orbiting the planet (post-comet?) in Elex-accelerated states of evolution simply gathering “research” from the planet while the Singularity advanced in their direction, creeping upon Magalan at this juncture for the sake of overtaking all life on the planet in accelerated evolution to prepare for the Singularity‘s arrival, though they’ve no conclusive evidence in terms of its nature beyond reclaiming all of the Elex taken from its being (with a big probably attached). It should be obvious enough why this is confusing, right?
The spatial reality of distance and various spans of time between major plot points don’t get the exposition needed, to the point of generating an entirely nonsensical timeline wherein the dark Elex and the blue Elex came from the same source but, somehow the comet hit the planet centuries before the Singularity could follow and before the scientists (the Infinite Skies corporation crew, the Skyands) had arrived back from infusing the comet? But, they’d matched the comets speed when piggybacking incredible amounts of Elex onto the comet before the it hit but… wait, they discovered Elex and the Singularity many years before the comet hit and became immortal or longer-lived, then? Whatever the big reveal is supposed to be, it lands in such a casual, weightlessly applied hand that the writers must’ve been rushed to complete this second “book” and world-building to the point that major exposition was condensed into just a few mind-numbing conversations. Keep in mind we’ve spent half the game in a mode where even the bad guys (an ancient AI directing purple thugs) don’t seem to know what their motivation is until Dawkins reveals it, long after he’d tasked you with finding out the nature of dark Elex (which he knew about) and studying his own creations… which he’d apparently known, observed and whirled-up himself for centuries? I can’t count the number of times Chapter III and IV had me sitting there exasperated by how fucking stupid the major plot revelations were, assuming the player has received some bevvy of knowledge when the motivations of even Dawkins make absolutely no sense, as if he hadn’t read the script he’d written himself until minutes before admitting to Jax he was the puppet master all along, variously admitting he’d lost control of his creation while also being primed as the most powerful being on the planet. At some point you can just kick his ass next to campfire and he disappears for good. Sure man, why not? Guess I’ll save the world now, shoutout to my dumbass dead kid.
Returning to the noxious pedantry of the factions after learning the nature of an Elex infused world effectively devalues the human life Jax has struggled to unify and strengthen throughout the game, as he himself provides a few comments in exposition and passing conversation where he implies that he hasn’t made a choice on whether humanity is worth saving, or if pushing forward with hyper-evolution through the use of both forms of Elex isn’t the best path forward. This was momentarily exciting since the obvious option to give the player is, “Hell yeah, fuck humanity lets evolve” and slapping the nuke ’em all button at some point would be brilliantly satisfying yet that moment never comes due to the need for an open-ended result and implication of a sequel. As we zoom between the minutiae of everyday human life and the grand design of those pulling the strings Jax‘ storyline begins to resemble that of a failed politician, an former military fellow who straddles the line between selfishness and altruism depending on, well, whichever side of the fence the player decides to hit with your sword. This conflict of the self does ultimately boil down to which presses of the button you make along the way, it is a role-playing game after all and what we trade for agency in not knowing the outcome of certain actions is a gain in experience nonetheless.
The ugliness and gray area which Elex II bears with its many warts is horrendous as it is challenging yet it read like a genre-entry novella which I didn’t want to put down ’til done despite the existential absurdism it portrays and the absurdity of the characters involved. Though it might seem like a dry-ass stinker of an open world RPG to start, the core charm of Piranha Bytes games continue to reach new highs within this likely narrative trilogy and despite the writing needing more technical language and sensical world-building/exposition at a base level this is arguably the best overall gameplay and interactivity they’ve put into a game to date. Sure, I still prefer the big dumb adventure of Risen 3: Titan Lords and I preferred the vastness conquered on the original Elex title by far but I couldn’t help but feel satisfied by the goofy, broken mess of this game as my first playthrough concluded. It was fun enough to warrant a second playthrough, though I am in no rush due to the technical issues that’d plagued the console version (Playstation 5 edition) throughout, including consistent frame-rate drops into the single digits during larger scale fights, five quests not being marked as complete, about ten game-level crash-outs, one instance of the UI not loading, and one full system crash. A moderately high recommendation.
|DEVELOPER:||PIRANHA BYTES, GmbH.|
|PUBLISHER:||THQ Nordic GmbH|
Action Role-Playing Game
|RELEASE DATE:||March 1st, 2022|
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