Posted on 14 Dec 2017 by L Coulsen


The Defence

Developer: Piranha Bytes
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Genre: Action, Adventure, Role Playing
Platform: Consoles, PC
Review copy: Yes
Release date: 17 Oct 2017

The Prosecution

OS: Windows
CPU: Intel Core i5 3.4 GHz
AMD FX 3.9 GHz
VGA: Nvidia GeForce 660
AMD Radeon HD 7850
HDD: 35 GB
DirectX: 11
Controller: Full
Mod Support: No
VR: No
FOV Slider: Yes
FPS Lock: 120+
OS: Windows
CPU: Intel Core i7 3.6 GHz
AMD FX 4.0 GHz
VGA: Nvidia GeForce 1060
AMD Radeon RX 480
RAM: 16 GB
HDD: 35 GB
DirectX: 11
Controller: Full
Mod Support: No
VR: No
FOV Slider: Yes
FPS Lock: 120+

The Case

Piranha Bytes have been doing the rounds for a while now, never quite hitting the big time, but building up a solid following with their rather unbalanced approach to open-world RPG goodness. I absolutely guarantee, if the studio name doesn’t ring any bells, Gothic and/or Risen certainly will. Yeah, it’s those guys, and yep, ELEX is just as bizarrely balanced. So let’s give it a look.

The Trial

For those unfamiliar with the Piranha Bytes way of doing things, let’s get it out in the open straight away. Their approach to “balance” is to have absolutely everything murder you until you hit about level 15-18. Difficulty setting makes almost zero difference (more on that in a moment) it’s just the way they like to do things. And though there is some degree of monster scaling, tougher enemies show up as the game progresses, by the time you hit level 20 or so, pretty much everything is a paper bag that dies from coming within orbit of your presence. Not sure why they do that, it’s frustrating as hell early on, but it’s oddly compelling.

The premise of ELEX is that you live on a world called Magalan (that’s totally not just Earth with a different name!) in the aftermath of a global catastrophe. At some uncertain time in the past, presumably several centuries, a meteorite crashed into the ground and released a new element into the atmosphere. The titular elex. Over time, the survivors, now thrown back to prehistoric era feudalism, learned how to harness the elex to do various things, like powering advanced technological weapons and badass magic. This, of course, lead to the populace splitting into several factions, three of which are joinable.

The fourth faction, the Albs, who pop elex the way a hyperactive three year old eats chocolate, live far in the north, in a frozen wasteland. The constant infusion of elex has turned their skin white and made them into cold, emotionless killing machines. Now ruled by someone/thing called “The Hybrid” who wants to nom all of the elex in the entire world. And it is from this faction, that main character Jax hails, though not for very long. The game opens with his flyer being shot down, and his own brother executing him for failing his mission.

I'm suddenly reminded of tree frogs...

The execution, clearly, fails, as Jax falls off a cliff and wakes up some days later, no more elex in his entire system and all of his equipment gone. Cue an epic journey which, spoiler, never results in actually getting your stuff back, but will earn you a whole load of other stuff that’s just as good. See, this is why the idea of being weak as shit doesn’t feel so bad, this time. It actually fits, quite nicely, with the greater narrative. Jax was a major badass as an Alb, dosed up on elex and endowed with superior technology. But after laying at the bottom of a cliff with a bullet in his brain for a while, he’s not exactly on top form anymore. It’s inevitable that it’s going to take him a while to get his strength back.

Thankfully, you’ll meet a few chappies along the way that will help you out and, more importantly, act as a meat shield until you’re high enough level to stand up to anything stronger than a stiff breeze. Just let them grab all the aggro and kill everything for you. Also, don’t worry, there are shed loads of quests you can do which are entirely talking based. You can also just run past things fairly effectively, though a lot of enemies do have a massive damage lunge attack which can be a real pain in the arse when they come flying out of a bush before you had any clue they were even there. Anyhoo!

You can only be a member of one faction per playthrough, no swapping and changing, and armour is tied to the faction you join. A huge disappointment considering how open the game is in pretty much everything else, but the only real downside of picking a side is that you can only get their high level equipment. You’ll have some different dialogue choices, but you won’t immediately be hated by the Berserkers if you join the Clerics, for example. The largest difference is that you’ll have more quests from your chosen faction as you progress through the ranks.

Vikings of course. I mean, duh!

