Version Reviewed: Xbox One
(Copy purchased by the reviewer)
The planet Magalan has been sent into post-apocalyptic despair by a massive comet. Shards of the comet (called Elex) have spread to the entire planet: mutating animals, reshaping the environment, and eventually being manipulated by the surviving populace to enhance weapons, drugs, and the human form itself. Struggling against the world (and each other) are four major factions. The Clerics worship technology and science and use energy-based weaponry. The Outlaws are more crafting-based and boost their strength with stimulants. The Berserkers reject technology and convert Elex into Mana, allowing for magical abilities without the corruption that accompanies Elex. The Albs consume raw Elex to terrifying effects and are the overbearing threat throughout most of the game.
Your character is Jax, an infamous Alb commander betrayed by one of his high-ranking comrades. Jax loses his connection to Elex and must rebuild his strength by interacting with the free people (which consists of everyone who isn’t a reclusive Alb). The strength of Elex lies here in its story and world-building. The lore will always keep you intrigued and excited to play a part in the future of the planet. The best conversations are with people who know about the history of Magalan. The Albs originally being Clerics, the unique “No Laws” laws of the Outlaws, the neutral but optimistic colony of Origin – every ounce of detail in the dialogue and world are truly what makes the player want to keep on playing.
What makes the player want to stop playing, however, is basically everything else. The combat of Elex can be summarised in one word – clunky. The hitboxes of both the player-character and the enemies are practically broken. Hits that should never land on the player-character often do just that, and judging the distance between your melee swing and the enemy is practically impossible. Sometimes, after initiating an attack, the player character will lunge forward to actually land the hit. The issue there is that the player-character looks as though they’ve moved forward enough, but the swing will still miss by about two microns.
Difficulty is another important topic worth discussing. At no point in my playthrough did I feel like my character was getting any stronger. Leveling up allowed me to put points toward my constitution and my strength, but everywhere I went the enemies were leaps and bounds ahead of me in both the health and damage departments. This plays into the major problems of enemy placement and the world map itself. The map is completely open with essentially no boundaries, and enemies do not level up with the player. Every region is spotted with low-level enemies, high-level enemies, and ridiculously-high-level enemies, and there is seemingly no pattern to their placement.
In open-world games like Borderlands and The Elder Scrolls, most of the enemies will level with the player, which keeps the difficulty manageable without becoming too easy. On the flip side, games like Dark Souls will have enemies at unchanging levels in set locations. So when a player attempts to take on a skeleton that is taking absolutely no damage, they know that they’ll have to return to that area when they level up. Elex instead opts to mix elements of both the aforementioned designs, and unfortunately ends up with neither. You’ll spend most of your time in Elex running from fights that you cannot handle because the openness of the map does not give you any hints as to where you should be and where you should not be. In addition, there will be no indication that you are not ready for a fight until you are under attack. All of the raptors, the biters, and the humans all look identical to other variants of their species, which means that they could be ten levels below you or ten levels above you.
The target lock system, a core mechanic of combat, is unresponsive and buggy in every way. It is impossible to switch targets easily and target lock button itself will wane between “I’ll only sometimes work” and “I’ll work when you stop complaining about this broken combat system.” Simultaneously, the player character’s companions are so bugged that they will keep their weapon sheathed until you hit an enemy. This is nearly impossible when being rushed by more than three opponents, which happens fairly often, and none of the enemies will focus on your companion because he/she isn’t acting aggressive. The player is often left scrambling backward for their life while hoping to somehow strike an opponent before being staggered for the thousandth time.
All of these broken mechanics leave the player fighting not only the ridiculously challenging enemies, but also the game itself. One of the very few positive aspects of combat worth mentioning is that the enemies have a visible stamina bar which allows the player to properly strategize one-on-one fights. Keep your shield up, wait till their stamina is drained, lower your shield to quickly regain your own stamina, and strike. It’s a proven system that is fairly satisfying when all of the problems listed above aren’t involved, but it’s certainly not enough to save this clunky and nearly-broken combat system.
For all of its bugs, Elex actually has a lot of potential. The game is such a massive undertaking from the Piranha Bytes development team, which employs less than 50 people. For such a small team to tackle a 50+ hour game for both PC and consoles is to be commended. If Piranha Bytes looks at the criticisms and problems that the gaming community is pointing out, I’m confident that Elex can be patched enough to reach its full potential. A bad launch can be problematic, but games like Assassin’s Creed: Unity and No Man’s Sky have been improved greatly since their respective launches. Surely Elex still has time to create a new reputation for itself.
Okay, maybe those two games haven’t lost their negative stigma. But give Elex a chance. In about a year. When the price has dropped below 30 dollars.