In my youth, I once reached a crucial crossroad. Having arrived by bus to the nearby city in order to get that one game that my hard-earned pocket money allowed, there I was, standing inside the games store with a dilemma. On one hand, Gothic – on the other, TES III: Morrowind. I had read the reviews for both, and the possibility of an adventure in their fantasy worlds seduced me equally. Eventually, whether it was just chance or the box artwork, I chose TES III, which has greatly marked my course and engagement with RPGs ever since. Nevertheless, I always kept in mind the adventures I had missed in the games of the other series, and I knew I would one day “revisit” this crossroad when time and money would be in abundance. Unfortunately these circumstances never came. Over the years, Bethesda grew and changed the Elder Scrolls series profoundly, while Piranha Bytes was much more faithful to their recipe and dedicated fan base.
It seems that the time to get in touch with the worlds created by the German company is finally upon me, complete with a new IP, featuring the bizarre mix of Fantasy, Sci-Fi and post-apocalyptic settings. It’s not the first time that this combination is used, but there’s always the risk of not properly binding and combining these genres. It remains to be seen if ELEX manages to overcome this obstacle and at the same time be a remarkable RPG.
The post-apocaliptic Magalan.
ELEX unfolds on the planet of Magalan. In the relatively recent past, this planet was analogous to our own Earth and our level of civilization, with billions of people living on its surface. That progress was interrupted by the collision of a comet, which caused a cataclysmic disaster, changed the surface of the planet, and almost eliminated humanity.
From the debris of this disaster, survivors sprang. Beyond the struggle over known resources and plain survival, the conflict soon became focused over a new resource: the comet was rich in an element that the survivors called Elex, and every major faction found its own way to exploit it. Elex in its raw form alters and mutates life forms, hence the hordes of mutant animals populating the wild lands. Elex’s effect on humans results on zombie-like creatures that are addicted to it. Some people, however, found the way to consume it in a rational way, developing supernatural powers at the expense of the suppression of one’s emotions, making the beings based on its consumption little more than cold, calculating machines.
These post-humans are the Albs. Jax, our hero used to be one of them, until an accident caused by vile betrayal left him in the middle of a forest, deprived of Elex and recorded as K.I.A. to the Albs in their homeland of Xacor .
In that way, using a variation of the old trick of amnesia or unclear past, the game introduces us via Jax to the rest of the world, that is divided between three great factions. Jax gets acquainted for the first time with the “normal” people and their civilization and is forced to survive in the environment beyond his homeland.
The factions apart from the Albs, inhabiting the frozen north areas, are three:
-The Bersekers are nature lovers and technophobes. They use refined Elex as magic that helps them to restore the planet’s flora and reject its use for technology-related reasons. Thus, they are the “fantasy” side of Magalan and are dependent on traditional tactics with swords and bows, their robust magic and unrelenting faith in their laws.
-Unlike the Bersekers, the Clerics consider themselves as guardians of the lost technology that existed before the world’s destruction. Beyond that they use Elex for new robotic constructs and for “spiritual” suggestions or Psionics, trying to spread the faith to their deity, Calaan. They live on the comet’s volcanic point of impact and consider any use of Elex that is not relevant to technology heretical.
-The last of Magalan’s “free peoples” are the Outlaws, living in the deserts of Tavar. As expected, their society is totally anarchist and opportunistic, made up of those who do not want to live in the strict social systems of the other two factions. They use Elex to produce drugs that give them a more “pure” view of the world.
These factions live in a relative balance until the Albs, hailing from the frozen land of Xacor, raid and scout other areas in order to gain all of the planet’s Elex. In this setting, our hero is called upon to find who he really is, to avenge (or not) his attempted murder and to learn the reason behind it.
By now, it will be obvious to Gothic / Risen’s fans that the traditional patterns of the series are present. Beyond that, the script gives a good reason for the post-apocalyptic Fantasy Sci-Fi mix and sets the foundations for the spectacle and variety in our adventures.
Beyond the similarities to the factions and hero, ELEX also inherits the combat system of its predecessors. In a nutshell, I would call it an “acquired taste”, since at first it seems hostile and repelling, especially for players new to the Piranha Bytes legacy and the wider School of European RPGs. The somewhat slow and wobbly battle animations are combined with the need for enemy movement observation, in order to spot characteristic patterns. By properly utilizing the stamina bar, our character is able to strike a combo or make a side roll, avoiding his opponents’ charges. In the early game this is extremely difficult to perform, so the first couple of hours in the game are consisted of mainly looking at a “The End” screen with a mutated chicken or rat defiling our corpse.
