Every now and then, a game comes along that makes itself difficult to review. Some of those are too rough to find the right words, others are too bland. Even rarer is the game that breaks your heart, and Elex breaks mine. I can see Piranha Bytes’ ambition every time I explore the open-world, feel their heart as I learn the lore, but sadly it just doesn’t come together. Elex represents the mid-tier video games I often lament lacking in the current industry, the games that try to reach past their budget and bring new ideas to the table. These games have cracks and appeal to me all the more for it. Unfortunately, this game’s cracks are too wide to bear.
Set in what is best described as a post-post apocalypse, Elex takes place on the planet Magalan. It was destroyed some years ago by a comet, which also brought the titular Elex with it. Elex is kind of a catch-all rare material, capable of producing energy, making advanced technology, granting magic, and mutating the world and the wildlife. The planet’s brush with annihilation was some time ago, though, and new life has sprung up in Magalan. These new societies represent the factions of the game, and those factions make up the bulk of everything you do in Elex. Rising through their ranks is where the meat of the game lies, so be careful to choose the right one.
The Berserkers are a faction trying to restore the balance of nature on Magalan. They’ve renounced technology, instead utilizing weaponry such as bows and broadswords. They’re the faction to join if you’re interested in using magic, as well. The Outlaws are a band of rogues who must have found the Mad Max movies on DVD somewhere, because they’re in their best cosplay. This society is a loosely connected group of people living in the desert, and live more modern using shotguns and rifles. They want loot and drugs, and don’t mind murdering and stealing to get it. If you like to play a jerk in your RPG’s, this is your best bet. There’s also the Clerics who worship technology, literally. They believe in the God Calaan, a deity of tech. These guys use the highest-end weaponry, like laser guns and the like. It’s good to join them if you want to be the sci-fi guy in this world. Between the three factions, there is a ton of content here.
The final faction is the Albs, a group of super-soldiers that actually consumes Elex to gather its combat benefits, at the cost of emotions. This is the community your character, Jax, hails from originally, though he is left for dead by his comrades at the start of the game. Free from the grips of Elex, Jax is now ready to make his own mark in the world. Which factions he makes his mark with is up to you. Surprisingly, there is no way to customize Jax, unfortunate considering how blank a slate he is. As a character, he has little to no personality, making it all the more confusing why we’re placed into such a specific role in this vast RPG.
As stated at the beginning of this review, Elex is a very disappointing game. There are only a couple of interesting ideas that work. The jetpack Jax has to traverse the world makes exploration a lot more fun and free than in similar giant-world RPG’s. The setting is also an interesting one, combining fantasy, science-fiction, and post-apocalyptic tropes into one surprisingly cohesive universe. Honestly, that wraps up the highlights.
Starting with the terrific setting, it’s important to mention the surrounding details. The plot starts as cliché and uninteresting, with Jax wanting answers as to who betrayed him. It never gets more exciting than this typical story set-up, and when the direction does change it only gets more boring and even a little silly. The dialogue is stilted, and the delivery wavers from fine to annoying with Jax being the worst offender of all. His gruff, monotonous voice grates for the duration of the game, leaving you to wonder if the game would’ve been better off with a silent protagonist. The characters speak in such an awkward manner, often repeating information in different sentences from only a few lines ago; it’s tough to think the dialogue is anything other than a rough draft. For such an interesting world, it’s a shame none of the characters seem to be interested in it.
A bad story can be looked past with good enough gameplay, of course. Yet again, Elex falls short of the mark. At the risk of speaking in hyperbole, this game may have the worst melee combat of any RPG I’ve ever played. It’s clearly modeling itself after the soulslike genre, with the lock-on mechanic and considered animation timings. The trouble comes from that timing not working. Elex operates with some of the worst input-lag of this generation. Which is constantly annoying during the game, but is something you can adjust for while exploring and conversing, less so during combat. The timing is so off, dodging becomes wholly unreliable. Blocking fares a little better, but when the entire combat system is so dependent on timing it is an exercise in frustration. The combination of a stamina bar, punishing enemy attacks, and little way to avoid damage made me want to throw my controller into the ground. Ranged combat fares slightly better as it churns out more damage consistently, but for some inexplicable reason you have to reset the lock-on after your first shot every time. Combat is such a pain in Elex, I often avoided it altogether.
The presentation is a mess as well. The game looks okay considering its size and budget, but it sounds horrible. The music is bad and loud, an irritating combination. It’s also mixed terribly. Too often would I have to try to hear dialogue over thunderously loud combat music. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to when any music starts, as if the entire track list is set to shuffle during the game and has no triggers on when to play which song. The glitches present in this style of RPG are present as you would expect, and the game did crash on my PS4 Pro more than a couple of times.
One can’t help but wonder what kind of game Elex could have been. There’s no telling if it was lack of talent or budget, but the game simply doesn’t hold together. Piranha Bytes has been making this kind of RPG for a long time now, and we should expect better of them. This is the kind of game I want to see more of, these lesser-budget titles from more moderate publishers. Elex doesn’t represent it well, though. It may have the heart and ambition, but it doesn’t have the most important thing: fun.
This game was reviewed on the PS4 Pro using retail code provided by the publisher, THQ Nordic.