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ELEX Review

by Maylander, 2017-11-08

Piranha Bytes, the developers of both the Gothic and the Risen series, have decided to create an entirely new series in a new setting: ELEX, set in the world of Magalan, a planet very similar to our own until a comet wiped out most of the civilization.

The comet not only brought destruction; it also brought a new element called Elex.  Elex, which is actually not spelled ELEX like the game title, is rather mysterious in nature, and has the ability to act as a power source for machinery, as a magic component if purified or as a form of performance enhancing drug if consumed. As a result, various factions were created among the survivors of the comet's impact, depending on their philosophy for handling Elex: The Albs want to consume it, the Berserkers want to purify it, the Clerics use it as an energy source and the Outlaws really couldn't care less as long as there's profit in it. These factions are currently vying for control of Magalan, or perhaps more importantly, of Elex, similar to the spice of Dune.


The crater of the comet that wiped out an entire civlization

This post-apocalyptic setting with hints of Mad Max, magic and sci-fi may be vastly different from what we have seen in former Piranha Bytes titles, but ELEX is still very much a Piranha Bytes game. That means it is easy to recommend it to fans of their previous work, especially since ELEX represents their best work in years, but for everyone else I recommend reading more about it before deciding to buy it. It may seem like Skyrim meets Fallout, but that is not the case.

 

Character development

As is customary in Piranha Bytes games, there's no such thing as character creation. The main character of ELEX is Jax, an Alb commander on a special mission behind enemy lines. The mission doesn't exactly go as planned, and Jax is seemingly betrayed by his own kind. As a result he ends up in a coma for days, during which all the Elex he had consumed as an Alb disappears, thus leaving him lost in hostile territory in a weakened state. In order to re-build his strength, Jax has to gain experience by doing quests and defeating enemies, as that leads to level ups. Each level up yields 10 attribute points and a single skill point.

The description seems clear enough, but it's not accurate

Attribute points can be used to increase Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence or Cunning. Seemingly very standard stuff, but it's not as intuitive as it sounds. The attribute points actually do very little, and are primarily used as requirements for gear or skills. Skills more or less determine what type of character Jax is, and there's a lot of variety to be found here:

  • Combat: Typical combat skills, such as increase damage on melee or ranged weapons. 
  • Survival: Fire, frost, posion and radioactive resistances, in addition to armor, health stamina and animal trophies.
  • Crafting: Various crafting skills, as well as pickpocket, lockpicking and hacking.
  • Personality: Almost a miscellaneous group, with a slight emphasis on skills used in conversations.
  • Faction skills depending on the faction Jax joins.

What's worth knowing is that skill checks in conversations aren't actually related to any specific skill. They're simply related to the number of points within a certain category, so to pass a "Charisma 3" check, Jax must have invested three or more points into Personality skills.

At this point, I genuinely had no idea how some of the skills worked. Cool castle though

How skill checks work and the fact that attributes do not actually have an impact on the strength of the character is never explained properly in the game, nor is it very intuitive. It hasn't worked this way in previous Piranha Bytes games either, so it's definitely something they should try to explain, as it is a possible source of frustration. It works well when you figure it out, but initially it's a bit confusing.

Crafting is another confusing part of it, as it's never explained what items the specific crafting skills affect. Here's a quick breakdown:

  • The basic crafting skill can be used to upgrade weapons to rank 1, 2 and 3, each increasing damage and requirements dramatically.
  • There's a skill related to gems that enables the crafting and equipping of gems, but only into items with gem slots. Most items do not have such slots.
  • Each faction has a specific weapon crafting skill, which is capable of altering weapon damage from physical damage to elemental or energy based damage that few very enemies are resistant to, greatly increasing the overall power of the weapon. However, the various skill descriptions fail to mention that this only applies to faction specific melee weapons, even for Clerics, who seem to be all about ranged laser or plasma weapons. This has lead to quite a bit of confusion in various reviews, on certain forums and so on, which could easily have been avoided with slightly better descriptions
  • Chemistry is by far the strongest crafting skill, and can be used to craft a lot of different potions, including ones that permanently increase health, stamina, mana, energy, attributes or skills.

Crafting is useful, but sadly there is no "tank repair" skill

Finally, there's a rather confusing "cold" or "emotional" system, which can occasionally be used in  dialogues. There are also three skills tied to it, ranging from 0-20, 40-60 and 80+, but there's no indication of what your current amount is. The closest you get is a single word describing it, such as "spontaneous". I get that spontaneous means that Jax is somewhat emotional and not very cold, but how am I going to align that with skills that use exact numbers instead?

