The recently released Elex is, quite simply, a painful slog of an RPG. At turns charmingly sloppy and infuriatingly obtuse, it feels like a bumbled combination of Dark Souls, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and Mad Max. Elex stands as proof that you can create a world that pits magic Vikings, drugged up wasteland raiders, technologically advanced religious zealots, and magically enhanced super mutants against one another and somehow still render it all boring. How does it accomplish this feat? Read on.
Elex takes a step in the wrong direction right off the bat with its protagonist. Commander Jax takes on the central role of this adventure. He's part of the Albs, a society of enhanced mutants that have purged themselves of all emotion in exchange for the massive power granted by a substance known as elex. However, we don't know any of that as in the opening seconds we see Jax's sci-fi fighter jet get shot down by unknown people for unknown reasons. The backstory to this scene gets inexplicably doled out in small doses via flashbacks to years before the events of the game.
We have a protagonist without emotional responses to anything and a blank backstory. Jax does have one interesting spark of characterization, though. Severed from his connection to his fellow Albs, Jax slowly begins to either regain a connection to his emotions or not depending how the player behaves. Unfortunately, that aspect of the character never really feels explored, leaving Jax an incredibly bland and uninteresting lead. After being shot down in enemy territory, emotionless Jax embarks on a quest to get revenge.
A bland protagonist might be something a game could survive if the supporting cast can shoulder the extra weight. Elex's writing and NPCs simply can't bear that burden. The dialogue hamstrings any attempt to build up other characters. The very first interaction the player has with an NPC results in that character explaining several times in the same dialogue tree that the player can find supplies in the nearby town. Did you know you could get supplies in town? Hey, no worries, you can get supplies in town. You can take some jobs and gear up in town. It never really becomes better as the game progresses, either. Sometimes characters will seemingly glitch over dialogue or have wild mood swings between dialogue options. One of the NPC companions went from feeling neutral towards Jax to idolizing him over the course of one conversation on one sidequest. On a different quest, I selected a seemingly innocuous dialogue option that prompted an NPC to attempt to murder Jax - and the game warned me after I killed him that the game had been altered significantly.
Combat stands as one of the weakest elements of Elex. Despite existing in a world of hand grenades and plasma rifles, melee weapons serve as the primary way players deal damage in the world. Those who want to rely on ranged attacks will quickly find them weak, especially early on, and this can quickly lead to being mauled on all sides. That leaves players to rely on melee or the various faction abilities. In order to access magic, psionic powers, or chemical augments players will have to ally themselves with one of the game's three factions: the Berserkers, the Clerics, or the Outlaws. If you haven't allied with one of the three groups, generic combat will be the only option available.
That leaves melee, which seems to be aiming for a Dark Souls-like rhythm, but fails spectacularly. Players must manage their stamina to make sure they can dodge or defend against enemy attack patterns. If attacks are properly managed, a special attack can be performed to deal critical damage. These attacks locks Jax into prolonged animations that frequently miss their target, leaving him vulnerable. This can be a huge problem in a game where even low level enemies on the easiest difficulty can take a player from full life to death in a handful of attacks. With such life and death stakes, the spotty hit detection becomes an unending source of irritation. I died several times from attacks that hit a visible distance away from Jax's character model.
Important note: For a very, very, very long time after beginning the game, Jax will be weak. If you truly want to explore the open world of Elex and meet the other factions, you will encounter enemies capable of instantly killing Jax. Those deaths might occur with little to no warning, too, as many enemies are simply leveled higher from the initial areas - meaning you'll only know that they are different from the enemies you've defeated handily before when you get close enough to target them and see a skull by their names.
Jax's weakness might be remedied by an empowering leveling system. The leveling system in Elex somehow manages to be a convoluted mess. Each level gives you 10 points to spend on character attributes and a learning point that can be spent at the various trainers throughout the world to learn new active and passive abilities. Attribute requirements are tied to each ability and each piece of armor and weapon in the game. If you want to have better armor, you need to gain a new level and put points into the required attributes.
I'm sure there must be mid-tier weapons somewhere in Elex, but I couldn't find anything that seemed meaningfully different or more powerful from the blunt axe I found during the first hour of the game after having played the game for over a dozen hours. The weapons that I did manage to scrounge up all had requirements far beyond what I could equip. So, naturally, I put points into those areas to try to be able to use something better than that axe. The downside of that approach was that I couldn't put points into things like constitution, which meant I couldn't equip better armor or shields. Even when I finally managed to have the points in dexterity and strength required to shoot a plasma rifle, I was sorely disappointed to learn that at best it only tickled most enemies. This led me to a the following conclusion: In the world of Elex a level 0 blunt axe is somehow more powerful and effective than using a plasma rifle that requires 50 dexterity and 30 strength.
Elex's story offers a great degree of flexibility. That flexibility goes to waste in a world that squanders a lot of intriguing concepts and potential by linking it with bland characters and fetch quests that exist to waste time. I bring that up to point out that Elex asks players to join one of the factions - but a player looking to make an informed decision without faffing about in the area with magic Vikings forever will have to make their way through almost certain death to reach the Clerics and the Outlaws to see if joining them might be preferable. A single sidequest might require fifteen minutes of running through the wilderness. Traveling between settlements could take much longer. Dying en route puts you back at the point of the game's last autosave, which can result in hours of lost time. To alleviate this, fast travel teleportation pads exist throughout the world. However, they can also be easy to miss and remain deactivated if the player doesn't walk on top of them. This problem even seems to be recognized in the game design since one of the generic abilities (with insanely high requirements) reveals all of the teleportation pads in the world.
I would not recommend Elex to anyone. It manages to trick the player into forgetting about its frustrations by playing the way one would expect from a middle-of-the-road RPG with grand ambitions, but it invariably falls into some new pitfall included in the game either by poorly conceived design or by complete accident. The setting holds a great deal of promise, but the narrative often finds itself too caught up in world building to remember that compelling characters are necessary. The dialogue manages to be uniformly atrocious and grating. The visuals look great from a distance, but closer inspection reveals a lot of characters and environments to be pretty ugly. Glitches routinely pop up - one time I initiated a conversation with an NPC and Jax teleported halfway through the ceiling and remained trapped there after the conversation finished. Other than an intriguing premise and a fun trailer, Elex has very little going for it.
Elex is available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.