In the last few days, we have been discussing about two particular reviews about ELEX: one written by our team (Piranha Bytes Italia), the other one by an external reviewer. Today we can publish the second one, while we will be ready to present our own in the next few days.
We did this for a precise reason – many players, who are enjoying Elex at the moment, thought that reviews published by Italian media almost destroyed the game, without exploring it. It was like they picked up a rose which had just bloomed, without waiting for the bud petals to appear in all their beauty. We know that writing reviews is a job and that you must meet a deadline, but this time something clearly went wrong. Fortunately who already knew previous ‘Piranha Bytes’ videogames, with their values and flaws, did not trust those reviews, written after two, maybe also five, playing hours, and chose to buy it anyway, since sales in Italy are positive and average.
Fans on the internet are complaining about those reviews too. That is why we suggest you read the following review, written after dozens of playing hours by a reviewer who is well-known for being outspoken. He is familiar with Piranha Bytes’ videogames and, above all, his reviewing style is always balanced, as he evaluates every aspect of a game.
Review by Simone Tagliaferri
Paraphrasing the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, we could say videogames are a system whose parts can and must be considered in their synchronic solidarity. To analyze them, we usually put them on an operating table and start dissecting them. Sometimes, though, cutting them piece by piece just makes us lose sight of the big picture. In any case, what we get is a cold body, incapable of showing us how it used to be. The result is a superficial analysis, which can show us the death cause, but cannot tell much about the subject’s past life – just a few clinical details.
Elex starts slowly, but gets difficult soon. We control Jax, a fallen commander of the Albs, the enemy faction. The player is helped by the game for a few minutes, just long enough to see him back on his feet and get a few hints about what he can and cannot do. A few easy fights, some loot… but even during the tutorial, if you decide to start exploring the area, you may get in trouble fast, as most enemies are too strong for your starting equipment. Once you leave the tutorial zone, you make your first friend and the game offer you a path to follow, but the choice is yours. Magalan is a big world, full of interesting locations – if you can manage to reach them, of course. Nothing is forbidden, but sometimes it may be just out of reach for you. The local fauna, made of mutant creatures and less-than-friendly humans, has its own schedule and shows no mercy to the weak. Do you want to challenge it? You are free to do it – and free to die.
The beginning of Elex is full of Piranha Bytes’ trademark features, even though their vision on RPGs changed greatly since the first Gothic. Nevertheless, all Gothics and Risens, even with their quality ups and downs, shared a common ground: a deep respect for the player. You are never seen as an idiot who needs constantly to be led by the hand. On the contrary, you are free to find your own path – it may be a bit frustrating sometimes, but this makes the satisfaction for each small victory even bigger. Can you name a recent game that makes you as happy as when you kill a troll, after spending hours just rolling away from that unapproachable, big bastard? Which game make you feel as proud as when you kill a full pack of raptors, which made you hide in the bushes just a few hours earlier? These moments in Elex are not just random events, but the game system was skillfully crafted for this, as it was in the above-mentioned games.
Of course, if we decide to analyze the game piece by piece, it is full of flaws: lots of bugs, combat system has some problems with collisions, cutscenes are a bit sloppy, sometimes animations are too clumsy, dialogs were not written by Dostoyevsky for sure… I could go on, but it would not make much sense. Elex is one of the most captivating RPGs that hit the market this year and in the recent past, for reasons that can be understood only if you look at the big picture. If you manage to do that, you will find out that some flaws are not flaws at all.
For example, I would like to talk about Jax’s development and his equipment. Many criticized Elex because you spend a long time using the same armor or weapon, as alternatives are not that easy to find. Of course, they are comparing it to those games in which every and each enemy, even the weakest, may give you random loot. There, you spend hours just weighting on an imaginary scale items such as the “Spotty White Cockade Badass Sword” or the “Chocked Singing Demon’s Mighty Mace” – the first one was found in a coffin under the bed of a poor farmer killed by a lame goblin, while the second one was dropped by an adventurer when a pack of giant singing rats slaughtered him. If we are talking about quantity, the second systems give you of course much more choices. If we observe them deeper, though, we will simply understand that this comparison is absurd: in Elex, equipment has a narrative function, as it is linked to Jax’s relationship with factions (Berserker, Clerics and Outlaws), while in the other system it has a mechanical and consumeristic value – it does not add anything to the plot, it is just hoarding.