A few tooltips or improved descriptions would have gone a long way to improve character development, as the system is actually quite good once you understand it all. Luckily, the fact that it's possible to create permanent potions via a combination of animal trophies and chemistry means that the player won't get penalized too harshly for a trial and error approach that would have been extremely challenging in Gothic 2: Night of the Raven. The bottom line is that the overall development and progress works well and feels good over time, but a lot of confusion could have been avoided with proper descriptions and more consistency, as it simply makes no sense to use two different scales for emotions or two different words for Personality/Charisma. 

 

Factions

In order for Jax to reach his full potential, he needs access to faction based skills, which means joining a faction. Only one faction can be joined, so it's an important choice with plenty of consequences, including story and quest based ones. In other words: Joining a faction is not a trivial decision, nor can it be done particularly early in the game. A lot of questing and exploration is required, and there's a good chance you'll know a great deal about each faction before choosing which one to join.

This is where the Albs live. Hospitable.

The first faction seen in ELEX are the Albs, as Jax is an Alb commander at the start of the game, though they're not actually a faction choice. The Albs are based in the cold north of Magalan, and have taken to consuming Elex, which provides them with great strength and speed, but also removes their ability to feel. Having no emotions have lead to a rather efficient, almost machine like society that desperately wants more Elex. The consequence has been numerous invasions into various territories, and the Albs are currently considered the greatest threat in Magalan.

The home of the Berserkers

The Berserkers are the first joinable faction Jax encounters. They live in the lush region of Edan, where they purify Elex into mana that is used to cast spells. They resent all forms of technology, though especially anything powered by Elex, as they feel Elex corrupts everything it touches unless it is purified. They're rather fanatical about this, so the end result is a Viking-like society, but with magic, used both as spells and for echanting weapons and armor.

Welcome to the Hort, where the Clerics live

The Clerics are the opposite of the Berserkers, and they live in a volcanic wasteland called Ignadon. They are somwhat similar to the Brotherhood of Steel in Fallout in that they have survived the apocalypse and now they hoard technology and rely on it for everything. The main difference is that the almost religious relationship with technology that the Brotherhood has is entirely religious in this case: The Clerics worship an entity called Calaan, who they claim encourages his followers to follow the path of knowledge and technology. In fact, the Albs are actually a splinter group of the Clerics, but they wanted to go even further in the pursuit of knowledge by consuming Elex, thus removing their emotions so they could focus only on what's logical. Most of the Clerics remained, however, and while some of them are a bit eccentric, the end result is still a rather impressive collection of mechs, weapons and armor.

Selfie with the Outlaws base of operations in the background

The third and final faction Jax can join are the Outlaws, who live in the desert of Tavar. Their only real rule is profit above all else, and they do whatever they can to live by that rule, whether it's scavenging, mercenary work or contract killing. Their weapons and armor are mostly scavenged and pieced together from pre-comet Magalan, so they'll field anything from rocket launchers to chainsaws.

The people of The Dome are trying to stay neutral

Beyond the major factions, there are also two smaller, neutral factions in Abessa that are primarily made up of Berserkers, Clerics and Outlaws that are fed up with their own societies. They don't really have names or specific rules, but are mainly identified by their two locations: The Dome and Origin. These factions do not offer any unique skills and can't be joined in that regard, but are still of some importance both to Jax and Magalan as a whole.

 

Gameplay

The gameplay varies greatly depending on faction and skill choice. Here is a short list, off the top of my head, of the weapons available in ELEX: Axes, swords, maces, hammers, shields, bows, crossbows, shotguns, harpoons, chainsaws, flamethrowers, rocket launchers, grenades, grenade launchers, laser rifles, plasma rifles and magic.

I want one. In addition to all the laser rifles and rocket launchers I have

In addition to weapons and magic, each faction has specific sets of armor, indicating a certain rank. It's possible to obtain basic hunter or scavenger armor either by looting or buying it from a vendor, but all the faction armor requires Jax to gain the proper rank first. Once a certain rank has been obtained, new weapons and armor are made available for purchase, though it is incredible expensive. ELEX uses a currency called "Elexit", similar to "Ore" in Gothic, which are small Elex shards, and the overall economy is surprisingly good. It may seem as if Elexit is very easy to come by initially, but once the more expensive items are made available, there's a good chance you're going to have resort to animal trophies, lockpicking, hacking or pickpocketing to be able to afford them.

