Elex is polarising. I could write two opposite, valid reviews with plenty of supporting evidence. The designers have a specific vision of what makes an open world RPG good. If you agree with their philosophy this game is a classic gem easily in the same discussion as Witcher 3. If you disagree then this could be one of the most frustrating gaming experiences of the year.
Should You Buy Elex?
Yes. And if you don’t like it consider changing how you approach the game and try again harder and for longer. I’m not trying to be pushy, I just think it’s worth it.
There are many games we lump under the umbrella of RPG. The definition has drifted to mean “something with character progression” but progression is a by-product of the true goal: role playing. Elex is a wonderful role playing game and sacrifices many conveniences to achieve that purpose.
You’re a high-tech commander named Jax. En-route to a mission your plane is shot down and your former colleagues attempt to execute you for the failure. You survive and wake up stripped of all equipment and connections to your previous life. Cliche but adequate.
Once you awake there are no restrictions. This is a very open world with no level-scaling or gateways barring progress. You are a very weak human who has lost access to his tech-powers. If this was a fantasy world that would be fine – you could kill kobolds and rats until you got stronger. In this world you are by far the weakest creature and remain that way for quite a while.
There is no hand holding. I don’t just mean the game is hard. I mean they don’t help you at all. The interface is obtuse, quests are vague, the mechanics are unintuitive and never explained. The combat is difficult and unforgiving. Weapons are scarce. Everything will kill you in one or two hits. The currency is also used like XP. NPC’s don’t have glowing balls above their head to show you who has quests to give. Even the minimap is a blank grey slate with no detail what so ever.
Some of these faults are due to the massive nature of the game, its ambition dwarfing the tiny 27-person development team. Other faults are not faults at all but very specific design decisions made in the service of suspension of disbelief and forcing you to really inhabit the world. Instead of going on for thousands of words on a point by point explanation I’m just going to pick one polarizing decision because I think it’s a good microcosm for the rest of this game’s philosophy: the blank grey minimap.
Blank Grey Map
It’s easy to make fun of the game’s minimap and some reviewers have specifically done so as if it the designers of a massive, beautiful RPG lacked the programming skill to implement one “correctly”. After all, it’s just a grey circle with tiny colored dots denoting yourself and creatures around you. No walls or terrain or anything even mildly useful for navigation.
But think back to the last time you played one of these games with a great mini-map. Did you spend more time staring at the tiny map or absorbed in the gorgeous full screen graphics? After 60-hours of GTA I probably still couldn’t orient myself around the city visually because every second of driving was spent staring at that tiny, perfect map.
Of course life would be easier if the map was better. But it does the job of giving you situational awareness from foes and makes it easy to run the last few steps to a target. It forcefully made me enjoy the game more because it knows I am a weak willed gamer who will seek out data over engrossment if given a choice. Being an adult I usually hate this kind of force feeding but here these decisions worked as long as you value role playing over gaming.
I am Jax and Jax is me
I’m not going to blather on and on about the good parts of the game either. What is important is that I am inhabiting my digital body more fully than I have in a game in a very long time. I play RPG’s to see how I would fare in an imaginary world and especially under alternate morality systems. This game let’s me do that fantastically by giving options both in dialogue and mission solutions. Then it reacts in a realistic and appropriate way. My mistakes feel like my mistakes, not the game pulling “gotcha” twists out of its ass.
And I care or at least believe almost everyone I meet is a real entity. I very quickly stopped making any stat decisions and played how I thought I would act in that world and situation. I love when I get to do that and Elex rarely took me out of that zone. This results in many sub-optimum gaming decisions as I piss off people, cover for others and generally make a murky mess of the conflicting factions and loyalties around me. It’s great.
You can do this to such an extent that I ruined my chance of joining the starting faction. I’m a decent guy and they’re also decent guys if a bit too rigid. Over many hours and interactions my rebellious nature just made us not see eye to eye despite going through a lot together and believing they are the noblest faction and best for the wounded world.
That’s what would happen in real life and it makes my relationship with the faction complex, nuanced and real. I love some of the members, hate others, understand their goals but don’t want to involve myself too much. There’s a grudging respect and enough good will to trade and train and occasionally lend a hand against obviously nefarious enemies. I don’t want any harm to come to their community but I’m not part of it. If they get out of line I would not hesitate to support an enemy. In fact once I did in one of the game’s strongest emotional gut-punches that took over 20 hours to fully play out.
Just Roll With It
Despite the game’s many many annoying faults I suspect your greatest frustration will be your own doing – when you refuse to deal with the world in front of you and try to play the game like a game.
I had a severe XP drought somewhere around level 6. I had done all the easy, nearby missions I could find. The next batch of quests required travel across a countryside full of monsters I had no chance of beating. Even if I ran by them all, my destination was sure to have defenses which I also couldn’t beat.
Instead of slowing down, talking to more people and finding out more about the world (which would have opened up another dozen quests) I got stubborn after 10 hours of gaming. I wanted to be bad-ass enough to just do the mission closest to me in an efficient modern RPG sort of way. But the giant raptor thing sitting on top of my objective killed me over and over (say and over 35 more times).
It was two teeth clenchingly frustrating hours until I beat it. And there was no satisfaction when I won because I had to use every cheap trick in the book to do it. Copious save-scumming, using my companion as a constant meat shield, kiting other foes into the raptor, trying to get it caught on geometry (rarely works in this game).
There was no reason to experience this frustration. It was just some sort of stubborn gamer pride. The quest was not key to further progress, it did not promise a game changing reward. It was just a quest and a big raptor made its nest near my goal. Nothing forced me to take it on in a t-shirt and rusty axe and I shouldn’t have. When I act naturally the game shines and when I try to force it to be a game it frustrates. The designers don’t want you to treat it that way.
You will eventually become the ass-kicking destroyer of other RPG worlds but never so much so that you can treat giant raptor bites to the face as a mere nuisance.
No, I Really Am Jax
One final point about the awesome role-playing; it would be myopic of me not to acknowledge that part of the reason I can inhabit Jax so well is that it IS actually my body. There’s no appearance customization and you can only be male. Your dialogue options tend to be of the cynical weary world traveler type.
When I can customize in games Jax is pretty much what I end up with. If you notice the many caricatures of myself throughout this website you can easily see why. If you play these games to inhabit a different role or if you’re any of the real life human variations this game ignores your mileage will vary.
The website hasn’t been updated as much as usual and that’s Elex’s fault. When I started this site I was determined not to let the games intrude on work time. Elex is the first time I failed. Even though I finished the review and had other things to do I just kept playing. Everything about the game got better as it progressed. I completed every mission I could and if there was another 60 hours of content I’d be playing it now. Loved the ending, hope there’s a sequel, great game, totally worth the harsh learning & difficulty curve.