THQNordic and Piranha Games' ambitious venture into the Action RPG genre has finally been released with ELEX. Check out our official review to see if it lives up the hype received in 2015 or if my wife, with the same namesake, will be kicking down the studio's door with vengeance in her heart.
Promising, but Forgettable Story
Welcome to the planet Magalan, where a once-growing civilization was brought to their knees when a meteor struck the planet, causing massive destruction. In its wake, cities became wastelands and the survivors were left to deal with the new substance the meteor brought with it, ELEX. ELEX has become the primary source of energy, able to power machines and give the people of Magalan magic-like powers. With the public fighting over this powerful resource, people began joining factions, each with their own beliefs on how it should be used. One of those factions are the Albs, a group of people who use ELEX to take away their emotions and make cold, logical decisions. The main character is a former member of this tribe, set to investigate the region.
The plot sounds pretty promising, right? Unfortunately, the idea of it is a lot better than the actual game. That’s because the promising story gets mucked-up with extremely poor execution. The game starts out with the strange choice of having our protagonist being double-crossed by a member of the Albs. It’s strange because, we don’t know these characters, we don’t know why this is a big deal, we don’t even know how the antagonist got there. Why not let the story percolate for a moment? Let us understand what’s going on in the world through the eyes of a cold-blooded Alb and then have him be double-crossed. This way, the audience isn’t left wondering what’s going on. It’s just one of several questionable choices made by Piranha Games and THQNordic.
Another one is how the developers decided to do most of the storytelling. They open with still animation that describes what the world is about and then let the rest of the exposition be told through interactions and loud analysis by the main character. While that’s nothing new in gaming, the questionable decision comes in making these interactions last for roughly 5-10 minutes. The average gamer’s attention span during an interaction is about 2-3 minutes and that’s with characters that are actually interesting and memorable. In contrast, ELEX makes you sit through long-winded conversations, that you can’t skip, with repetitive questions and a main character that is so intense, you can’t help but be turned off by him.
It’s understandable why Piranha decided to give their lead such an abrasive personality. They wanted the audience to see this character, without ELEX, start to experience every possible emotion as he began going through withdrawls. Despite it being an understandable decision, the approach of the character, in general, made for a disappointing experience.
As an avid RPG/story gamer, you want to be able to connect to your lead, because you’re going to be sticking with him for the next several hours. You want to see him grow and actually enjoy the ride. Unfortunately the way they developed his personality, makes you want to turn off the game, rather than continue with his journey.
Third-person Gameplay That Shouldn’t Be Third-person
It’s not all that often that I can play a game that doesn’t feel right in its own skin. With ELEX, I got that opportunity. ELEX is played in the 3rd-person, with the gamer being able to see our main character, as he explores Magalan. However, it never feels quite right. It’s almost as if the developers were going for an MMO-type gameplay experience, but ran into some issues and then switched gears to a low-budget Horizon: Zero Dawn. It becomes obvious in combat situations, when you’re unable to feel the impact of each blow.
What could’ve saved it, though, was if the Piranha team had switched gears to a 1st-person shooter. ELEX has the bones for a decent enough first-person experience. With all the exploration and the various combat situations, the game begs to be played more like Fallout and less like Horizon. Maybe they had the idea that you wouldn’t get the RPG feel in 1st-person, but in all fairness, you can’t get it in 3rd-person, either. At least giving players the opportunity to play in 1st-person would’ve been a lift for, an otherwise, lowly game.
Intriguing World Building
One of the few high points for ELEX is the unique way they crafted the society of Magalan. While the story isn’t good, I did appreciate how Piranha devised the separate factions and their different belief systems. ELEX consists of 4 completely different factions, only 3 of which, you can join. We’ve already discussed the cold-hearted Albs, but the other 3 consist of the Berserkers, Clerics, and Outlaws.
Berserkers believe in a more old-school way of life, away of technology, but have crafted the ELEX resource as a way of imbuing their followers with magic or Mana. Adversely, the Clerics have no problems with technology and using ELEX to power it, but they follow the God Calaan and use his word to forbid the consumption of the substance. Finally, the Outlaws are just as their name indicates. Their only code is survival of the fittest and use ELEX has a form of stimulant or drug.
Each has their own beef with the rival clans, but all agree that they despise the Albs the most. It actually becomes a key part of the story to hide your identity as a former Alb, to get the clans to trust you. Nevertheless, the artful crafting of these different factions made for a somewhat bearable experience, as you navigated the different philosophies of each one, on your way to choosing the one you’d follow.
Graphics Leave Much to be Desired
An initial hook for any game stems from the quality of the graphics. If the graphics start out wonky, without a wow-factor, it becomes tough to continue playing. Unfortunately, ELEX doesn’t make a good first-impression. While playing, you’ll notice that cinematics continue to load mid-sentence, causing the crude-looking environment to form during critical moments. The effect is quite jarring and is so noticeable it takes you out of the experience.
It doesn’t just stop at the environment, either. The facial construction and the dialogue are never in sync. You’re already having to drag yourself through prolonged conversations only to watch as the words they speak never match what the face is motioning.
The graphics are so crude, it’s as if Piranha Games had to meet THQNordic’s deadline before the game was complete. The result is a game that skimps on the graphics, motion capturing, and code needed to make this game something more than the Alpha that it is. It’s the perfect example of making a game with quantity in mind, instead of quality.