ELEX, from developer Piranha Bytes, is the next in a series of massive, open-world RPG games put out by the developer. Known for the Gothic and Risen franchises, ELEX features several similar aspects the company has become known for. ELEX, however, takes a step away from the fantasy setting by shifting to a new sci-fi setting on the planet of Magalan. Almost completed destroyed long ago by a comet that spread a mineral known as Elex around the planet, three major factions wage a never-ending war against themselves and a more dangerous 4th faction. All of these groups use Elex in various ways, and each faction has their own approach on how to live in the ruined world.
One thing that really captured my attention was the game's massive size. The game map is huge. Ridiculously huge. Travel is made more accessible by finding warp spots at various places, but first, you have to reach them on foot to activate them. The three main factions of Berserkers, Outlaws, and Clerics are spread out amongst the map, as such making the pilgrimage to each of their great cities took me a couple of hours. Granted, it wasn't a straight shot, and I also spent a lot of time running from the local (and super dangerous) fauna, but it was neat to see the progression of the landscape. The Berserkers are holed up in a lush and verdant forest area dotted with old ruins, while the Outlaws made a home in a desert full of dangerous monsters. Lastly, the Clerics are inside a highly advanced fortress up in the mountains and surrounded by lava flows. The last group, the Albs (your former crew), are holed up even further in the frozen mountains. Each area is starkly different from the others and contains, sometimes, their own unique set of enemy creatures, at least in my experience.
The game's controls kept feeling a little confusing to me at first, and I often found myself accidentally putting my weapon away or swinging it at the worst times. Chalk that one up to my inability to feel entirely comfortable with the control scheme. In addition to that, the controls themselves felt laggy in response to my inputs. Trying to run away, I'd hit click the left analog stick to sprint, only to not see anything change for a second or two before hitting it again and end up taking 2-3 sprinting steps before slowing down. It's like the effort was just too much for my character. There were also a few times when the auto-lock on, controlled by the right analog stick, didn't want to switch targets mid-fight. I ended up pissing off people more than I care to admit when I decided to randomly slash them with an axe, instead of the mutant creatures that were nearby.
Combat itself is a mostly straightforward affair. Ranged attacks require equipping your weapon (bow, shotgun, plasma rifle, etc.) and using the triggers to aim and fire. Enemies are quick to charge, so if you're specializing in ranged combat, be sure to keep your distance. Using your jetpack by holding the button after jumping can help you get out of their melee range, but there's no guarantee they won't fire back with their own ranged weapons. Melee consists of watching your stamina gauge, timing your dodges, and using a combination of light and heavy attacks. If you build up enough of a combo, you can trigger a fairly devastating special attack. Overall the combat system is lacking polish, and I often found myself dying rather quickly. Eventually, I ended up doing my best to avoid combat by finding creative ways to stay out of harm's way or simply stocking up on more powerful weapons (thank you grenades!).
ELEX's shining point is the game's open customization of your character's stats and playstyle, as well as the impact your choices make. The game breaks your attributes down into five categories: strength, constitution, dexterity, intelligence, and cunning. Strength dictates your skill at melee, constitution your health, dexterity your attack range and skill with ranged weapons, intelligence your mana/PSI, and cunning handles how you deal with others. There are also skill points you can spend on skills by going to trainers in the world. These are broken down into several categories as well, including the specific faction types (Berserker/Outlaw/Cleric). These skills require your attributes be at a certain number before you're able to train in them.
Some of these thresholds can be high early in the game. I ended up carrying a few skill points with me for a while before I hit an acceptable threshold. The same goes for equipment as well - equipment requires you have certain levels of strength/dexterity/intelligence before you're able to equip them. On top of gaining access to new skills through each faction, you also gain access to their equipment. However, the requirements surrounding it are quite irritating. In the first few hours, I hadn't reached the necessary level to obtain much of it, plus I was unwilling to outright join the Berserkers so early before seeing the other factions and their cities (you are unable to change faction once selected).
Cunning (and other skill categories) play a prominent role in how you interact with the world at large as well. Often during a conversation, you'll select a response that results in "character doesn't like that," similar to other games with party members. You'll also see your cold level increase or decrease (cold being how much you care about the world at large). Your decisions and responses play increasingly larger roles in how the world reacts to you and your actions; it's easy to create new enemies by showing your distaste for life or by miscalculating how someone might react. This is definitely one of the best parts of the game, especially seeing "someone didn't like that" early on only to have it resolve after several hours of gameplay. Considering the number of available quests and how things can play out different each time based on your decisions as well means there's tons of replayability as well.
But some of these high points don't completely wipe away the game's low points. Several glitches/bugs occurred during my time with the game, including one that prevented me from looting or using menus on your adjutor (the in-game system that displays your quest log, inventory, etc.). This ended up forcing me to save, close the application, and restart to resume normal gameplay without issue. The load times are also tolerable when getting the game up and running initially, but frequent loading after dying made it seem like I was in a constant waiting pattern while I booted up my next chance at death.
ELEX is a game that suffers from its lofty ambition. It aims for admittedly high goals that are worth aspiring to, but it seemed to have forgotten some key things along the way. The sheer expanse of the world, rich backstory, and a mind-boggling amount of things to see/do in the game are fantastic, but the game suffers from technical issues, absurdly challenging gameplay at times, and a buffet scenario where you just have too much to choose from. The technical issues alone can be frustrating, but when you combine those with incessant deaths at the hands of minor enemies the game starts to really drive the point home that you should play on easy. Be warned though: you'll still face a hard time.
Note: ELEX was reviewed based on a digital PlayStation 4 copy of the game, provided by the publisher.