How can you not love a good story about redemption? A villain brought to their knees, and in discovering the error of their ways, they walk a new path – presumably one for the benefit of all. I’ve always been a sucker for such tales. If you’re familiar with ancient Greek mythology, the legend of Herakles (Hercules) is one of the best. Through no fault of his own, Herakles murders his own family and thus commits a seemingly unforgivable act. However, he ultimately finds forgiveness through completing twelve difficult tasks for the Mycenaean king, Eurystheus.
In many ways, Elex echoes this powerful myth. At the start of the game, Elex’s protagonist, Jax is a feared commander and a model soldier. However, he (and many like him) is robbed of his emotions and free will by a strange inter-galactic substance called Elex. Alongside his brother Kallax, Jax rises through the ranks of the emotionless and almost robotic Albs – the main antagonists in the game. He does their bidding without questioning any of their directives and is presumably involved in several atrocities. The game never shows the extent of Jax’s culpability in the slaying of the non-Albs (The Free People), but given his rank, it’s clear that “Albian Jax” is a ruthless enforcer. His meteoric rise is cut short when he finds himself on the wrong side of a plasma rifle (and is ultimately left for dead).
It turns out that Jax failed an important mission for his faction, and owing to his failure was marked for execution. In a strange twist of fate, his own brother becomes his would-be executioner. It’s this betrayal (and coincidentally breaking free from his addiction to Elex) that forces him to a crossroads. He has no other choice but to go on a journey – to not only regain a sense of self, or to navigate his new emotions but also to discover why his people tried to kill him. Jax’s attempts to find absolution lead him to seek allies among his former enemies, The Free People of Magalan.
There are three very different factions of Free People: the unruly “gun-and-drug obsessed” Outlaws, the “religious-but-technology loving” Clerics and the “stoic naturalists and magic-using” Berserkers. Each group has their own set of beliefs, customs, technology, and backstory. Unfortunately, once you are aligned to a faction, it’s impossible to leave that group or join another. Your faction choice also influences how other characters will interact with you, and what kind of technology (armour and skills) you can access. Crucially, to progress in the game, Jax must join one of the three factions. During the course of the game, you will also find companions willing to lend a hand. From the roguish outlaw Ray to the psychotic Alb separatist, Arx and the potential love interests of either the suicidal Nasty or the Berserker mage, Caja.
I have been a fan of Piranha Bytes’ role-playing games for years, and while they’ve never been able to find the same mainstream appeal as games from other studios or developers, they’ve always tickled my fancy. I enjoyed Elex for what it was – a strange genre chimera with DNA from all sorts of places. It’s not quite a sci-fi role-playing gaming (like Mass Effect), nor is it a post-apocalyptic survival game or even a high fantasy title, but it has its feet firmly planted on the backs of Piranha Bytes’ older titles (from Gothic to Risen). In that sense, it’s almost ridiculously old school – which you could even argue is to its detriment.
The world of Magalan is ripe for exploration and undeniably beautiful. I felt a genuine sense of awe as I made my way from the dense forests of the Berserkers to the dusty desert of the Outlaws, and the volcanic and icy wastelands of the Clerics and Albs. Your exploration of this open world is aided by a jetpack that your character can use to scale even the tallest building or mountain. However, while the game world and characters looked impressive, character animation left much to be desired. I’ll admit, it’s a minor issue, but I couldn’t help but notice how crude and rigid Elex’s animation was. It’s almost as if your character lacked several bog-standard transitional animations. For instance, when Jax runs and comes to a sudden stop, or when he jumps up to a ledge, but he manages to do so completely upright, without even a slight stumble. It just doesn’t look right or natural. On the other hand, when Jax runs next to a wall, his arm will extend in a very natural way, almost as if to guide himself alongside it. It’s strange that in some cases, the developers added these simple human-like gestures but missed them in others.
While I can forgive the crude animation, I would have liked for the story to be less formulaic. There are a couple interesting twists and a few spanners thrown into the works (especially towards the end of the game, which I will definitely not spoil), but in terms of a convincing narrative, Elex is like the little engine that tried…but gave up. It’s a real shame because the game features decent voice acting, interesting characters, and a couple exciting story and character scenarios. There is no question that the developers have crafted an incredible and rich game world, but I would have liked for the main character to have had a more realistic response to his situation.
As an Alb Commander, Jax was virtually free of emotion, but once he escaped his Elex addiction, he should have struggled with “having the floodgates of emotions opened”. It may not have crippled him, but at the very least it should have caused some level of discomfort. You see very little evidence that Jax struggles with his emotions, or that the lack of Elex has affected him in any noticeable way (except for gaining a bit of colour and losing his powers), nor does he seem to have any guilt for what he did as an Alb. Of course, I should add that there is a personality system to manipulate. It’s reminiscent of the alignment system from Bioware’s Mass Effect, where Jax’s response to another character will either register as an increase or decrease of “Cold”. As a means of understanding Jax, it’s a fairly useless system, but in terms of the game, your level of “Cold” can influence the game’s story in tangible and meaningful ways.
But my biggest criticism of Elex lies with the combat and progression system. For much of the game, you will be an underpowered slab of meat, where everything can (and will) kill you. If you are unlucky enough to be attacked by more than one adversary you will most likely die (because of the awkward targeting system, or the brutal stamina-linked combat system that leaves Jax huffing-and-puffing after a few swings of his sword). You will also find weapons that won’t be usable until much later when you’ve unlocked particular character attributes. It’s a strange system that makes the game harder than it should be. It’s only after you unlock powerful faction abilities that Jax starts to hold his own, but in terms of play time, you’re looking at investing at least ten to twelve hours into the game.
After just under 80 hours on two playthroughs, I am still invested in the world of Magalan, and the strange individuals I met through my time in the game. It’s clear from the game’s ending(s) that Piranha Bytes will build on this franchise, and I can’t be more excited about a potential sequel.
Last Updated: November 9, 2017