The mini-games are mostly straight forward, and are used to open locked containers. Lockpicking is almost identical to the mini-game in Risen 2 and 3, as the only difference is the fact that lock picks can now break, but hacking is an entirely new mini-game where the goal is to solve a simple equation. Neither are particularly annoying or difficult, but they don't really add anything of value either. The skill point cost and attribute requirements are more of an issue than the actual mini-games, but both mini-games are generally well worth it.

Bow and arrow is actually highly viable even in a world with plasma rifles

Having played through the game as both a Cleric and a Berserker, I can confirm that the various weapon types and playing styles offer different experiences, and that they're all viable, even something of a hybrid approach. I genuinely don't understand the criticism of the engine or overall gameplay, as I can't think of too many games of this scope that does it better. Maybe it has issues on consoles? I wouldn't know, as I haven't tried the console version, but it's fairly smooth on mid-to-high-end PCs at least.

Personally, I can only think of two issues related to combat and overall gameplay:

  • I don't understand why they scrapped the magic system used in Risen 3, as I really enjoyed it. The magic in ELEX is certainly functional, but it feels a bit underwhelming and limited. 
  • It feels a bit slow and clumsy in the start. This is fairly common in Piranha Bytes games, but I can see how new players may find it a bit strange. In fact, the learning curve hasn't been higher since the Gothic series, and it takes even longer to reach decent levels of power.

It may not be a Shadowbeast, but exploration during the night can still be dangerous

On the other hand, the best part of the gameplay is the incredibly strong sense of progression the game offers once things really get going. This is something Piranha Bytes mastered already in the first Gothic game, where killing a Shadowbeast for the first time felt like an achievement. There's no level scaling in ELEX, just like in Gothic, so a high level enemy is a high level enemy, and they can be encountered right from the start. The only major difference between Gothic and ELEX in that regard is that Gothic never actually asked you to kill Shadowbeasts early on, even though you could encounter them. In ELEX, the NPCs have no such qualms, and they'll ask Jax to bring down heavy mechs even if he's clearly only equipped with a rusty axe. There's no indication that such quests can only be done quite a few hours later, which I guess some people might find annoying, and it could lead to some of the low scores we've seen.

In that regard, I would actually have preferred the approach in Gothic 1 and 2, but I don't mind what we get in ELEX either. The most important thing for me is the amazing feeling of satisfaction as a character build really comes together later in the game. Especially considering how rare that is these days, given the current emphasis on balance and linear difficulty curves. 

 

Exploration

Ah, exploration! The corner stone of any Piranha Bytes game. They've created some truly memorable worlds to explore, and ELEX is no exception. In fact, the world of Magalan is one of the most beautifully crafted and impressive worlds I have ever had the pleasure of exploring.

In-game map of Magalan. Collecting it is actually something of a puzzle

By that I don't mean that Magalan is better than every other world in every way. It's certainly not. For example, I still feel both Gothic 1 and 2 had a better overall atmosphere, most of which is down to the unique touch of composer Kai Rosenkranz (KaiRo), who left Piranha Bytes some time ago. The music is still fairly good, easily on par with most of the music we see in other games, but it's simply not as memorable. Like Kirill Pokrovsky of Divinity fame, may he rest in peace, KaiRo has the ability to create music for specific locations in a game that simply fits the given location perfectly. For example, a quick listen to the tune from the Old Camp, or in Kirill's case Sentinel Island or Broken Valley Village, and I am instantly taken back to those locations and a strong feeling of nostalgia awakens. That sort of thing is rare, as most game music can simply be described as slow when it's peaceful and fast paced during combat, but I do feel the world in ELEX would have benefited from more distinct music.

Also, I think it's fair to say that the world we see in The Witcher 3 feels more realistic, and the worlds Bethesda create tend to work better as giant sand boxes, so the world in ELEX is clearly not perfect. However, Magalan has a number of strengths that other game worlds simply don't have, such as the exceptional level of detail, the staggering amount of variety and the rather interesting use of vertical exploration.

Level of detail: The guards normally patrol, but occasionally one needs to take a leak. Yes, really.

The game starts in Edan, the home of the Berserkers, a lush forest region, and the level of detail is exceptional right from the start. Some of the scenery and lighting is amazing. I've seen a few reviews claim that the game looks dated, which baffles me. Dated compared to what? FPS games with a 5-hour single player campaign where everything looks like a movie? Online games that can spend all their money and resources on making a handful of maps look good? Maybe it's a console issue, and ELEX is poorly tuned for the PS4 and Xbox One, unlike Horizon and The Witcher 3?

