ELEX is a game with a very interesting premise. Described as a “handcrafted action role-playing game set in a post-apocalyptic science fantasy world”, I naturally wanted to find out more about the world of ELEX. But that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise because, as I’m sure we’ve all noticed, the setting of a game is one of the biggest hooks for me. I had very high hopes for the game and, upon booting it up, was given a cutscene detailing how the world was brought to its knees and the chaos that came after.
We find out that we are the inhabitants of the planet Magalan and, some one hundred and fifty years or so ago, a meteor hit the planet. The meteor decimated most of the planet, scattered an unknown crystal like mineral called Elex (more on this in a bit) across the globe, and forced survivors into what most of us think of when we think of a post-apocalyptic life. But, with the passage of time, most of those hardships faded and groups rose to carve out ways of life among the ruins of the old world.
Now, one of the most important changes in the world was the introduction of Elex to a planet that had never before seen the crystal. And, personally, this was far more destructive to Magalan than the meteor itself ever was. Elex is able to do a number of things; from fueling powerful and massive machines, to enhancing the physical and mental prowess of individuals who consume it, to mutating things into new terrifying beasts. Elex also seems to be the primary reason for conflict among the four main groups; The Berserkers, the Clerics, the Outlaws, and the Albs.
The Berserkers, a group that would feel very much at home in the Elder Scrolls series, have renounced the use of ‘modern’ technology and Elex. They even go so far as to collect technology, strip the Elex from it, and then toss the discarded tech off a cliff side and into The Pit, a guarded location just outside of their main town of Goliet, in the forest region known as Edan. We’re then told that the Berserkers have found a way to actually transform the Elex they take from the technology they confiscate into Mana though the use of specialized plants which allows them to use actual magic.
Next, we have the Clerics; presented to the player as fanatical worshipers of technology and their God, Calaan. The Clerics live in Hort, a broken and volcanic region of Ignadon, near the meteor’s impact zone but also reside and (somewhat run) the Domed City, a city with a massive domed force-field where various factions congregate. The Clerics’ power lies in their willingness to use technology to its fullest, using everything from plasma weapons and mechs to psi powers (their answer to magic). Due to their heavy use of technology, the consumption of Elex (the power source for their entire tech based society) is seen as a sin.
The Outlaws seem to be a bit more aligned with the traditional thoughts of what a post-apocalyptic society would be. Situated on a butte, atop a pre-fall military bunker and missile silo, surrounded by the ruins of bio-domes, massive satellites, communication towers, wind turbines, and mines, the Outlaws make their home at the aptly named Fort, in the desert region of Tavar. Looking about, one can’t help but be reminded of Mad Max (1985’s Beyond Thunderdome and 2015’s Fury Road) as we see buildings made of simple wooden frames and covered with rusting and pitted sheet metal snaking around re-purposed buildings of the past.
The Albs are the antagonist (and protagonist) in our tale. These humans, based out of the Ice Palace in the frozen tundra of Xacor, have eaten Elex but have not mutated into mindless beasts. Instead, those that consume Elex but do not mutate into abominations are granted immense strength and mental clarity but lose their humanity, acting solely on logic with little to no regard for what might be morally ‘correct’. In addition to this strength, the Elex turns their skin and hair a ghostly white. This is, of course, the reason for their name; Albs.
Detailed world – The world of Magalan is a massive and rather impressive one. The world exists beyond you as a player and it’s quite clear that it existed long before you got here and will continue to exist long after you’re gone. Not only is it a visually impressive world, it’s one filled with enough lore to keep me busy reading for hours as the amount of detail fleshed out by the developers and placed around is enough to keep anyone routed in it. It’s really too bad that ELEX didn’t take off and become very popular like Elder Scrolls as it could have then got many support novels on the side to build it even more.
Great implementation of the jet-pack – Let me start by saying this bit: the jet-pack is so goddamn useful and is probably more useful than a lot of tools given in other games. The jet-pack is a rather simple tool but it can be used to scale mountain sides, save you from towering falls, help you get to ‘secured’ areas, as well as help you escape Magalan’s many murderous monsters. This is a great game-play addition and helps improve your experience with it as it makes the exploration that much more fun and easy to do while in this open-world.
