Western RPGs can often be divided into two main groups: the accessible and the complex. ELEX (which stands for Eclectic, Lavish, Exhilarating, Xenial) falls very much in the latter category, almost sadistically so. Whilst far more advanced graphically than the classic Gothic series by the same developer, Piranha Bytes, ELEX will feel very familiar to longtime players. That familiarity consists of both the clunky combat and the constant threat of death from all sides.
The first dozen hours or so of ELEX will see you unable to take on most enemies in the game you encounter, ensuring that running away will become your default approach. Given the deliberately excessive difficulty of the early stages of the game, it is unfortunate that it also exhibits such a complete lack of clarity. The mission outlines and map markers work in directing you from quest to quest, but so much of the game is hidden in confusing and contradictory menus that it almost becomes necessary to watch a guide on how to get started. If you have the patience to persevere, however, there is a rich and fascinating world to explore.
The setting for ELEX is a wonderful blend of fantasy and science fiction. The post-apocalyptic world allows for huge contrasts between the rural and the technological, with rusted vehicles and ruins of buildings forming the backdrop. In this sense, ELEX reminded me of the beautiful vistas of Horizon Zero Dawn, although it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Guerilla Games’ epic. Exploring the world also brought The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to mind thanks to the jetpack enabling most surfaces and barriers to be traversed. Such comparisons don’t go well, with ELEX lacking the polish of its bigger budget counterparts.
There’s an interesting, if somewhat clichéd story of family betrayal, grand threats and rivalries between factions. In this respect, it will feel familiar to experienced RPG players but, unlike the freedom of Skyrim, for example, here your choices have a far greater significance. Whilst you can undertake basic tasks for all of the competing factions, many quests will become unavailable once you commit to one faction or another. There is a welcome sense of urgency to your decision too, since it’s only once you are a member of a faction that you can buy and equip anything more than basic armour.
Given how lethal the world is, better armour is essential. The three factions – the magic wielding Berserkers, technologically inclined Clerics, and thieving Outlaws – cover the basic trinity of RPG classes, although all allow for a mix of melee, ranged and ability based combat. As a result, your choice will largely be a matter of personal preference. I sided with the Berserkers, as I found the Clerics smug and the Outlaws annoying. Companions from all of the competing factions will be available too, and the interactions with those who don’t share your allegiance provide some of the highlights of the game’s writing.
As mentioned above, there are a vast number of menus to navigate. This complexity is not helped by the fact that stats are provided in numbers throughout, except that all feedback and information on the HUD is shown as bars. This may seem a small complaint, and perhaps it is, but for a game that relies so heavily on incremental character development, I was often left feeling confused as to how effective my levelling up was proving to be. Even the decision as to which level of potion to craft and equip was made more complicated than it needed to be.
Where ELEX comes into its own, though, is through the sense of achievement felt when you finally find yourself able to take on the hordes of mutated creatures that inhabit the game’s various regions. Even late on in the game the combat provides a challenge; you must continue to be wary about facing large groups of all but the most basic of enemies. This is a refreshing change from the usual high level problem of annoying fights against mobs that have no chance of killing you.
Before you can hope to take on any enemy, you have to get the hang of a poorly explained combat system that relies upon linking melee attacks through timing your blows. Towards the end of the game, I had a powerful enough bow that I was able to take out many foes before they got close, and if you take the Cleric route a number of high powered guns are available. These are still able to be used if you follow other routes, but I insisted on role playing my Berserker build by avoiding all tech aside from my jetpack.
The world of ELEX is a mature one; NPCs are pretty keen on swearing and can often be found urinating around the various settlements. The direction taken by many of the companion quests is in keeping with this tone and it is a shame that so many of the other tasks revolve around tired fetch quests. The effective map does take some of the frustration away from these item hunts, but also falls into the common open world problem of making you feel that you are ticking off icons rather than achieving anything more meaningful.
ELEX is the very opposite of the accessible games that have revolutionised the open world RPG in recent years. I enjoyed it as a modern looking take on the Gothic series, but newcomers will have to be prepared to fight against the systems through the beginning of the game. This has resulted in the game quickly gaining a cult following who celebrate its obscurity and lack of accessibility. I don’t agree with this take and would argue that the best aspects of the game would only be improved by a more polished and refined presentation.
Version tested: PC