But when the evasion and assault system are properly understood and combined with the Jetpack as a combat mechanism, then personally, I can attest to that I had a blast fighting, just as soon as I got over and used to the unusual animations. The Jetpack has been implemented flawlessly in both the battlefield and exploration. The feeling of hovering over a raptor, shooting arrows, then landing next to him, dodging its attack and delivering the final hit with an axe is simply unique. On the field of exploration, the Jetpack offers an energetic way of climbing or avoiding enemies in the huge and most importantly hand-crafted game world. A strange detail regarding the controls is that, surprisingly, the game is better played with a controller because of the strange and distant bindings on the keyboard.
Note the great importance of properly building our character up during leveling. I, in particular, tend not to spend the level up points on the spot when it is feasible in games. In Elex, we have the core groups of Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence and Cunning and at each level we are given points to spend on them, as well as points of different skills that we can upgrade if we meet the requirements of their governing attribute groups and if we find a suitable trainer. In addition, there are skills that are locked behind faction membership, with instructors delivering lessons only after we have joined the proper faction. Experience points are earned either through quests or by the extermination of enemies in battle. As I did not spend those points right on the spot, I spent a great part of the game being roughed up by mere mice in the fields. In order to have any hope of winning battles, you have to spend these points carefully for the proper evolution of your character.
This difficulty of the battles and the obvious “blocking” caused by high-level enemies on the map create a situation that offers great immersion to this world, as everything is brutal and hostile. Nothing is locked behind invisible walls – you can potentially travel around the entire map right from the start, but you need to find creative ways to make your way through mountains and rocks to avoid nightmarish contacts with the hostile and mutant fauna of Magalan’s world. This is the way that the game’s Post Apocalyptic nature is promoted through gameplay mechanisms.
Quests and Immersion.
The special magic of Elex resides in its world and exploration that happens organically and pays off on its own due to the sense of satisfaction it offers. As I mentioned above, the “blockade” caused by the high-level enemies makes trekking in areas that we are not supposed to be more exciting and makes us exploit the limits of our Jetpack by employing our ingenuity. The Devs openly challenge us to do things that we probably should not be doing, and to explore in unpredictable and strange ways, unlike other streamlined experiences that take place in huge sandboxes and playgrounds. A similar logic reigns over the quests, which, due to Bethesda’s tweaking of my very gaming sensory over the years, originally struck me with their old school character. Indicatively, at some point I found myself upon a city gate, where I needed an entry permit to get in. I asked the guard about entry permits, the city, and generally exhausted all the available dialogue options. Later, I found a man outside town, who offered me a quest to make me a fake ID. I ended up taking up this quest, that required a lot of hard fighting (against mutated mice, mind you), and with the newly acquired card I attempted to enter the city. The guard proceeded to check the ID, which seemed in order, but then recalled my suspicious questions about IDs earlier. As a result, I found myself being questioned about the means I employed to get the ID. Had I not asked the guard before, exhausting the dialogue options, I would have probably not encountered such a problem.
Generally, even though there are some coherence issues present in the quests’ dialogue trees (like sudden changes in the voice tone that are reminiscent of cloth patchwork), in general the world’s quests are admirably interconnected, combining quest givers, or engaging your followers into the dialogue. Piranha Bytes is not afraid of the player choosing the logical way to approach and complete a quest.
This kind of freedom provides the necessary role-play element, as soon as you determine the kind of character you want to play as. Each “Class” that is derived from the prerequisite skills and the faction that we will eventually join, demands different combat approach and role-play. As it happens you can’t be an all-powerfull Arch-Mage AND a Fighter’s Guild leader, all the while chilling with Jarls and slaying dragons. I can personally guarantee that the first mutant chicken that you personally slay, will offer greater pleasure than a certain dragon-slaying outside Whiterun…
The scriptwriting and general story can’t be on par with i.e. The Witcher series, and Magalan loses some of its vividness, especially in the towns and villages, due to the recurring NPC models and their spartan variety. As was already mentioned, due to the fragmented quest development, the resulting dialogues are sometimes varying and inconsistent in tone. The lack of lip sync as well as the mediocre voice acting don’t help either. Combining the above with the game’s animation, which is not “bad” but certainly not on par with AAA productions of our time, ELEX loses a part of its charm, exactly because we are used to certain features as standards. Despite that, the game difficulty due to the gameplay challenge, provides the neccecery meta-apocalyptic feeling, the dense pines and futuristic sceneries give off their unique vibe and last but not least, there are many themes and analogies examined and a great number of ambiguous moral dilemmas that we must face.
