Many people will say that the future is now, but they have no idea how wrong they are. We still don’t have security bots for the streets or prosthetic tentacles in our sheets, and until every household is fitted with a holodeck, we may as well be living in 1859. We’re still trapped in the past, blissfully ignorant of how good we could have it, and games like ELEX aren’t doing much to charge forward. The game feels like it’s stuck in 2006, and while there are some nice elements in there, it’s a deeply unsatisfying experience. That said, there’s no denying that ELEX’s setting is its strongest feature.
ELEX has a surprisingly cool setting that allows for a vast array of technology to co-exist. The game is set on the planet of Magalan, a once idyllic place that was hit by an asteroid and flung into faction warfare. The asteroid contained a mysterious substance called ELEX (pronounced Eelix for some reason), and each faction adopted or rejected the material in different ways. Clerics utilised ELEX to enhance their technology, Bezerkers are Vikings who rejected it in favour of being hippies, and the Albs ingested it to become frikkin’ badasses. You play as an ex-Alb, which might sound impressive until you realise that you can’t go anywhere or do anything.
Despite having such an interesting setting, ELEX fails to let the player take it in. You take on the role of Jax, an ex-Alb who was the target of an assassination attempt. The first person you meet is a friendly Bezerker named Duras who escorts you to Golieth, the Bezerker city. From here, you’re kind of stuck. Quests reward far more XP than running around killing things, so you need to hang around the most tedious part of the setting before you can see anything else. Moreover, levelling takes so long that you’ll wish the assassination had been successful, and you require particular people to learn skills from that aren’t in Golieth. Of course, if you’re thinking of running off to re-join the Albs, you’ll be having a bad time.
To say nothing of the shoddy combat, the placement of enemies is baffling. The first time I walked out of Golieth, I ran into a mutant turkey thing. Wasn’t too hard to murder, so I figured I’d keep heading forward. After a metre, I got one-shotted by a Skex (which is a sort of mutant raptor thing) that I had no chance of defeating. That’s a bit like putting a Deathclaw in the starting area of Fallout, which you can do, but it’s not the best placement of an enemy, is it? The game goes from challenging to unbearable without any warning or logical reason, and the excuse of ‘git gud’ only works when the combat is moderately okay.
There’s a lot of combat in ELEX, and none of it is good. Ranged combat works on a hit-where-you-aim system, so if you’re using a bow, you’ll either hit the enemy or entirely miss despite only aiming one pixel to the left. Close combat resembles a marble statue sculpted by a blind man who decided to lube up the floor and use a bone saw instead of a chisel. Everything feels unresponsive, the movement is unwieldy, dodging is jagged, blocking can help enemies, the terrain is oddly sticky, companion AI is broken, and so much more. It’s a mess of Dark Souls wannabe mechanics that aren’t polished or even executed to the degree they need to be comparable. It’s like Hand of Fate’s combat, but instead of being supplementary, it’s an integral part of the game that’s somehow been executed worse. It’s like eating a box of nails and expecting them to taste like a well-made game from a developer with 15+ years experience. It’s bad. Still, RPG’s aren’t all combat, and that shouldn’t be surprising because ‘role-playing’ is in that acronym.
Part of the fun of an RPG is moulding your character through the choices you make. ELEX alludes to your decisions having an impact on Jax as a character, but there are more immediate consequences too. Depending on dialogue choices, things like “Duras respects you” or “Vork dislikes that” will pop up on screen, but these didn’t seem to crop up outside those conversations. Choosing whether someone lived or died based on my word, however, was a far more satisfying decision to make with immediate consequences. I didn’t notice any significance when ‘Cold’ increased (which happens every time you speak without empathy), but there is room to exert your influence over the game world.
There’s also plenty of room to mechanically shape Jax into whoever you want him to be, assuming the game lets you. Levelling up, while slow, offers tremendous freedom to spec into whatever kind of style you want. If you want to beat down on some spine hounds with an axe, you can do that. If you want to reign death from above with your jetpack and a plasma rifle, you can do that. The problem is that if you’re stuck in Golieth, you can’t go and do anything you want, but the game tries to avoid forcing classes down your throat, at least. It’s a sweet freedom to have, but it’s hindered by a menu system from hell.
To say that the UI isn’t great would be like saying ‘wazzup’ jokes are a touch old. You have a holographic projector implanted into your arm, and while that’s fine as an excuse for a menu, it’s rendered in-game. “Wow, that’s quite spiffing!” you might say, until you try to open it up near a wall, then all you’ll see is a disjointed camera angle and the corner of the screen you’re meant to see. Most of the time, you won’t have any issues on that front, but you will have to deal with the lack of labels on equipment categories or large text in the mission tab. It feels poorly laid out compared to the likes of other modern RPG’s, and it’s frustrating to use, but the worst part is that it’s always blurry. Not a good look, but the game isn’t exactly gorgeous either.
When I said the game was stuck in 2006, I wasn’t messing around. ELEX looks okay a lot of the time, but hardly outstanding. There’s some okay modelling here and there, maybe the occasional little vista to take in, but nothing exceptional. Then there are the times where the game looks like vomit, the HDR lighting takes way too long to kick in, or the facial animator committed seppuku to save themselves the humiliation. Even the UI looks bad, as though an intern had to pop a few icons onto a screen that couldn’t take up your full view. It’s hardly the worst looking game on the market, but it’s not good.
ELEX is a game that has a great idea but awful execution. While there are moments to roleplay, the progression feels incredibly forced, and combat is a wholly unenjoyable experience. You can’t go and be the Jax you want to be without spending far too long with Viking hippies first, which was enough for me to be put off the game. If you like being one-shotted by inappropriately placed enemies or are really, really, really longing for an RPG that channels old-school design, maybe ELEX is for you. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, though, because the future is always on the horizon, and it’s got better games than this.