The developer Piranha Bytes is one that is well known to western RPG fans. Creators of the cult-favorite Gothic series, they’ve built a reputation on complex titles that require players to completely immerse themselves into the world as presented and actually take a role. They have a tendency to repeatedly whack the player in the face in the opening hours, leaving the impression that balancing wasn’t a major focus. I can say that my own personal experience with their titles is marked with brief engagement and then bouncing off in frustration. So, it was with no small amount of hesitancy that I approached their newest title, Elex II. It looked interesting immediately prior to stepping on the proverbial rake, with jetpacks and sci-fi themes mixed in with medieval fantasy, but the expectation for frustration was hanging over my head, ready to drop. In actually playing the game, though, a vast world with interesting conflicts was discovered. Some of the jankiness that the developer allows to slip by is still present, but this title might be Piranha Bytes’ most compelling yet.
When it comes to story, the game does start off on a rough footing. Taking place after the events of the first title, players take on the role of Jax, a generic bald space marine. While living out in the middle of nowhere, he’s ambushed by aliens who are looking to take over his home world of Magalan. Jax is soon bitten and infected with a mysterious illness, only to be saved by a doctor. Upon awakening, the doctor gives a rundown of the situation: more of these things are coming and Jax is the best hope for uniting the planet around the fledgling fort of Bastion. It’s there where the denizens of the world will make their stand and save the world — or so one hopes. Since “world annihilation” isn’t much of a motivating factor, Jax will need to navigate the politics of the rival five factions to build an alliance that can withstand the onslaught. So far, so Mass Effect.
If this description seems vague, that was intentional. It’s easy enough to pick up what’s happening based on context clues, so it’s not a hopeless situation for new players, but the amount of returning characters seem specifically chosen to reward folks who invested in the first title. Even giving away the identity of the doctor who rescues Jax at the beginning of the game feels like a major spoiler. Returning players will get plenty of winks and nods from the writers. New players will have plenty of chances to play the “amnesia” card with NPCs, so there are multiple ways to get caught up.
The Magalan’s factions do fit some general archetypes, but do so in an intriguing fashion. Berserkers, for example, are more of a magic using group, seeming to be the hippies of the game at first blush. Through talking to folks and completing quests, one learns that their inner workings have been in a bit of a rough state, leaving shades of gray. During my play, I ended up choosing to join the sci-fi based Albs. Not that they made a great impression. Arriving to their homestead, the player is welcomed by the execution of an Alb that was guilty of being “inefficient.” That’s a pretty big red flag, right there. Still, the idea of a society based on balancing taking the right amount of “drugs” to suppress emotion to be a contributing member of the group while not losing their own humanity is a concept, a plot thread that I wanted to see through. For a game to get me to step outside my comfort zone and make choices that I ordinarily wouldn’t is an accomplishment and a journey that I’m glad I saw through. With five different factions, each with their own deep stories, lore, and player ability skill trees, there’s plenty of replay value, though players who take up with one faction will still be able to assist with others.
Combat is acceptable but not great. It’s based off of a loose interpretation of the Soulsborne genre. Lock onto an enemy, dodge roll and block, watch the stamina meter, then kill the other fool. Magic and sci-fi powers do come into play, as well. What sets Elex II apart from a From Software game is that it is not intended to be fairly balanced. Early on, players will stumble past enemies that will one-shot kill a player. An early example is a throwaway quest that tasks Jax with going to a Billy Idol concert. The path to the amphitheater seemed straightforward and simple, leading me to believe that this was a simple novelty quest because, hey, they got Billy Idol in the game. I got eaten by a dragon. Fortunately, load times are quick and the autosave is generous, so moments like these aren’t as punishing as they could be. The next attempt saw Jax being more careful. He was a wiser, more careful adventurer. In this case, that means I took the hero another direction to be instead eaten by a raptor. Third time was the charm, though, and Jax made it. Watching a silly, in-engine generated Billy Idol sing about whiskey and pills with the same enthusiasm that a young boy might expound about berries and cream was a silly enough reward. Going back to the same monsters much later in the game and wiping them from the mortal realm was the true pay off, though.
That right there is what Elex II does so well. While the voice acting is passible at best, learning about the world and how it fits together is a fascinating experience. Sometimes, the game is a tad overwritten, saying in a paragraph something that can be covered in a few words, but it all goes somewhere. Finding new traders, equipment, and folks to teach Jax new abilities makes exploration a constant stream of new rewards and things to do. These rewards lead to a stronger Jax with more options for companions which make tougher parts easier. The loop manages to feed into itself well, utilizing tons of moving parts to create a personalized tale with set backs, gains and plenty of beating up the bully that was picking on the player a few hours ago. It’s like a digital Charles Atlas advertisement, but nerdier and much better written.
With the wide open nature of the game, it’s reasonable to expect bugs, and Elex II does meet those expectations. There are bugs, but the weird thing is that they aren’t where a reasonable person might expect them. With the myriad factions and dialogue choices, I was expecting the NPCs to credit or berate the hero for things that he did or didn’t do incorrectly. In practice, that never happened. Nothing occurred out of sequence and everything stayed logically consistent with the choices made. There are games that offer a much, much narrower scope on the concept of player choice that cannot claim this. So, top marks there. The other expectation was graphical glitches. No offense to the developer, but it doesn’t seem that they have access to the biggest budget. Falling through the world or getting stuck on geometry was something that I figured would happen. I’m happy to report that this did not happen during my play. Considering that there are games with multiple delays and much higher budgets that have had me fall through the ground to stare up at the map from below recently, this was a happy surprise. There were issues with scabbards and cloth clipping, but nothing horrendous. It’s not a “next-gen” game, but the more limited budget was placed on the scope of the world, not the looks.
The unhappy surprise was where the major bugs did land. The most egregious was the sound. Throughout play time, there are constant pops and cracks in the background. It’s possible that what is being heard is supposed to sound like falling rocks. In practice, I was worried that my sound bar had broken. Testing it with other games/movies proved that it was the game. The balancing is terrible, as well. Pro-tip: turn the music down to around 60%. Also, try not to mix the jetpack with landing in or jumping out of water. The resulting cacophony is unpleasant, and much louder than is necessary compared to the rest of the volume. The worst came after learning some powers from the Albs and getting into the battle. That sounded like an orchestra of vuvuzelas with a tube television set to a dead channel played through a guitar stack. It was painful, nonsensical and extremely unpleasant, and must be fixed.
The other rather nasty glitch comes in the lighting model. Things tend to have a more washed out look in the early dawn’s light. Truthfully, this is a cool touch as that’s rather realistic. The developers took it too far, though, requiring that the screen is recalibrated to be able to effectively see. When the effect eventually goes away, it’s time to recalibrate again for normal use. While this wasn’t played on the best-of-the-best television, mine is still a mid-range 4K screen that handles everything else well. I feel confident in saying that this wasn’t a situation with user error.
Elex II is a uniquely ambitious game made by a developer that already focuses on ambitious games, and Piranha Bytes almost stuck the landing. As a title that focuses on the role-playing part of RPGs, it’s rather smartly put together. Magalan isn’t a generic world and the plot builds on familiar concepts to something intriguing. There’s plenty of enjoyment to be found in the package, as it’s completely packed with unique and compelling content. The missteps found on the journey do a ton to hold it back, but it’s nothing a patch or two can’t fix up. Should these get resolved, then this is a title that’s dense and uninviting at first. Those who push past that gruff exterior will find, well, more gruffness, as well as a world that’s interesting to explore and make a true mark upon.