The lighting in ELEX is simply stunning

Like I said, I don't actually know where that criticism comes from, because it's genuinely one of the most beautiful and detailed worlds seen in any open world RPG, especially given the sheer amount of variety. Magalan consists of lush forests, swamps, open plains, deserts, volcanic landscapes and snowy mountains. Every region, from Edan in the south to Xacor in the north has a distinct look and feel that lets you know exactly what region you're currently in.

What? I'm just trying to buy a soda

Even though it's certainly not Skyrim meets Fallout 4, it actually does look like it at times. It even feels like it every now and then, for example when Jax walks into the ruins of an old gas station while wearing armor and weapons that make him look like a Nord from Skyrim. The main difference is that Piranha Bytes tend to have a much higher content density in their games than Bethesda, and ELEX is no different regarding locations and points of interest, as there's almost always something interesting within range.

It's hardly difficult to find points of interest, even without indicators

There are no indicators pointing towards points of interest, but that's not needed either, as exploration can be done entirely using your own eyes. See that small house over there? Head on over, where you might find a few notes from before the comet hit about the family that lived there. Jet pack onto the roof and maybe you'll spot a pack of jackals taking on a raptor, which could mean easy pickings as they're occupied by each other. Or maybe you'll spot some mutants or reavers lurking about, who could mean trouble, so it might be a good idea to head in a different direction and return later. The game is very dynamic in this regard, and it feels refreshing.

It may not play like a Fallout game, but it does have similiraties. The mutants and reavers would feel very at home in Fallout, as would some of the music and scenery. Also, the loot model is actually closer to Fallout 4 than Risen or Gothic, as most loot is now randomly generated, but with named items hand placed here and there. And, just like Fallout 4, there's a ton of stuff to loot all over the place, from interesting notes and fantastic weapons to pre-comet junk like knives, forks and old currency. Thankfully, Piranha Bytes has always operated with a limitless inventory, which I vastly prefer compared to going back and forth all the time. Sure, it's not realistic to carry all that junk, but neither is carrying "only" four suits of armor, two axes, three bows, eight swords and 200 arrows, which is entirely possible in most games with a weight limit.

The jet pack can be used both for exploration and combat

The final, unique strength of Magalan is its use of the vertical exploration with a jet pack that Jax obtains at the start of the game. It takes a little while to get used to, as it's much better at moving up and down than back and forth, but it quickly becomes an important tool while exploring the world. Not only does it enable Jax to reach certain heights, or quickly gain access to towers, roof tops and similar, but it can also be used in combat as a way to dodge enemies, escape enemies or flat out shoot them while flying.

There is a vast amount of great locations like this

In terms of sheer size and scope, ELEX is very impressive, but mainly because it combines variety and high content density with a fairly large world. I've seen claims that it's bigger than the likes of Skyrim or The Witcher 3, but that is certainly not the case, even though it might feel that way at times due to the excellent world design. The end result is a world that's fun to explore, rarely feels crowded, yet is still not massive enough to feel boring, even while backtracking or revisiting old locations. Some people may prefer the large, open areas that other games offer, but I personally prefer the approach seen in ELEX, and I loved exploring Magalan.

 

Writing

Writing has never been the greatest strength of Piranha Bytes, though it's usually fairly straight forward and gets the job done. It might work better in German, but in English it tends to be rather dry and direct to say the least. ELEX still has this direct, dry tone, and there are very few proper attempts at humor or emotional dialogue. The voice acting is, like the dialogue itself, functional more than anything else, but I suspect some of the humor, details and witty remarks are lost in translation, making it rather challenging for the voice actors to deliver more engaing and enthusiastic dialogues.

Companions also have jet packs, allowing them to follow Jax wherever he goes

As for the characters, they tend to be mostly functional as well, just like the dialogue. Very few of them are particularly engaging or interesting, though there are a few exceptions. The six companions work similarly to companions in Risen 2 or 3 in terms of combat, despite being considerably weaker, but Piranha Bytes definitely invested more time and effort into writing them, including both their backgrounds and the quests the offer.

Lots of hidden goodies to find while exploring. Can't go wrong with a kitty

That being said, the overall writing is actually quite good in ELEX. The main story is interesting, especially towards the end, and the game is filled with additional lore to find while exploring the world. This is something of a new feature, and it really does make exploration even more fascinating, as it's possible to come across a lot of information regarding what happened right before and right after the comet wiped out most of the civilization. Some of the lore is actually so good it really shouldn't have been optional to come across it, as it helps create an understanding of what each faction has been up to and what they're all about. There are even a few well hidden gems here and there that offer something of a revelation if you find them, which I enjoyed a lot.