The faction you choose, of course, also affects the skills you will have access to. The Berserkers, literally vikings, eschew all technology and focus on magic. The Clerics worship a “God” called Calaan (who you can actually learn the origin off via side quests and lore pick-ups) and use technology similar to the Albs. The Outlaws are motivated solely by profit and dose themselves up on stims. Each has their own advantages and disadvantages, the Berserkers are the only ones who get a heal spell for example, though Clerics do get a revive at half health skill. My advice? Just pick the one you think has the coolest looking armour and/or best skill tree.

It’s clear that Piranha Bytes vastly favour the Bersekrers. The first person you meet is one of them, the first town you go to is their home of Goliet, Jax is even shown wearing Berserker armour on the game’s cover. Also, minor spoiler, it’s revealed that he was originally born a Berserker and abducted as a child. Hell, even making it to Cleric or Outlaw territory is a grind until you’ve hit a level roughly equal to your second faction promotion. That’s not to say you can’t get their, see my previous comment about running like a little bitch. It’s just not something you do without making an earnest, concerted effort in early game.

There are, however, little tricks you can make use of to even the score somewhat. Ranged weapons aren’t the most immediately viable options, but once you get to grips with your jetpack, things change very quickly. Though it has limited thrust, which actually starts to recharge before hitting the floor for once, it can be used to get you up onto a ledge where creatures can’t munch your face. Almost everything has a ranged attack, so you aren’t suddenly unkillable, but it does make it a lot easier to step in and out of cover to get off a few potshots. Also, of course, you can use your jetpack to explore vertically, in ways that most open world RPGs don’t support, whilst ELEX practically demands it. It’s a very welcome change I must say.

ELEX is not what you might call a great looking game, textures are about par for the course and the character animations are bit, well, animated. But the sheer scale of the world you inhabit, with a view distance that is genuinely staggering, not to mention the huge variety of environments to explore, make it a game that is still very pleasing to look at. Some of the armours you can get along the way look frikkin’ amazing. My personal favourite being the second Berserker armour, which is a glossy black and has a crow’s head in the middle of the sternum.

Good, gooood. Soon all will know my glory.

Sound design is an equally mixed bag. On a technical level, it’s extremely strong, with great incidental sounds and sound effects, though the sound balance could do with being tweaked. Music is especially overpowering in places. Whilst the performances from the various voice actors are generally nothing more than decent. None of them particularly stand out, whether that be for better or worse. Personally, I actually very much like it, it makes everyone seem more like a real person, rather than a character. But if you prefer the more bombastic, “acting” style of acting, it probably won’t leave much of an impression on you.

Having said all of that, there aren’t really any significant problems with the game. There’s actually a lot to like, even the very bizarre difficulty only adds to the charm. Speaking of which, right at the beginning I hinted at there being something special about it, and there most certainly is. See, not only does the game have various difficulty settings, it also has a separate option specifically for combat. The two doing very different things. The former, as you would expect, dictates how much damage you and enemies can take, but the latter allows you to also tweak hostility and frequency of attacks. It’s an interesting way of doing things that really helps offset some of the frustration. If monsters are wailing on you, turn down their attack rate and you’ll have a whole lot of breathing room.

Honestly, the largest complaint to be made is in the control scheme. Whilst keyboard controls are rebindable, for some bizarre reason, the typical WASD is hard bound to menu navigation, which means you are stuck using them for character movement, or they’ll do bugger all. It’s such an odd design choice, especially for someone like me, who likes to move all of my movement controls one key to the right. But considering the way the game works, it’s a lot better played with a controller anyway, which is what I ended up doing.

Say that again. Say that a-gain. Say Fluttershy is not best Pony one more time!

As well as what seems like every other game in the universe these days, there’s a morality system, which despite working on a sliding scale, actually works in an organic, believable way. Though it works on a numerical basis, in your character screen you will only ever see a loose description. It’s called Cold, which ties in with the idea of you being cold and emotionless. As you become more emotional, your Cold decreases. Affected by certain actions you take, it’s not as straight forward as being nice will raise the score. Even a negative emotion, like anger, will decrease your Cold.

This is worth bearing in mind, because the game does a bit of a bait and switch with you at the end. Like many games, there are multiple endings which are tied into your Cold score. But whereas most games would have the best ending be decided by having a score above x value, ELEX’s approach is that a very low Cold value makes you extremely emotional, so you just straight up murder the final boss whilst a very high makes you a willing puppet. There’s an incentive to actually sit in the middle, get to grips with your emotions, rather than giving into or denying them completely.

