Elex is a terribly constructed video game full of glitches, lag, eye-sores, and confusing mechanics. I would not recommend most people go through the pain of playing this RPG. And yet, despite all of this, I am obsessed with Elex. I can't stop playing it. In a year of incredible releases, Elex manages to be one of the best and worst.
The closest comparison I can make here is Skyrim, or perhaps Fallout: New Vegas — games that fail conventional standards of what a "good" game should be on a technical level, but still have an undeniable spark. These are the sorts of games you have to actively forgive in order to enjoy. Elex just requires you to forgive it a whole lot more.
I first heard of Elex on online forums, where players were both raving about it while also, confusingly, listing a ton of issues with the game. It's an extremely difficult game with terrible combat, they'd say. The world seems to be kept together by glue, they'd say. It's also one of the best RPGs of the year, they'd say. It's made by the creators of Gothic, they'd say. It combines sci-fi and fantasy, they'd say. Curiosity got the better of me here: this sounds like an awful game, I thought, but folks still love it? How could that be? I purchased the game on the PS4 to find out.
The first thing I noticed was the long load time, which baffled me because frankly, Elex is ugly. It looks like something out of the last generation of consoles, only without a good aesthetic to save it. All of this isn't helped by the wooden performances, bad animations, and a limited set of facial features that make many characters look almost exactly the same as one another. You can tell this game was made on a budget.
You play as Jax, a man who looks like a Commander Shepard wannabe:
This is a cinematic rendition of our hero.
Hilariously, Jax's background kinda explains why he sounds so robotic: he's an "Alb," a faction known for being ruthless. In this world, a comet hit the planet long ago, bringing with it a mysterious substance called Elex. That comet devastated everything, and humanity had to start over. From the ashes arose a few different factions, all with their own attitudes on Elex. The Albs, for example, ingest Elex because they want to achieve the next stage of evolution. Elex starts to take over their bodies, stripping them of emotion and leaving behind only a hyper-rational mind. If they're not careful, Elex can turn them into zombies. Albs risk it all in the name of power.
The game starts with Jax on his way to complete an important mission, only to be shot down from his vehicle. The Albs, heartless monsters that they are, consider this a major failure on your part — so they sentence you to death. You get gunned down, and your body falls over a cliff. The Albs think you're dead, but actually, you survive. The problem is that once you wake up, your gear has been stolen and there's no Elex coursing through your body anymore. You're weak. So you need to figure out what happened to you and why. The set-up heavily reminds me of Fallout: New Vegas, which also starts with the protagonist being left for dead.
Not long afterward, you meet a character from the Berserkers, a group who eschew the seduction of technology and Elex. Instead, the Berkerers use Mana and Magic. Framing all of this are the Berserker laws, which stipulate a basic expectation of decency for all members. This faction is contrasted by the Outlaws, who only care about profit, and the Clerics, who love technology and seek wisdom — but you won't meet these groups until much later.
At first, the opening area is overwhelming: Elex's map is enormous, and it took me over a week just to venture beyond the first locale, Goliet. There's a lot to explore, especially since you have a jetpack that can take you to hard-to-reach places. The game is designed to reward curiosity, so there's a lot of incentive to fuck around and look at what's around you. You can go anywhere and pursue most quests at any time. You can steal almost everything, as well as craft food and weapons.
It took me a long while to enjoy that freedom. Elex, unfortunately, is balanced horrendously. The very first mission I took on after starting the game had an enemy that could kill me in three hits. I, meanwhile, barely did any damage back. I must have died 40 times trying to take this single enemy down, and each time I had to wait a minute or two for the game to load up again. This was made all the more frustrating by the combat, which is poorly explained and not very good. There are three basic attacks: light attack, heavy attack, and special attack. You can roll, dodge, and parry, all of which use up stamina — but even so there's no real depth to this system. You experience everything it has to offer with only 15 seconds of combat. But, remembering the things people said about Elex online, I became determined to beat that enemy anyway. It took me a few hours, but I did it. I killed the guy. I remember feeling elated — only to realise every single battle was going to be like that. I was extremely underpowered. I couldn't afford better gear because I had just started. And my stats were garbage because of Elex withdrawal.
So I learned how to cheese the game. I recruited a companion character who could act as my shield — crucially, these characters are invincible. I took pot shots whenever I could. Above all, I learned to use the jetpack to fly out of reach, at least long enough that I could regain my stamina. And I ran away a hell of a lot. Sometimes, I was running toward safety. Other times, I was kiting an enemy toward characters in the world so they'd get aggro'd. Other times, I just ran away for long enough that my companion could revive themselves and get back into the fight. Being a coward was the only way I could eke out a win against basic enemies. Learning how to break the combat like this gave me a perverse satisfaction, almost a game unto itself. Sure, every single encounter took a long time, and I often had to save before and after every single win, but I was inching my way forward. I was determined to find out if the hype was real.
