Review: ELEX (PS4)

Developer: Piranha Bytes
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Genre: Action, RPG, Open World
Rating: Mature
Platforms: PlayStation 4, XBox One, PC
Price: $59.99 (PS4/X1), $49.99 (PC)

 

The trailers leading up to the launch of ELEX planted a bug deep in my brain. Jetpacking around the wasteland as a medieval warrior with axes or a futuristic soldier with an energy rifle looked like an incredible mashup RPG fans have been begging for years to play. Thanks to clever marketing, I had to see what the game was all about. In practice, ELEX does some interesting things but technical issues and a host of other problems drag down what could have been a fun, unique experience.

 

Content Guide

Spiritual Content

A tribe known as the Berserkers, who shun technology, host a handful of tribe members who can wield magic.. The Clerics are technologically advanced zealots that worship a god known as Calaan.

Violence

When someone or something is killed, it ragdolls around the environment. There aralso splashes of blood. I don’t recall any particularly heinous gore or viscera, though blood is spread on walls and pooled up in some environments.

Language/Crude Humor

The world of Magalan is awash in salty language. Expect to hear everything an R-rated film would allow, including f***, s***, and d***.

Sexual Themes

The game has pole dancers and prostitutes. I never saw anything explicit, but their displays are intensely suggestive.

Drug/Alcohol Use

Drugs and alcohol are spread all over the world of Magalan. An early quest reveals a character going on a bender and dying of an overdose. You can find cartons of cigarettes to trade for shards. There is plenty of alcohol to find and consume as well.

Positive Themes

Though at its heart, ELEX is a tale of discovery and vengeance, Jax often goes out of his way to help the people of the wasteland with various quests. While the player can choose to demand payment for many of these tasks, you can chalk them up to being a good Samaritan as well.

Review

As someone who likes discovering games that fly below the radar, I was intrigued when I first came across ELEX. The promise of a massive, open-world action RPG with both fantasy and sci-fi elements ticked every checkbox my gamer geek mind could comprehend. Combine that with the head of steam THQ Nordic has been rebuilding over the last couple years, and I had to get my hands on it.

Magalan is a dark and foreboding place. After a falling comet brought massive destruction, the survivors banded together into factions, discovering a range of uses for Elex, a resource that arrived with the comet. You are Jax, a former commander of the Alb forces. After your ship crashed, you’re shot by a former comrade and assumed dead. Now, you’re back, looking for answers and vengeance, and you’ll stop at nothing to get them.

The overall tale is ok, but it’s not something you’ll be telling your friends about years down the road. The various factions and their motivations offer some interesting flesh to the narrative skeleton, but even then, most of those story beats feel like they’ve been hit before. Jax, however, is downright unlikable. The grim demeanor and angry tone never seem to leave his voice, no matter the situation. I suppose you could say there’s a story reason for it (he’s a former Alb, and they consume Elex to rid themselves of emotion) but it’s a poor excuse for a weak main character. I understand why they chose to make Jax a reformed enemy, but his character offers virtually no appeal. It’s also worth noting that there is no wiggle room in the game for character customization. Jax has a set model and voice, so you’re locked to the one drab, melancholy former space marine. Ultimately, the storytelling is passable but it lacks the legs to make it memorable.

On its face, ELEX delivers what you would expect. Magalan is a tremendous world with a variety of locales to explore. From the magic-wielding, technology-rejecting Berserkers to Mad Max styled Outlaws to the zealous Clerics reminiscent of a religious Brotherhood of SteelELEX has several factions you can deal with and join. There’s a healthy roster of folks you can recruit as a sidekick, and you can wield everything from an axe to a chainsword to a plasma rifle and more. Everything here sets ELEX up for success.

It’s just too bad, then, that I’ve been so intensely conflicted about the game after my time with it. The game feels pretty sketchy to play once you get your hands on it. Melee combat has a rhythm, but shoddy animation and an awkward combo system make it a frustrating affair, and that’s a shame because you’ll be doing a lot of fighting. You have the ability to do a dodge-roll, but it seems the creatures in the wasteland don’t care if you’re rolling 30 feet away from them. They’ll lunge and rip your head off anyway.

Movement in general feels poorly designed. You’re given a jet pack out of the gate to help get around, and while you’ll eventually get the hang of how it functions, maneuvering with it never stops feeling stunted and awkward. Binding both the sneak and sprint buttons to L3 feels like a particularly frustrating design decision, since guards become cautious when they see you sneaking, and trying to run away from an angry pack of raptors only to be thwarted by the control scheme will make you want to shatter your controller with a rubber mallet.

The first several hours of the game are nearly unbearable. Anything and everything will slaughter you and they’ll do it in just a couple strikes. I had several quests I tried to complete, spending the time to hoof it across the Berserker domain, only to discover that, even after acquiring my first party member, I had no chance on earth of defeating the enemies awaiting me. It would have gone a long way toward player experience to use traditional RPG tropes and color-coded enemies and quests based on their relative difficulty. Instead of enjoying exploration of the massive world, I was deterred to stick as close as possible to main story missions, breaking only occasionally to try a side mission.

While it’s undeniable that ELEX has a lot of issues, I did eventually turn the corner on it. Once I got some levels from grinding low-level creatures, acquired some extra weapons and armor, and learned to manipulate the game’s awkward mechanics, I started to see a bit of the game I was originally hoping for. There’s some fun to be had on Magalan. It’s just too bad the game left such an intensely negative first impression.

ELEX is a rough looking game on the PlayStation 4. Character and weapon models are ok, but the animation makes the game look like it was built on a 10 year-old engine. Movement in combat lacks the fluidity you would expect an action RPG to have. Waterfalls and lava look like moving sheets of paper, animal spitting attacks, which you would expect to look globby and mucous, are flat and drab, and the list goes on. It just feels like they reached minimum viable product and said, “Good enough. Ship it.” To be fair, I’ve seen the game in motion on PC and it’s certainly smoother, but many of these problems still remain.

The sound design is right in line with the visuals. The voice acting ranges from campy to laughable in some instances, with only a handful of characters delivering believable performances. The sound effects are enough to engage and grant some feedback in the world. The soundtrack is one of my big hanging points, though. I’m typically a huge fan of game soundtracks, buying and listening to them throughout my work day. I couldn’t tell you a single track in all of ELEX that made a lasting impact on me though. Nothing ever felt out of place acoustically, but there was nothing noteworthy either.

As much as I wanted to love ELEX, I found myself angry and frustrated more often than not. There’s some fun to be had here, but you’ll have to endure sad visuals, awkward combat, and an infuriating first few hours to reach any of it. In a time when THQ Nordic also released Battle Chasers: Nightwar and other heavy hitters are coming down the pipe weekly, ELEX is a hard sale. Save this for a bargain bin purchase down the line if you’re genuinely curious in it.

 

Review copy provided by THQ Nordic

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The Bottom Line

 

 

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Joe Morgan

Husband, gamer, software developer, animal lover. When he's not writing for GeeksUnderGrace, he's probably fishing or working on content with his wife for Coffee and Adventure, their YouTube channel

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