Piranha Bytes have littered the game with lots of meta commentary moments like this. Some woven into the main story, which is heavily focused around the idea of balance in all things. Emotion isn’t inherently bad, but should be kept in check. Technology, also, isn’t inherently bad, but should be better regulated so that the planet, and thus the people on it, can heal and recover from the mistakes of the past.


So THAT'S what dead bitches look like.

But there’s a lot more subtext hidden away in text and audio logs, as well as some of the side quests you might easily miss. And this, ladies and gentlemen, this is how audio/text logs should work. They don’t tell the story, far from it, but boy oh boy do they enhance it! There is so much subtle lore and world building everywhere you look. A great example is right at the very beginning, immediately after you wake up from the failed execution. Jumping over a wall, you find an abandoned station of some kind, which you pass through to continue the game. But if you turn left, follow the path and climb another wall, there’s your first piece of equipment, sitting on a barrel, guarded by an enemy that will kick your arse.

It gives a small boost to your armour and +1 to your lock-picking skill, the Adventurer’s Amulet. You could easily just look at it as nothing more than a small, early game, bonus for looking around. But the name, what it does and the specific placement of it can get you thinking. Why there, right next to a health potion? Did this unnamed adventurer stop for a bit of refreshment, maybe take his amulet off to give it a quick clean, and end up being chased away by the nearby creature before picking it back up? It was clearly placed there with specific purpose.

There are multitudinous instances of this kind of environmental storytelling throughout the world of ELEX. Like the house whose upper floor has two tables pushed together into a T shape, surrounded by chairs filled with corpses, with poetry scattered all around the room. Or the house full of corpses that’s also infested by giant rats, with half a dozen graves outside, each of which has a unique name attached to it. Things have happened in this world, it has a real sense of history. A history that feels eerily familiar. The buildings and broken down car wrecks are all contemporary to our world. Only the fact people keeping referring to the world as Magalan really sets it apart. And it gets you thinking.

The Verdict

Essentially, the best description one can give for ELEX is a rough diamond. It’s sheer brilliance in that way only janky, almost-but-not-quite completely broken RPGs can be. Its few flaws are easily overlooked in light it its great strengths. Offering 60+ hours of gameplay and actual reasons for replaying to experience new sections you missed last time. Best of all, those hidden, supposedly plot specific, events and characters are right there for you to explore even before you’re supposed to know they exist. So you can go and open up entire sections of plot before the story has progressed that far. Just remember, you’ll want to level up a tad before you do most of them.

Case Review

  • Exploration: The entire world is right there for you, from the very beginning, closed off only by monsters that will eat your face.

  • Flight: Having a jetpack, limited though its thrust may be, really opens the world up in a way most games of this kind lack.

  • World Building: Everything has a place and a purpose, positioned with deliberation.

  • Keybindings: WASD being hard bound is a bit of an irritation, but not really a gamebreaker.

  • Voice Acting: Never really anything more than competent, it simply is what it is.

  • Difficulty: You will die. A lot. In one hit, but it fits the narrative and gives a real sense of accomplishment once you hit higher levels.

4 Score: 4/5
Rough edges do little to hide the gem underneath.


  • Settings: A lot to play with, including all the usual graphical options coupled with some quite nifty difficulty options. You have a lot of freedom to tweak both the look and the way the game plays to exactly how you want it.
  • Audio: Having all of the various audio tracks handled independently is a good call, because the sound balance is a bit wonky in places. But you can easily reduce the music so it doesn't drown out dialogue and what have you.
  • Controls: Almost fully customisable, apart from WASD being hard bound to menu navigation. Controllers lack these options, but honestly don't need them as they work better than a mouse and keyboard anyway.


3.5 Score: 3.5/5

Right out of the gate Elex suffers from the same issue that most Piranha Bytes games do: balance. The starting seven or eight hours, or possibly more depending on your pace and how much trouble you have surviving, are an absolute slog through unforgiving difficulty with monsters that will one- or two-shot you in every battle. Don’t think you can use easy mode to escape either, it’s just as difficult there but the enemies take less hits to die. The game tends to even out in the mid-game with better balance through the central hours and turns into a power trip later, though you won’t be an invincible god of destruction like you would be in a Gothic game. Lessons were obviously learned from working on the Risen series but there’s quite a bit left for Piranha Bytes to smooth out yet.

