With the critically-acclaimed Gothic and Risen series resting proudly amongst their back catalogue of action role-playing experiences, the team at Piranha Bytes have proven they know how to make a solid RPG. Following the middling reception of Risen 3, the studio began work on Elex, their first new IP since 2009, which blends together sci-fi and fantasy tropes, whilst giving players an expansive post-apocalyptic playground to explore. Its genre-binding premise may sound alluring on paper, but has the team stumbled onto a winning formula or is Elex simply a mess of differing ideas?
Let's give a bit of background first. After a comet shattered into its surface, the technological utopia of Magalan was cast into a shadow of its former self, a wasteland populated with the scattered remains of its past. While the future of this world appeared hopeless and bleak, a powerful element known as Elex was discovered within fragments of the comet. Due to its addictive quality, however, Elex caused some to mutate or go insane, while others were able to harness its power to build technology, wield magic, and create potent drugs. From the ashes of the new world, four new factions formed: the Outlaws, the Clerics, the Berserkers, and the Alb, each possessing different ideologies on how the titular element should be used.
You play as Jax, a former Alb commander who has been faced with his execution after failing a solo mission which is said to change the fate of Magalan. After being fired off a cliff and miraculously surviving, you awaken completely stripped of your weapons and armour with all but a rusty metal pipe to defend yourself. As it's clear that the Albs would want to track down and kill you if they found out that you were alive, you must then join forces with one of the three factions that you were formerly opposed if you wish to survive.
Exploration is a key part of Elex and right from the beginning you're given the freedom to explore its expansive open world, which stretches across deserts, forests, and volcanic ruins. There's certainly a seamless quality to exploration, as there are no loading screens within the open world, even when entering faction strongholds. The variety encompassed within the open world is one of Elex's strengths and it's able to capture a feeling that sits somewhere between Fallout and The Witcher, which we feel few games have been able to replicate. One moment you'll be battling Albs in rocket-firing mechs suits and then you'll be going toe-to-toe with dinosaurs and venom-spewing spiders. You also have a jetpack, which can help you traverse the environment with ease, allowing you to scale cliffs and safely land from towering heights.
Elex also really nails the feeling that your choices have consequences. All NPCs can be killed off, which ultimately ends their quest line, and you can choose to lie or tell the truth during some truly difficult situations in which your morals are called into question. During one quest, for instance, we were asked whether or not to turn in a former ally for murder, knowing that it would likely lead to his death. This made us think really deeply about the choices we made and likely led us into having a very different experience to other players. This is before even mentioning the fact that you have to choose a faction, which works to shape the story and grants you different equipment, armour, and abilities.
By gaining XP from encounters and completing quests you'll level up and earn attribute points which can be spent to improve your character. Here you'll earn 10 points per level, which can be spent to allow you to carry better weapons, use new abilities, and more. It would have been good, however, if similar to Borderlands you could later switch around the skills that you've previously assigned. There's also combat, personality, survival, and crafting abilities, which can be learnt by speaking to certain NPCs. It was revealed by the developers that this choice was made as they wanted to link learning new abilities within the story. The only downside to this, however, is that these abilities cannot be learned when you're out exploring.
Elex boasts one of the most expansive arsenals in the history of role-playing, offering swords, flamethrowers, crossbows, and rocket launchers among other things. There are also magical abilities which can be used to summon assisting drones, deal devastating shockwaves, and shield you from incoming attacks. The choice of weaponry is impressive and there's certainly something here for everybody, although some of the sci-fi and fantasy elements do feel a little jarring and out of place when used alongside each other.
Prior to launch, combat was described as having a Dark Souls influence, and we can certainly see that in the manner in which you have to manage stamina, time dodges, and chain together light and heavy attacks. However, unlike that of its influences, melee combat felt awfully sluggish and our stamina bar always seemed to drain too quickly, leaving us little time to dodge once landing a heavy blow. Ranged weapons and throwables did fare much better, however, although there was a bit of a steep learning curve with regards to how to switch ammo. Due to this it felt much easier to avoid close-quarters combat at all costs and plan our attacks from a distance.
There was an awful discord, however, with regards to Elex's music and visuals. Its open-world remains a visual marvel with tons of detail poured into the architecture of the faction strongholds and sprawling locals of the map. This clashed heavily with the weak voice acting and poor character animations though, which remained out of sync with the dialogue. The score was also worthy of merit, although on occasion it would creep up and get too loud during conversations, and it was near impossible to hear what was being said. These issues, along with a plethora of technical bugs, really worked to detract from the immersion that we longed for the open-world to create.
At times Elex may have had us firmly hooked with its blend of fantasy and sci-fi RPG elements, but its overall lack of polish with regards to presentation and combat ultimately holds it back from being a memorable experience. We can't fault its varied with regards to its open world, player choice, and its selection of weaponry, but its scope doesn't feel fully realised as it struggles to maintain a solid grasp of its fundamental elements.