ELEX II Review
If you’ve never heard about ELEX, you’re probably not alone.
ELEX II is the sequel to the 2017 vintage open-world role-playing experience from Piranha Bytes, the creators of the Gothic and Risen series. The game features the post-apocalyptic world of Magalan, a setting that showcases massive environments that can be explored via foot or jetpack.
A threat from another world threatens Magalan, and former hero Commander Jax has to gather the champions of the world to combat such a threat. You have all the freedom to choose who to side with and what outcomes you plan for the planet. Throughout your quest, you will interact with different factions and NPCs who will remember your actions and affect their loyalty. Every action will have consequences, immersing you in a world of moral decisions.
With a couple of heavy-hitters taking over everyone’s open-world mental real estate this past few weeks, fitting ELEX II in will seem to be a tough proposition for many.
The Cost of Freedom
ELEX II‘s biggest selling point is its “unprecedented freedom”, which is prevalent throughout the journey. The player is given a lengthy opening cinematic explaining the events of the previous game and sets up what’s to come and once you receive your jet pack within the first few minutes of your quest, you’re free to take on the world. Proceed with the main quest? By all means. Explore? Nothing’s stopping you. The world is your oyster.
Or is it? Progressing through the main quest will prove challenging, as ELEX II employs some old-school RPG flavor, denying the player quality of life improvements like an objective mark or a compass pointing to your next destination but instead giving you a blank map and some ambiguous hints. The old-school part of me basked in this nostalgia for a good five minutes until I realized that for the last decade or so, we’ve been conditioned to follow the more prevalent Ubisoft open-world template. Then suddenly, ELEX II becomes frustrating.
In a weird roundabout way, this exploration style became an option in recent open-world checklist games seen notably in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and more recently, Horizon Forbidden West. It is an extreme exploration mode where you’re not given any beacons or landmarks at all, and while it is an option now, ELEX II has it as its default.
While there are other games that do this in an elegant manner that work to build up the overall feel of the game, ELEX II’s implementation is aged and is a contentious point because of its consequences. During free roam, there are parts where you can potentially kill an ally by accident that could hinder a future quest or gate you from certain quest lines and while there’s a certain appeal to this level of freedom and consequence, you can expect a lot of trial and error along the way.
That said, factions are definitely an important feature of ELEX II that shouldn’t be overlooked. While other RPGs of this type end up putting factions in the backseat, almost every aspect of ELEX II is pre-determined by what faction you join. Whether it is the skills that you want to invest in or the companions you want to bring along, factions are of utmost importance.
Vintage also means ‘Dated’
ELEX II has a myriad of arbitrary mechanics that are labeled as ‘vintage’ but can also be seen as dated and obsolete thanks to the various quality of life options introduced to the genre over the years. This applies to skill progression, character development, and even fast travel.
Character development is dependent on attributes and you have five stats you can improve: Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Cunning. Every time you level up, you have 10 points to distribute and at a certain threshold, the cost of improving an attribute increases. What doesn’t decrease are the prerequisites to equip something or to learn skills, which ends up devolving ELEX II into mindless grinding.
This brings us to skill progression. To learn a skill, you must: have a skill point, have the prerequisite attribute, the right amount of Elexit to pay a skill teacher, and you must actually find the said teacher. Thematically, the mechanic makes sense, but for ELEX II, it’s tedious and downright annoying.
To make matters worse, many of these skills are gated behind factions. If you want to be a mage, you have to learn from the conservative Berserkers and if you want to use energy weapons, maybe you’ll side with the fascist Albs. If you don’t agree with any of them, you’ll most likely have to search for a freelancer teacher which ultimately means that you don’t get to specialize. For a game that talks about freedom, you have a really rigid way of learning skills.
All of this is exacerbated by ELEX II’s rough combat mechanics, which greatly affect a certain aspect of you depending on your preferred style of play. Should you decide to be a melee fighter, you’ll be very vulnerable to flying enemies, which is understandable, but the game doesn’t give you ways to deal with threats. If you want to use magic or ranged weapons, the targeting system is tedious and you will waste ammo at some point, and ammunition is already a scarce resource.
This is quite sad because combat could have been satisfying in ELEX II, were it not for the bugs and glitches that get in the way. One second, you’re facing off against an enemy, and then another second it’s gone. It feels like a bad latency issue in an MMO, but the irony is, ELEX II is a single-player game!
Speaking of resources, you don’t have encumbrance in ELEX II at all, allowing you to carry as many items as you want. Normally, this is very much welcome, but with other small mechanics here, it just feels weird that the game suddenly decides not to put in something like this.
The one feature that actually works in your favor is the jet pack. You could jump off any height and activate it to secure a soft landing and given enough fuel, you’re able to traverse a higher vertical plane giving you access to higher areas. It controls awkwardly at first, but it’s a mechanic that made traversal easier.
We’ve seen this all before
As much as I find tutorials tedious, ELEX II is definitely a game that could’ve used one. The entire game is an ongoing learning process that gets in the way of actual enjoyment. In a narrative aspect, the first part of the game is all about bringing you up to speed from the previous game but the rest of it is attempting to push you to accept its exceedingly generic plot.
Other games such as The Witcher 3 and even more recently Horizon Forbidden West have done competent work not alienating new audiences to their sequels. ELEX II has a bad habit of bringing up the first game that feels like it’s almost required reading. Add some uninspired voice acting, which sounds like they’re simply reading from the script and I’m tempted to just skip to the end and figure out the rest.
Even the choices in the game feel straightforward and lack nuance, leaving us to simply choose what best boosts our player power. In the end, it’s choosing what faction you wish to side with to match the play style you want.
What We Liked:
- Massive world that allows for unlimited exploration options.
- Jetpack allows for variable traversal options.
What We Didn’t Like:
- No map markers making navigation difficult.
- Rough interface and combat.
- Attribute based progression system and arbitrary skill system that makes progress feel like a slow crawl.
- Factions determine your most of your choices, which undermines the “freedom” element of the game.
- Uninspired voice acting and bland story.
Verdict: Ignore It.
ELEX II is a fringe RPG that marches to its own beat but definitely caters to fans of the series and its style of gameplay. It’s the type of game that if you get it, you get it, and if you don’t, it’ll take a lot of effort and energy to force yourself to. It’s very difficult to recommend this game to anyone new to the series who’s used to the mainstream style of open-world games, which will certainly require a huge paradigm shift.
If you’re looking for something radically different, you’ll probably find what you’re looking for in ELEX II. Unfortunately, releasing during this time doesn’t do it any favors, especially when the state of the final build is rather rough. If you have the time, extra cash, and a really open mind, I suggest waiting for a really deep sale before purchasing.
*ELEX II was reviewed on a PS5 with a review code provided by the publisher.