Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on PC, Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One
Elex is an ambitious new action RPG from THQ Nordic and Piranha Bytes, the team behind Gothic, promising action-based combat on a beautiful alien world that stands divided. For a distant planet it's surprising how much Magalan, the world Elex is set on, looks like our Earth. From red brick buildings to asphalt roads, it's hard to believe that it's set on an alien planet. Even when the laser guns, airships, and future tech-wielding priests show up, it feels more like an invasion than the co-existence that the game's lore informs you of.
Elex is set in a post-apocalyptic open world, where a meteor has not only reduced the world to ruin, but has also introduced a new mineral in the form of the meteor itself. The mineral, the titular Elex, has a myriad of uses - from fueling advanced weapons and vehicles, to potent ability enhancing drugs, to simple currency. These many uses strike up division among the remaining populous, arguing over what is the correct way to use this Elex, thus splitting the inhabitants of Magalan into several factions.
Most of the hype drummed up around the game focuses on these factions and your ability to join one of your choosing. The first you meet are the old world Berserkers, sword and magic-wielding Norse types that shun technology. Next up are the Clerics, strict authoritarian types that seek to rebuild the world with advanced technology. The Outlaws are another faction, living Mad Max-style by plundering ruins for old weapons, following no rule save “strength is everything”. While these three groups each have their own opinion on how to rebuild the world, and exist in a strange equilibrium, a fourth seeks only to conquer.
You start the game as an Alb, a group of people who believe that Elex should be consumed to make the populous stronger. Much like Mako in Final Fantasy VIII, when consumed Elex can grant immense power, or result in horrible mutations. The Albs believe that this is the way of things, where the weak and unworthy will mutate, leaving a stronger race of people, devoid of emotions thanks to the elex consumption. After a betrayal sees you stripped of all the aforementioned power and reduced to a lowly mortal, it's up to you to seek answers while travelling the land, meeting its inhabitants and learning their ways.
It's an interesting premise, one that sees you eventually choosing a faction to join largely based on your playstyle preferences. The issue is that you are forced to spend a large portion of the game in the Berserkers camp; in fact you learn how to play in the Berserkers area, leaving you more skewed towards their way of fighting. Initial skirmishes with outlaws and clerics may also colour your opinion of the other factions, and it certainly seems to have been done for a reason. Where you certainly have the option to explore and join the other factions, the story dictates that you meet the Berserkers first, and as a result the large majority of your play will be around this one camp.
While it would be wrong to say effort wasn't put into the other groups, it is certainly the case that they feel lesser, their quests and lore immersion more streamlined than the organic deep end you find yourself in at the mercy of the warriors. The later zones tend to feel a bit more rushed, with the outlaws feeling like an afterthought, though it can be argued that this may be down to the early indoctrination courtesy of your armour-plated hosts. Ideally to get the most impact, and make the three ways of life feel more equally opposed rather than feeling like aliens invaded Skyrim, a initial neutral township would have made the ideal tutorial location.
This disconnect from the intended story isn't the only issue the game has. While the story can still be enjoyed, even if it feels as though you're being pushed into joining the only faction with any substance, the gameplay has so many problems they have to be seen to be believed. The voice acting, oftentimes flat and wooden, is frequently delivered by characters that do not display any animation while speaking. Long monologues are given by stony-faced statues that barely move their mouths once per speech. Female characters’ breasts have minds of their own, vibrating wildly during conversations, amusingly being the only parts to move.
One-on-one interactions weren't the only scenes to suffer from these animation issues. While not on the level of Mass Effect: Andromeda, general animations can feel clunky, frequently stopping on being interrupted. This occurs most noticeably in combat or while using the jetpack to get around. It seems that every time something happens to interrupt and animation, be it being hit in combat or bumping into a piece of terrain, there is a high chance that the character will bug out, either going ramrod straight like a board and ceasing to move at all, or becoming locked into one pose and sliding around frozen until something causes them to become unstuck- usually death.
The UI also does not escape unscathed. While heavily stylized to appear futuristic it fails to sync well with the appearance of the game, and as a result it looks out of place. The stark, almost bright, sci-fi layout looks more at home in early Jak and Daxter or Beyond Good and Evil, and certainly not a more realistic looking game. Aesthetics aside, the UI failed functionally on multiple counts as well. Items you can pick up are highlighted in white, their names and the interact button hovering over them as you approach, yet if you unsheathe your weapon these markers vanish completely. Too often, important or useful loot could easily be missed because you forgot to put your weapon away after combat, or accidentally drew it while exploring, and just didn't see anything on screen.
There are also no quest markers anywhere. While the game makes a fuss about you helping out others via side quests, there is no way to see who needs help at a glance. The only way to find out who needs help is to talk to people, every single person, in the hopes they might have a task for you. Other quests just seem to start without any input from you at all. You may be exploring some ruins when you are informed the item you picked up is for a quest. At no point were you given the job of collecting any items, nor were you told to. This leaves you with twelve mutant gallbladders, for example, and no idea who wants them or what you need to do with them.
The mini-map is no assistance at all in this regard, or any regard for that matter. Where normally you would expect some indication of the layout of the surrounding area, there is nothing. The mini-map consists of a black circle with your character marked in the form of an arrow. Enemies and NPCs appear as slightly smaller arrows, but that is all the information it grants. There's no marking to indicate buildings, or local topography, meaning that the map only serves to show you where things are in a vague relation the player, and not in relation to their surroundings. If anything it acts more like a poor radar, rather than any sort of map at all.
As you explore the world your experience is wholly dependant on which system you purchased the game. On PC the world is indeed beautifully lush, begging to be explored, with subtle lighting that adapts if you step into a building. On console however it's nothing more than a blighted death trap, where plants and trees pop up under your feet as you walk, enemies and NPCs alike can drop underneath the terrain, and light doesn't always follow you into structures. It's hit and miss if the ruins you enter will light up even in the very least, save perhaps where the light shines between clipping textures where walls join, turning some walls into brightly lit screens. You're not given a torch, and quite often flares you can find don't do anything at all, as if you're just holding a noisy smoke machine. The animation issues are less pronounced on the PC version as well, leaving you with a slightly better experience.
All in all the game is a disjointed, badly produced, buggy mess. Combat is clunky, where the only way to lock on is to actually strike something. The music and other audios have a habit of changing their volumes on a whim, and some audio files seem to be missing altogether. In short it feels a lot like there was too much going on and as such the actual game is spread a bit thin. The lore is deep and rich, with clues to the final days before the meteor hit scattered throughout the world, but the gameplay does very little to support it. It certainly feels like the gameplay is being crushed beneath the weight of the promised story, and it all too often fails to keep it propped up, which is a shame considering the amazing potential the game had to offer.