Navigating my way through Goliet was, at first, slow-going. There was a lot of trial and error in figuring out what quests I could actually do given how shitty my character was. Also, Elex is designed similarly to Bioware games in that there's a lot of lore-heavy dialog dumps, with characters explaining the motivations behind the various factions and the story behind big figures. It was hard to care, or grok why things mattered. It was only after hours of questing that a picture began to form, and I started to understand what made this game so special.
Every locale has a ton of people you can talk to, and they all have various things for you to do. One quest often leads to another quest, leading to another quest — on and on, Elex constantly balloons in complexity. As a hypothetical example: One character will ask you to kill a man. You'll seek that man out and find out things are not what they seem. You start to help the man...except he's tied up in a massive plot spanning multiple cities. And, as it turns out, he isn't actually a saint. Every step of the way, you have a choice.
Do you just kill the guy outright to curry for the quest giver's favour? Do you bribe the target for more money? Do you betray them both? Do you find some way of making everyone happy? Do you use your charisma stat to talk things out or your survival stat to get more XP from the combat encounters? Do you use your jetpack to fly over the forbidden area or fight your way through? Elex has a ton of quests where I agonized over what to do, because there are so many ways to solve an issue. There are no black and white situations where there is an obvious, correct way to solve something. You can do everything "right" and still not have it turn out the way you thought it would at all. Characters will straight-up lie to you or mislead you to get what they want, meaning that you have to deduce their motivations the entire way through. Given the way all the quests intersect with one another, the world of Elex feels alive in a way very few games do.
Most of all, I was impressed at the world-building. Every society has its own set of beliefs, and the game complicates and challenges every single one. Without spoiling too much, the Berserkers are a fantastic example of how Elex accomplishes this complexity. As I mentioned earlier, the Berserkers are staunchly anti-technology — but as you go through their quests, you realise everything is not how it seems. On the surface, everyone obeys the Berserker laws, but not everyone believes in them. After all, it's pretty difficult to keep a culture going without some form of technological advancement — especially when your enemies happen to have aeroplanes and guns. As you go along, you find out the sly ways technology influences a faction that swears it doesn't use it. People will yell at you for bringing up your HUD — it's tech! — but they will still gladly accept the help that comes with it. Never mind the shady underground that crops up around outlawed tech. But, more than that, you'll come to understand why the Berserkers are right to be so fearful of technology. And that's just one faction. Things only get juicier as you go along.
Elex has the marker of so many of my favourite games of all time: it inspires wanderlust. I will set out to do a mission, or go to a way point, only to be interrupted dozens of times along the way because I noticed a cool landmark, a character, a new town, a new quest, a new enemy. Recently, it took me days to complete a single quest because I kept getting distracted by a cool thing that popped up, whether it was a bandit hideout, a lake infested with monsters, or a series of notes that hinted at a mysterious quest. I have to write down everything to keep myself vaguely track. It's the best.
Does this sound like a good game? It is. It's one of the best and most ambitious RPGs I've played in a long time. Oh, but also...
- You will die left and right, even after getting better gear, potions, and survival strategies.
- Many stats and attributes are either useless, or the game doesn't accurately explain what they do. One stat, "Cold," apparently influences your ending, but there's no way to keep track of it in-game — even though specific mechanics rely on having a certain amount of Cold.
- The game crashes at least a couple of times per play session.
- The AI is terrible.
- Things just glitch out and go out of wack. Characters will disappear, quest markers will be off, things will get stuck, your companions will forget how to move, things will float into the air, you'll suddenly fall through the map.
- The frame rate can be arse at times.
- You can't even look at your map without experiencing some lag. Setting a way point — an act that usually takes seconds — sometimes requires minutes of effort.
- The game is horribly balanced.
- Oh, and you'll die a whole lot.
I'm probably forgetting half the things wrong with this game. Playing it is awful sometimes. But when it works, boy, does Elex hook its claws into me. I'm 33 hours in, and I've been playing it obsessively while games like Mario Odyssey and The Evil Within 2 lie in wait. There's still so much I haven't seen in Elex, a million quests I've yet to do, a thousand deaths I've yet to suffer. I haven't even joined a faction yet. I haven't even done a single main story mission yet. Somehow, I'm having the best and worst time with Elex all at once.