ELEX might not be polished like a Bioware flagship but we won’t be greeted by NPCs right at the entrance of a city we’ve just entered, ready to confess all about the beating they had endured by their uncle with his belt in some basement, just for the sake of inclusion. ELEX follows a more subtle way that personally got me thinking about the point where an end justifies the means to it, or antitheses like ecology vs technology or the struggle between the extremes of total rationalism vs spirituality, issues like being a refugee, a xenophobe etc. If that’s the price to pay for lip sync, so be it.
Piranha Bytes developed ELEX using an in-house, draft and smokey-flavored game engine that is pretty impressive. It might not be the current spearhead as far as game visuals go but ELEX performs decently for the things it has to perform. Game visuals are impressive, especially when it comes to lighting. The vast, limitless horizons, featuring old buildings and mountains in the distance succeed in immersing the player greatly. On my current rig, utilizing DX11, I enjoyed constant 60fps with my game set to maximum quality. On top of that I faced no game-breaking bugs or crashes. The only hiccups occured when one of my followers shot fireballs towards the ground while targeting an enemy that was one level below, in addition to an achievement that I earned by mistake. Judging by everything I know about Piranha Bytes’ past history, that’s quite the achievement.
Game engine problems I encountered include clipping issues with NPCs and enemies, as well as weapons “floating” by the hip or behind the back, issues that harken back to 2009. Followers’ pathfinding is decent, but monsters’… not so much, since they can’t seem to be able to follow you on platforms and multileveled cliffs. To prevent exploits, like us being able to finish them off with ranged weapons while standing safely out of their reach, almost all of the enemies feature a ranged attack as well – an old-fashioned solution perhaps, but it works.
On the plus side, the game loads rapidly, and every area/hub is seamlessly connected with the other, providing a load-free world. The animations won’t impress most people but I didn’t think that they were horrible either. There are some nice touches even, like Jax raising his hand to protect his head if you hover all the way up to a ceiling. It’s just that in general the animations are more crude than what we are used to see in games by now.
To conclude, ELEX is a unique and charming game, that managed to convey the old school exploration experience while covered in a modern shell. Old Piranha Bytes fans will surely spot all the aspects that they loved in the company’s historic series, with a more modern touch. For the rest of the RPG fans that maybe have been “trained” by streamlining to expect a more standardized game experience, it might look a little alien, hostile even, especially in the very first hours where the “End” screen is on display non-stop. Despite that, ELEX’s denial to submit to the “Modern RPG Gamemaking Guide 101” conventions make it unpredictable, and it is hard to identify what makes it tick behind the curtains. In that way, it is able to convey a mystical experience that was common in RPGs before the TES IV Oblivion era.
It might look like a lost title from the year 2010, but for those that want a pure exploration experience, real role-play, even with some unpolished aspects by our advanced age’s standards, this is the place to be. I for one couldn’t wait to get home from work to lose myself into Magalan. Just like when I was young, playing Morrowind.
ELEX was provided by Enarxis Dynamic Media, which distributes the game in Greece
- Unique feeling of exploration in a huge, handcrafted world.
- Flawless Jetpack utilization both in battle and exploration.
- The Combat System will be enjoyed by those seeking a more strategic approach.
- Multiple solutions to quests.
- Graphics are not cutting-edge but still beautiful, even though some assets are used repeatedly and some textures are rather low-quality.
- Varying Class gameplay, pure roleplay.
- Freedom of movement on the whole game map.
- Beautiful soundtrack that enhances exploration and provides 90’s/00’s vibes.
- Lack of Lip Sync and, at times, weak voice-acting.
- Clipping, floating weapons and other old graphics “illnesses”.
- The game’s Combat System will not thrill those seeking the fast-paced action and flow present in most modern RPGs.
- Dialogue trees seem like a patchwork at times.