A Good First Step
After Risen 2 and 3, it was hard to give developer Piranha Bytes the benefit of the doubt. It may seem unfair to give up on a developer entirely after two mediocre games, but Risen 1 was released in 2009, establishing a decade-long dearth of things for fans to be excited about. I didn't go into ELEX with a whole lot of hope and now, having finished it, I can't exactly say it blew me away and re-establishes Piranha Bytes as titans of the crpg. What I can say is that it's [i]extremely[/i] better than Risen 2 and/or 3, and a promising first step towards that return to form.
The premise is interesting, but I find some of the follow-through questionable. The game takes place on a post-apocalyptic Earthlike planet called Magalan. The comet that destroyed Magalan left behind a new element called Elex. Elex can do whatever the writer wants it to, but that's okay. The main takeaway is that the use of Elex split the world up into four different factions that all use it to different ends and represent different genres of apocalyptic fiction. The Mad Max style Outlaws use elex to cook up ability-enhancing drugs, the Warhammer 40K-ish clerics use it to power up their tech, and the, uh, Yor-style Berserkers LARP with swords and shields in the forest and use elex to cast magic. The bad guys, the Albs, are a transhuman, emotionless hivemind that drink elex to fuel their own evolution. And that's the fun of the setting-- taking all this disparate genre fiction and mashing it together. And it works! All of the factions are well realized, with internally consistent politics, externally consistent beefs with the other factions, and sensible rationalizations for the myriad of hypocracies and cognitive dissonance that infect them.
So the worldbuilding is good. Where it starts to fall apart is in the main story. You play as an Alb commander who is betrayed and left for dead and must find his way in the world of the 'free people' having had all of his elex powers drained from his system. Already I feel like that's a bit of a shame; Piranha Bytes games always seem to work best when you're playing as a nobody loser who slowly becomes powerful enough to kill gods. Instead you start as this established character with an established (lack of) personality, which robs the player of some self-determinism. Additionally, because you play as an established character whose arc begins well before the events of the game, key moments are punctuated by expository flashbacks that yank you out of the moment for little gain. Playing as an ex-Alb is also not a particularly good angle to view the world from, as it's less than liberating to be placed into the shoes of an emotionless borg man.
Because of a seemingly poor english translation and the freedom to do some things out of order, the plot and dialogue can just be incomprehensible at times. Characters will reference plot revelations that haven't happened yet, or temporarily forget plot revelations that have happened. Sometimes characters will just say things that make no sense. Luckily, the main plot is of much lesser consequence than the breadth of sidequests and faction content. The writing in those is generally simple and utilitarian enough to be well conveyed and inoffensive.
ELEX is most similar to Gothic 3, and while it is nowhere near as buggy it inherits some of its design flaws. The huge, 'go anywhere' style world map conflicts with the harsh difficulty. You can go any direction you want, but most of them will lead to certain death and it's impossible to discern. The beginning few hours of the game are brutally difficult and limiting, perhaps even more than usual for a Piranha Bytes game. The only faction area you're likely to be able to survive in for the first five hours of playtime is that of the Berserkers, and you are led directly there by a friendly NPC immediately after the tutorial. Since high level armor is only available to members of a faction, it's hard not to feel like the Berserkers are being presented as the 'correct' choice early on, which is a shame. It will take hours upon hours of scrounging for EXP in low level areas before you can survive any quests the Clerics will give you.
Character building is kind of slow and painful. Upon level up you earn attribute points and a learning point. Learning points are taken to NPC trainers to be spent on perks (this should be familiar to anyone who has played a previous Piranha Bytes game). Attributes are things like strength, dexterity, etc. Despite what the tooltips may tell you, attributes do nothing immediate. What they do is gate you from getting perks or using certain weapons. These gates are absurdly high, with even mid-tier weapons requiring a significant buy-in. Once an attributes reaches 30, it takes two points to increase it by 1. Past 60 it requires five for a single point increase! It's not great when you scrounge enough EXP for a level up only to get basically nothing to show for it besides incrementally closer to being able to equip that laser rifle you found six hours ago.
One other stat to track is "coldness." This works sort of like a morality meter, except instead of good and evil it tracks how emotional you are. This ties into your character being an ex-borg and all. It's an interesting concept, but I dislike the way it is used to lock you out of certain dialogue choices. Usually that sort of reactivity is to be commended, but near the end of the main story it's used to decide your own motives for you in an annoying way. You see things like:
> I will kill the leader of the Albs! The world is not safe as long as he lives! [LOCKED / NOT EMOTIONAL ENOUGH]
> I just want to talk to the guy.
> The leader of the Albs is taking the logical course of action. I will assist in his rule. [LOCKED / TOO EMOTIONAL]
I understand the reasoning, but shouldn't that be the sort of thing the player decides rather than his or her character's stats?
World exploration is helped greatly with the inclusion of a jetpack. You get this at the very start of the game and it does wonders for the sort of travel done in open world games. There are no annoying detours that must be made around landmasses, broken terrain, or obstacles. The jetpack in this game is so convenient that I think it should be added to every open world game from now on, including Red Dead Redemption 3. I also want to give props to the game engine, which allows for a completely seamless world even when entering buildings. The only loading screens you'll see are when you start the game up, load a save, or fast travel. Even then, the load times are quick. It really does add to the experience to not have everything be compartmentalized.
The combat is difficult, which is par for the course in PB games, but the challenge doesn't come from an interesting place like in, say, Dark Souls... or Gothic 1 and 2. You rarely succeed based on learning and exploiting enemy patterns; instead it's a matter of attrition. Monsters can lunge at you from long distances, track you easily, react quickly, and trying to interrupt their animations with a well-timed attack only seems to work out 10% of the time. Any weapon or attack with a knockback effect can be utilized to stunlock its target, and enemies with rocket launchers are very keen to exploit this tactic against you.
It's less than ideal, but it has the intended effect. The world of ELEX feels dangerous throughout, and however incremental it may be, progress in character builds is cathartic. And that sort of ecapsulates ELEX as a whole. It does right by the bullet point expectations fans have for RPGs in the Piranha Bytes house style. It has the harsh world full of legitimately threatening monsters. It has a diverse set of factions with well developed ideologies. It has quests with multiple outcomes and a willingness to allow the player to subvert their designed structure. It has a cynical worldview that tests your expectations of right and wrong. It does all those things fairly well. And that's significant, because it's been about ten years since the last time Piranha Bytes has dont those things well. Risen 2 and 3 bungled or compromised on just about every single one of them. The problems with ELEX start to come about with all the stuff in between those bullet points that pulls it together into a cohesive package.
ELEX is a massive improvement over the studio's previous two games, but that's not saying a whole lot. It's a fairly average game after all, or just a tic above. But now I am very interested to see how ELEX 2 turns out. If they fix the remaining problems they might have another great game. Or they might screw it up again, who knows. But I guess I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt again. That's better than nothing.