In addition to the hidden gems and lore, there are more choices and consequences related to quests and dialogues than in previous Piranha Bytes games. They tend to include quite a few quests that can be solved in different ways, but the writing and implementation is rarely as good as what we see in ELEX. I found it particularly interesting that some of the "evil" ways of solving quests were quite a bit more lucrative than the good ones, which makes it a bit more difficult to decide what to do.

Did someone say Gothic? That scavenger looks familiar. King's Sorrel is also present

It's worth mentioning that Piranha Bytes is moving in the right direction when it comes to writing, language and translations, and there are very few moments where any of it is disruptive. I still remember Lester referring to the gurus of the Brotherhood as "psionics" in Gothic 2, a term never mentioned in the original Gothic, which was just one of many strange translations. The closest ELEX gets to that is the term "Paladin" being used both for high ranking Clerics and Berserkers, despite the Cleric gear and character sheet description for said rank being referred to as "Regent". Beyond that it's just the small details that are missing, and it's mainly noticeable in the start.

 

Verdict

ELEX is a very difficult game to review, as it's likely to range from "Poor" to "Excellent" in our new rating system, depending on point of view. The mainstream media have basically dismissed it entirely, but user ratings are good, especially over on GOG where it currently has 4.3 out of 5 stars.

There's no doubt that it's a flawed game, though not technically flawed as some suggest. In fact, on decent to high-end PCs it runs surprisingly smoothly, and the engine feels like something they could polish a bit and re-use for the already announced sequel to ELEX. No, the flaws are mostly related to the first 10 -15 hours or so of the game, due to the progress and character development taking even longer to get used to than in other Piranha Bytes games.

Magalan is a truly beautiful world

Once those hours pass, however, it's all about exploring an exceptionally well crafted, beautiful world. A world in which the feeling of satisfaction as the character gains power is second to none. Where the scope is massive, and where there is a vast amount of content. There's a fantastic game in there, the best Piranha Bytes game in years, but it requires a lot of patience.

For fans of Piranha Bytes, ELEX might very well end up being game of the year, even ahead of Divinity: Original Sin 2. For anyone else, it's much more difficult to say, as the overall appeal is definitely broader than most games from Piranha Bytes, but people blindly giving it a go are still likely to end up quitting in frustration after a few hours of getting flattened.

Postcard from Magalan. Jax as a Berserker on the left and Cleric on the right

I would like to say that I hope Piranha Bytes decides to approach the development of ELEX 2 in the way they did Gothic 2 instead of Risen 2, despite the overall feedback from the mainstream media. ELEX really doesn't need an overhaul, as the foundation is solid, and it would a real shame if they end up drastically changing what could be the start of a very interesting franchise.

I can honestly recommend ELEX in a heartbeat to people who know roughly what they're getting into. Personally, I love it and I'm really looking forward to seeing where this franchise takes us. For people who aren't so sure about whether or not to get it, I'd recommend waiting for a patch or two, as some of the issues and inconsistencies can definitely be fixed in patches.

Box Art

Information about

ELEX

Developer: Piranha Bytes

SP/MP: Single-player
Setting: Post-Apoc
Genre: Action-RPG
Combat: Real-time
Play-time: Over 60 hours
Voice-acting: Unknown

Regions & platforms
World
· Platform: Xbox One
· Released at 2017-10-17
· Publisher: THQ Nordic

World
· Platform: PS4
· Released at 2017-10-17
· Publisher: Nordic Games

World
· Platform: PS4
· Released at 2017-10-17
· Publisher: Nordic Games

More information


Other articles

Summary

Pros

  • Fantastic world
  • Strong character progression
  • Excellent exploration
  • Varied gameplay
  • Interesting factions

Cons

  • Slow start
  • Inconsistent terms and descriptions
  • Dialogues have little charm or emotions
  • Music is decent, but it lacks KaiRo's touch

Rating: Very Good

A very good game that is just short of being excellent, because of one or more minor issues that reduce the level of enjoyment a little bit.

Review version

Opinions from other editors

ELEX is a true RPG. Great story with many choices with consequences. Dialog with attribute checks and many options. Memorable sidekicks. You can join three factions. Challenging combat - damage is skill & gear based. A wonderful world to explore with lots of secrets, side-stories and unique items to find.

Excellent RPG ingredients + Good technical implementation = Very Good RPG. (HiddenX - Game Curator)