*This review is long delayed, but nontheless I am grateful to THQ Nordic and Piranha-Bytes studio for a review copy. Once I have time, and after some patching, I hope to provide a full, indepth review in the not too distant future*
Release Date: October 17th, 2017
Rated: M for Mature
Producer: THQ Nordic
Genre: Role Playing Game
Platform: Xbox One, Playstation 4 (played and reviewed), PC
The RPG genre is one I absolutely adore, but one I try avoiding diving into as much as possible. Most games in the genre require a key element I feel I have very little of: time. Every adventure carries with it a meaty story, full of sidequests, exploration, and customization. Cutscenes run on the long side, their goal to provide all exposition possible crammed into a semi-long series of time. Players can get lost in menus for customizing their characters via attributes, weapons, accessories, and outfits. Side quests are always providing mini-story arcs for pursuing that might be time sensitive, or become fetch quests for gathering resources to upgrade weapons. RPGs become time sinks requiring anywhere from 40-100 hours at a minimum, some even requiring multiple playthroughs. For some, games like Dragon Age: Inquisition, and Skyrim, are perfect for players with patience and a willingness to get through everything to enjoy the game. For others, a game reducing the player agency on every facet of gameplay but just enough to keep you glued into a long campaign (i.e. Persona 5) are perfect.
As I’ve gotten older, I have begun noticing that I have a sort of “window” for a game to hook me in. If I end up feeling like a game is not going to keep my glued to my seat, I will try to give it a little longer until giving up on it. If I end up feeling overwhelmed (I’m a sucker for side quests) I end up leaving the game alone for extensive time until I feel like climbing back in. This has happened on several occasions (Xenoblade Chronicles being a fine example of it). Unfortunately, there is also the category of games that I try giving a chance to keep my glued in, but I can no longer get myself to continue playing. More often than not, these games become a game I have to will myself to get back into.
Elex, a game from Piranha-Bytes and THQ Nordic, is a game living in the middle between me wanting to continue playing it, and not feeling compelled to. It’s a game requiring extensive time examining the attributes to weapons and gear for optimizing the main character. Side quests, while not explicitly stating it, are time sensitive, and have major consequences attached to them that play out in the major storyline. The world is alive, open, and expansive, providing players a place ripe for exploring. Areas in this world are diverse and distinct from each other, providing their own unique set of challenges to overcome. The story is ripe with lore and mythos to create a unique world.
Every aspect of the game has the trappings for a solid gaming experience, one I want to desperately recommend. However, after having gotten through 10 hours of gameplay, and finding myself at the crossroad of wanting to continue on or move on from it, I feel like I cannot. ELEX is another example of a trapping of a video game identity crisis; a game wanting to look and appear every bit a Triple A game being hindered by a budget. It’s a game that’s ambitious, to the point where every design aspect suffers.
ELEX, visually speaking, is a hodge-podge of different textures and graphics ranging from the high resolution, tiny details found in triple A games…to the cut and paste land textures of Playstation 2 past. It’s a clash of contrasting elements that do not meld together; instead they work against each other. For example, most characters with armor have tiny details like deep cuts, scratches, or dents that provide character and backstory. The armor is sharp and focused, the resolution dense and detailed. The armor looks like it comes from the Unreal Engine 4. However, upon looking at the face of the character and the surrounding landscape, the details start becoming sparse, creating a character that looks out of place and sync with the look of ELEX. This can also be from an inconsistent lighting source that likes creating shadows where it should not if basing it on the night and day cycle. The lighting can make faces look terrifying or menacing even when a character is meant to be warm and friendly.
The design disparity is seen also in the way characters move in and out of combat. During walking and running sequences, the main character moves naturally: the shoulders bob slightly with each step, the legs bending at the slight angles depending on the speed, the list goes on. However, when jumping off of ledges or buildings, the characters goes into a test dummy position of the arms out on both sides and the legs stiffly together. Combat movement looks awkward in timing, the hits feeling several frames too short through the motions for heavy and light attacking. There are moments where the visuals and audio lose syncing, resulting in the player being pulled from the experience.
However, the biggest offense comes from the sound design mixing. Music can oftentimes swallow up dialogue, making the subtitles necessary for following the story. Voices range in decibel levels: some characters sound quiet while others sound like they are yelling. I can say there have been several instances of having to adjust the volume to not terrify anyone. For me personally, it comes off feeling that the sound mixing was an afterthought and that impedes how the game is experienced.
It’s sad, because behind all its faults ELEX is an ambitious game that has some solid elements for its foundation. If ELEX does anything right, it’s the writing’s strong ability of building a living, breathing world. Once a proud world building towards the future, a comet collides into the planet Magalan, ending life as we know it. Now, those who are surviving are doing what it takes to make it through the day. Humanity is fractured into tribes and their beliefs based off of the newfound, but scarce resource called Elex. There are the Outlaws, an anarchic society all about the individual and doing whatever it takes to gain riches. Then there are the Clerics, a society that lives for technology, much to the point where it’s become a religion. Finally, there are the Beserkers, a group that bans all technology and only relying on the Earth’s resources. Finally there is the Albs, a group known to be ruthless in their quest for taking over the rest of the remaining world. In a story constantly twisting and turning, you are a general from the Albs who was shot down by another Alb general. From there, players have complete agency on how the story plays out.
What makes ELEX’s writing so fascinating is its ability to blend contrasting elements to make a believable world. When the introduction sequence began playing and introducing the different factions, I was left wondering how these elements would come together. Since playing the game, it’s becoming evident that the writers ensured that each aspect of the lore was written with everything else in mind to create a strong narrative structure.
The contrast between the tribes and their beliefs (technology worshipping, anarchy, and natural living) feels like elements that would not be working together in any capacity. Yet, ELEX accomplishes this with confidence. Every tribe is unique in their social customs, beliefs, and perspectives on the post apocalyptic world. The game thrives from these cultures in spite of how out of sync they should feel. Where ELEX begins to fall apart is in the inconsistency of its design.
Piranha-Bytes and THQ Nordic also ambitiously go for an open world RPG setting for ELEX to create various different environments mirroring the tribes’ lifestyles. The environments also come with their own unique set of challenges for players to face, resulting in battles requiring adept quick critical thinking and strategy. There’s a sense of depth to the combat mechanics and how to explore the world, one that tells you that Magalan is not an easy place for living.
Unfortunately, without patching for improving the game, ELEX is a hot mess of ambitious that’s underwhelmed by the design inconsistencies. The world is ambitiously open and wide while sacrificing artistic consistency. Animations feels clunky and out of touch in combat but moves naturally in walking and running. Sound mixing feels imbalanced between prioritization of music and dialogue. ELEX is a game I want to like, and do, but can’t recommend because of the glaring inconsistencies…at least for now. It’s a game to watch out for patching before purchasing.