Release Date: October 17, 2017
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Platform: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PS4
ELEX represents a dream idea of how a game should be in the eyes of a publisher. Take the deep lore of an RPG, mix in the combat of a brawler and a third person shooter, add some open-world quest hunting, story-driven choices that effect how people behave to you, and drop them into a blender with a world that's part post-apocalyptic, part medieval, and part sci-fi, hit "puree," and see what happens. While this turns out like a modern day, highly polished version of you mashing up a storyline involving G.I. Joe, Transformers, Barbie, and the Real Ghostbusters, it ends up the same. Pieces don't 100% mesh due to the need to give care to each and every part. I love the concept behind ELEX, but I think that it may lend itself better to other mediums.
In the world of the game, Magalan, a huge, alien meteor came crashing out of the sky one day, decimating the population and splintering it's remaining inhabitants. The comet is full of a strange material, Elex, that spreads across the world. Soon it is found that the material has miraculous capabilities. The inhabitants of the world figure out how to harness the power. Berserkers find Elex can give them magical powers, Clerics use it to fuel technology, Outlaws find it has druglike enhancing capabilities. There are some who become addicted to it. Those who can't control it mutate into monsters, while the masters of Elex call themselves the Alb and attempt to control it, and the rest of the world, at all costs. You start out the game as an Alb, but your failure of a mission leads to betrayal. You are left for dead and soon find the only path to survival is joining one of the warring factions to get revenge on those who betrayed you.
The factions have fallen into their patterns based on their use of Elex. Outlaws are basically post-apocalypse scavengers, Clerics are mecha powered super soldiers, and Berserkers believe nature and magic are the way, which leads them to return to a more Medieval lifestyle. This creates a mishmash world where your choices can lead to you being an old school knight with a jetpack. As you progress, you'll meet each of the factions, and your choices will decide how your character develops. You'll meet people who can help you get better equipment, teach you new skills, and some will even team up with you on your journey, provided that you help them in the process. This storyline feels like an epic place for a summer blockbuster, much like the upcoming Ready Player One is going to mishmash all my favorite 80s nostalgia into a couple hours. It's implementation leaves some rough edges that I feel need honed.
First and foremost, this game is a slow burn. In order to become a powerhouse, you must work your way up. You want revenge on the guy who wronged you? You gotta find your stolen armor and weaponry first. There's a guy who can help you, but he's keen on you coming to his clan to get support. In order for the clan to support you, you have to get on the good side of the clan leader. That clan leader will let you be one of his warriors, but you have to prove yourself first by helping others. Who needs help? The farmers. I know that the game needs content, but it's crazy how interconnected everything needs to be. There are times you find yourself working on a job for Clan A when a side comment turns out to help Clan B's storyline. Given the depth of the web woven here, it is addictive to see what comes next and which thread will eventually unravel the big story, but it can be tedious getting there.
Another part of the tedium comes in the difficulty spikes. ELEX is truly an open world game, where the only thing standing in your way is a bunch of difficulty spikes. If you run into creatures you can't beat, you shouldn't be there yet. Problem for me is I ran into those kind of creatures in the tutorial section. At one point I had no choice but to go forward into a corridor with an enemy that would one-shot you with the starter "rusty pipe" weapon, and had to coax my AI assistant into the hall to kill it. Enemies can sneak up on you, and that back shot insta-death is never fun. Doesn't help that the loading screens are long too. I've been playing the game for hours, and still have barely leveled, with characters that can teach me things held back by in-game inventory pay walls.
You can see a lot of care was put into the environment. The world is lush and beautiful. It feels like it came at the expense of other things. In the opening movie (which I reloaded to ensure it wasn't an error) there were profound amounts of framerate drops and odd animations, like a huge explosion behind our hero that he kind of hops out of the way of. Your character might put his hand out as he brushes by a door or wall, but falling down a cliff he stays in a full upright position and doesn't react at all until the UGH at the bottom. Yes, he has a jetpack, but that animation is just putting his hands out to the side a bit. While other characters in conversations might cross their arms or tip side to side, our hero remains in the "buff gym addict" pose during all conversations (which must be held in static stances approximately three feet apart, with full voice acting, some of which sounds like your cubicle neighbor before he gets his coffee, no questions). And as wonderful as the idea of full voice acting is, ELEX had me pining for an old "Will you get berries for my daughter, I'll pay you" quest. When you walk up to someone, there seems to be a five-branch conversation just to get to the quest blipping up as a possibility on your list. A couple times I sat down to actually play the game and ended up in twenty minutes of sitting and listening to unskippable conversations to get an activity to do in the first place. Some design choices were odd, as I came across a man who very pointedly kept saying that he lost his bow, that his mentor wouldn't give him a new bow, how he couldn't do anything until he got his old bow back or learned to make a new bow....and he had a bow strapped to his back. You have to think of a lot of quests as "things to eventually do" rather than "right now." I had an early quest tell me to talk to five people. They were all at opposite ends of the map. Went to one, jetpacked down to a ravine, and got stuck there in the midst of higher level enemies.
For a game that boasts choice and variety, it feels as if you are empowered to play it one way. Your first meeting is with a Berserker, who takes you to his town. Before I knew it, I was sent to toil on the aforementioned farms. If there's that big of choices to be made, I'd like to see a way to enter any clan closer to the start of the game. This is the kind of game that doesn't lend kindly to traditional review windows, though. There appears to be a lot of options and a ton of hours of fun to be had for people who find their groove. Personally, I'm in love with the story ideas and I'd love to see them fleshed out further. I feel the story lends itself more to books or a TV series if this is how they wish to present it. I'm really hoping that once you pound past the experience difficulty wall things become more entertaining, but with difficult enemies preventing you from going into certain areas, I already feel like I'm gonna see plenty of one-hit kills.
The developers gave me tips, and I did my best to follow them. They told me to keep an ally to help me: my guy won't help me until I complete a quest for him. Earn weapons, but you need to use the weak ones to start. They actively tell you to run from enemies you can't beat (though their senses make them chase you a long time) and have patience that experience takes time, but it's starting to remind me of when you want a good steak but can't get the coal to light. Eventually you are debating whether to keep trying to fire up the grill, or whether you should just go slap 'em on the Foreman and call it good.
Elex is an amazing premise I would like to see taken further. The difficulty spikes randomly but overall is very tough, even on a normal difficulty. Dying leads to a long load screen, and I recommend actively saving often. The map is unwieldy, and the task list slowly but surely bloats as time goes on. Fans of open worlds with plenty to do and collect will have a heyday, but you're going to have to pack some patience to get past the low levels and armor hunting necessary in the first of the game. I'm hoping the game becomes a bit more freeing as my options open up and I have access to greater firepower, but the early level quest grind and lengthy voice acting calls for a lot of set-up to get into the world. It's up to you to see if that steak looks good enough to cook properly, or just go out to eat.
-I'm in love with the world and the base story. The lore is wonderful
-Swords, sorcery, and jetpacks
-Voice acting is everywhere
-Voice acting is either 20 minute conversations standing still or someone saying "I DON'T HAVE TIME TO TALK RIGHT NOW"
-Brutal, demanding enemies, a difficult combo system, and excessive reload times make for a lot of insta-death frustrations
-It will take you a while to get to the "good part," just up to you on whether you have the patience
Special thanks to Pirhanabytes and THQ Nordic for providing a code for review.