Fleshed-out characters – Each character feels like they actually live a life beyond what you physically see as they have likes, dislikes, and go about their day in the city when you’re not interacting with them. Some of them can handle the truth while others can’t even handle jokes (I made the comment to an NPC of coming from Xacor in a smart-ass manner, which the NPC then called a bad joke and attacked for said ‘bad joke’). They even interact with each other, but this last bit seems more scripted than organic; it’s still a nice touch, however, that’s sometimes left out of other titles in the same genre.
No loading time – Outside the initial loading in of the game and the transitions to locations for certain quests, there is no active loading of the world. It’s a nice change of pace as some open-world games halt you in your tracks to load the next area, effectively destroying any chance of immersion as you’re stuck in place with a ‘loading icon’ floating in the corner. You want it to be unnoticeable when you’re exiting a city into the wilderness or encounter a creature that popped in a little ways off without the game “thinking” too hard about how and where to place it. That’s where ELEX shines.
Feels dated – ELEX does not feel like a game that should have been released in 2017. While the visuals and audio hold up well enough against its peers, the game-play itself feel like it would have been more at home in a game released somewhere between 2007 (the year we got the first Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed games) and 2009 (the year of Dragon’s Age and Risen, another action role-playing game from developer Piranha Bytes). It’s a bit clunky and many textures are reused over and over again throughout the map; it’s very obvious where the developers cheated here and there.
No real tutorial – After watching the first little movie/cut-scene, we are given an in-game cut-scene of our protagonist, Jax, being shot down. We are then tossed into the world without much explanation or any real tutorial. Now, this minimalist tutorial thing isn’t unheard of as a number of older titles were notorious for this but, in a game that can be as brutal as this one can, a more solid tutorial would help prepare for the adventure ahead. When it’s said that it can be brutal an example of this would be running into bandits outside of Goliet (the first town in the adventure) at level 1 that have a ‘skull and crossbones’ symbol over their head, denoting that they are way over your level; even when returning as level 10 they are still super aggressive, accurate, and possess the aforementioned symbol. Many will simply have to go around them with a large detour.
Combat is lackluster – The combat in ELEX is very unforgiving and, worst of all, lackluster. Most enemies are rarely found alone (and if they are alone, they are usually something you would wish to avoid all together) and attack in groups. This wouldn’t be much of an issue if ELEX had a better system for combat as switching targets seems unresponsive. It forces the player to either face the same enemy when first locked on, which could easily result in a death when they gang up on your unprotected side to strike, or to constantly try to lock and unlock from enemies effectively only for it to take too long to be any kind of effective. Enemies, be them man or beast, also seemed to be imbued with the most impeccable aim and movement prediction abilities to make me abandon ranged combat in favor of hand-to-hand to try and at least attempt to put up a fight.
Frame-rate drop in group battles – This is a bit of an addition to the last section on lackluster combat. Since most fights happen in groups (they have the groups, not you), frame-rate drops were a rather persistent issue that, at times, actually caused my death as I attempted to flee five or six enemies who were all bearing down on me. During those dropped frames, some sort of projectile would often magically appear right in front of me along my escape route, slamming into either me or the ground and knocking me down long enough for the ravenous band of bastards to catch up to me and send me back to my last save point.
All in all, I wasn’t as impressed with ELEX as I had hoped to be; not even close. The game-play felt dated and woefully uninspiring, which was severely disappointing given all the potential it had. Personally, I feel like the area that suffered the most was the combat and, seeing as that’s a large portion of the game, this caused the game to suffer beyond recovery. There was a lot in the game I really enjoyed such as: exploring the lore of the world, interacting with other characters and how they interacted with me, the dialogue options and how saying the right (or wrong) choice could completely change the dynamic of the conversation, and even the exploration of the world itself was fun; however, the combat was far too merciless and not because it was just a good solid system with challenging combat against intelligent foes but because of how rough and seemingly regressive it was.
ELEX was developed by Piranha Bytes and published by THQ Nordic. It was released for Xbox One [reviewed], PlayStation 4, and PC on October 17th, 2017. A press review copy was provided for The Hidden Levels. Many studios submit copies for site review but this is in no way factored into our review scores. Games are scored on their individual merits and our rating system is explained here.