Other than the unforgiving difficulty, Elex is a remarkably good game apart from some minor issues. It’s a little clunky and animations can be stiff, learning skills for the first time is practically an arcane ritual, and your companions either utterly devastate opponents or stand around looking daft – it’s a complete gamble as to whether they’ll step in to help or watch you get mauled to death by something they could have shot to death before it got in arms reach. That said, your companions and the factions you can work for are full of personality and it’s a lot of fun to learn about them and talk with the majority of the NPCs in the game. I personally liked the nature loving Berserkers, masters of magic, stabbing things, and dressing like a fanfic of the Night’s Watch from Game of Thrones. The technology worshipping Clerics provide an option for those who want to shoot things and dress like they’re Mass Effect LARPing in the woods. While the Outlaws love anarchy and getting high/drunk off of whatever they can find or brew, they also dress like Borderlands rejects. The final faction, the Albs, are a militaristic bunch who ingest the titular Elex to become powerful but emotionless, if it isn’t obvious they’re the bad guys of the story just from reading that then we can’t help you.

Elex‘s strength really comes from its world. The factions are complex and NPCs all have unique personalities and are well acted for the most part. There’s a great sense of accomplishment from rising through the ranks of a faction because it’s genuinely hard and takes some dedication to do. The unfortunate balance issues make things more difficult than they need to be and that somewhat ruins the pacing of the story and some of the side-quests but by and large you’ll be pushing forwards and learning that you don’t have to stab everything in the face to win, talking is a valid option to most quests and stealth is also a minor possibility. As a whole package, Elex is a very enjoyable RPG that can rival the greats on the strength of its world design but suffers a little from lack of polish. Look past the rough edges and you’ve got a proper gem.

3.5 Score: 3.5/5

I love Elex. And I hate that I love it. Because I shouldn’t love it. It’s such a fundamentally flawed game in so many ways, with the developer behind refusing to fix issues that have been plaguing every last one of developer Piranha Bytes’ games since they first released Gothic back at the beginning of this millennium. But I do love it. And it’s one of those games, similar to the likes of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Two Worlds 2, where some of us forgive so many of the inherent flaws because there’s that one sweet aspect of the game that scratches an itch no other game can. And with Elex, that itch is the world. There is just so much to see and so much to loot! And for a game that’s all about its world exploration, what a genius move it was to put the jetpack in there! The possibilities for exploring otherwise out-of-reach places is cranked up to 11. The allure of potentially finding something powerful or valuable around the corner is always there, and unlike most loot grinders of today – Shadow of War and Destiny 2 I am looking at you – Piranha Bytes aren’t afraid of rewarding your efforts and creative use of the jetpack. It feels genuinely good to explore the lands of Magalan, and nothing can take that away from the game. And though the voice acting and facial animations do cause a terminal and chronic case of cringe, the characters you meet are colorful and have depth to them. Seldom is a character just all good or all bad. Most quests, even the smallest ones, can be solved in multiple ways and you can almost always choose who lives and who dies. If choice/consequence gameplay is for you, Elex might be for you.

That is, if you can get around all the issues. Because you cannot just lie to yourself and ignore the failings of the game. Or at least, I cannot do that if I want to present an honest review. And the combat is the biggest sinner of all. Elex seems to try and do Dark Souls with its combat but fails miserably. Enemy attacks are rarely telegraphed and often seem to just happen without any charge-up. And if you get hit once, you’re usually dead. Enemies’ perfect aim with ranged weapons is absolutely infuriating, and makes running away from combat more tedious than it should have to be. Especially considering how running away seems to be what the developers want you to do for the first ten hours of the game. I like that you’re weak in the beginning. The sense of mastery is all that much more satisfying once you become more powerful. But even when you are all levelled up, you don’t really ever feel any more powerful or skilled with a weapon. You don’t really unlock any meaningful new moves or ways to deal with enemies. Your weapons still do laughably little damage, making fights a grind. And when even the most basic enemy can deal tremendous damage to you in just a couple of hits, it just becomes a recipe for disaster.

In the end, Elex isn’t a bad game. Well it sort of is. But I can forgive it for a lot of it. Looking at the Steam reviews, so can apparently a lot of other people. I hope the developer take to heart the criticism given to Elex. Keep the focus on exploration, fix the combat, and upgrade your tech for goodness sake. It’s not 2001 anymore, I refuse to forgive you for these garbage animations and the woeful voice acting. Go for gold with its inevitable sequel! Because  you do have something here. what Elex does well, it does reeeaaaally well. But the issues do hold it back, there’s no denying that.

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