You can find also systems that stay in-between, anyway Piranha Bytes has always chosen to make equipment serve a precise idea of character’s growth, decided by each player’s actions. To a strictly narrative point of view, it is totally logical that a community will give access to its best resources only to someone they fully trust, a person who reached an important role. Following this path, it makes sense that your equipment defines your character. Just to be clear: if I decided to join the Clerics, it is totally normal that I will look like one of them and will not be able to wear an Outlaw’s outfit, expect for the most common (and weakest) version. This surely leads to a slower growth, but when you finally reach your goal, your satisfaction is limitless. You eventually realize that the game led you to conscious choice, giving all means to think about it – Elex let you complete all admission quests for each faction, but never forces you to join one of them.
Piranha Bytes created another unique experience, as distributing experience points not only help you improving your character, but also allows you to define him. In short, developing your character affects the gameplay, but has also a descriptive function. After all, when Jax was an Alb he did not have a personality – he was pure reason, stronger for sure, but his mind was clouded by his addiction to Elex. Once free, he finds himself an empty shell and must start from scratch. He does not know who he is, as for Albs self-consciousness is complete nonsense, but the game makes you discover it. In the end, you will need to choose on which side you want to fight, but it will not be easy, since this aspect is deeper than in most RPGs and connected to game mechanics.
Magalan is the setting of this complex vision on electronic RPGs. Actually, the scenery is quite bland, as it tries to mix fantasy (Berserkers of Edan), contemporary (Outlaws of Tavar) and sci-fi (Clerics of Ignadon), but this characterization is a bit too superficial and creates clear-cut differences between regions. Therefore, the most interesting area is Abessa, in which different styles mix as it harbors rebels coming from each faction. In there, we see them fight, but also support each other both in a social and architectural way. Anyway, the way the world is built makes exploring it meaningful and rewarding, even when you are just wandering around. There are many reasons for this. The first one is connected to the growth system: managing to visit an area that was out of your reach before is a prize on its own, even though this is shared by those RPGs in which enemies do not level with your character.
Another reason, more important because it is unique to Elex, is that the map was not created in a predictable way: while standard open worlds are just big plains with some hills here and there, Magalan develops both horizontally and vertically, with mountains standing on big gorges, complex caves that lead to seaside areas and secret places, and so on. Each location is enriched by small events, happening or already happened, which are described by documents and other objects. Piranha Bytes‘ attention to how the game world reflects past events is one of their most appraised skills – maybe it was not so obvious in the last two Risens, but Elex is a brilliant example. This is also thanks to Jax’s jetpack, which allows him to climb (almost) any surface and survive falls by managing the landing.
It is great to go around Magalan and get inside abandoned houses, where you can find small daily things, left there by people who died during the big catastrophe or maybe by their new dwellers, who may not be so happy to have an uninvited guest. You could even visit the ruins of a research center, with traces of long-forgotten experiments. All this is almost a game within the game, which rewards the player and enriches his experience, as he can always expect to find something interesting – sometimes not even connected to any main or secondary quests (some of them are well structured, while other will make you feel like an Amazon courier).
Of course, we cannot bury our heads in the sand, as Elex has many problems. I have already told you about most of them, but I would like to add that I would have preferred a more polished combat system (like in Risen 1), even though I think most people that criticizes it should develop their character further, as this gives you more options during fights. In addition, the growth system allows you to play Elex in many different ways, for example you could choose a stealthier approach or focus on rhetoric skills. Furthermore, each faction has unique skills, which change completely the way you can play the game.
Anyway, just by choosing the right abilities, Jax will get new fighting moves or his long-range attacks will become more effective, which will allow him to fight stronger enemies without running away. You just need to be patient and eager to explore a peculiar game system, pretty different from other recent games, without expecting to fully grasp it without effort. Maybe this is the main problem of Elex: it was created for an endangered species of gamers, who are supposed to accept its flaws and value its undeniable qualities and “freshness”, even though it is a typical Piranha Bytes‘ product.
English translation by Enrico ‘-Henry-’ Blasoni