If you really think about it, every game Piranha Bytes has made after Gothic 2 was just one more attempt to create another game that reaches the heights of the Gothic-Series. Gothic 3 was the first mistake before we got to some alternatives like Risen 1 to 3 (all with varying kinds of success). Elex is the German Studio’s most recent attempt at recreating an RPG experience that is as brilliant as Gothic 2 Night Of The Raven and its predecessor Gothic 1 was. So the question is: How did they do?
Elex is set in an alternate, post-apocalyptic world in which the mystical resource “Elex” has changed life on the planet Magalan forever. As it reached the surface in the form of a meteorite, it crushed the once-thriving civilization on the planet, triggering the so-called “Great Fall” and sending mankind into an apocalypse.
160 Years later, Elex has changed the world. The resource is as mysterious as it is powerful. It powers groundbreaking technologies and is even the key to magic, while simultaneously having a great effect on humans itself. Taking Elex suppresses one’s emotions and allows one to think with cold-hearted logic, but also enhances bodily functions and quickly becomes addictive.
As can be expected, multiple factions have evolved from this great apocalypse, and they all revolve around the mythical resource in one way or another. We’ll go deeper into that in a bit, but one of them are the so-called Albs. The Albs is a faction that entirely revolves around Elex. They consume a pure form of it on a regular basis and as such are completely devoid of emotions. The resulting pure, cold logic has turned them into brilliant but fearsome people with a clear plan for the world. They stand at odds with the rest of the population and want to use the power of Elex to conquer Magalan.
You play as Jax, a commander of these Albs. At the beginning of the game, our protagonist’s ship gets mysteriously shot down while on a crucial mission. As a result, his own brother Kallax tries to execute him as is the law with the Albs after failing a mission. Jax survives the execution-attempt, but is now stripped of any gear or resources and most importantly, any additional Elex that would keep his cold-hearted state going. Without any additional Elex, his emotions are slowly coming back.
Essentially exiled from the Albs, our story begins as our hero Jax tries to uncover who it was that shot him and also to understand the mystery of this crucial mission. More importantly, he needs to learn how to live with all these emotions that are slowly crawling back.
See the world through new eyes
We begin to discover this world through a newfound perspective. Slowly we explore this other part of civilization that was nothing but an enemy before. There are the Berserkers, which reject technology and use Elex to purify it into Mana, essentially using it as magic. The Outlaws are as the name suggests, a band of cutthroats and bandits purely motivated by profit and greed. And then there are the Clerics, religious fanatics with exceptionally advanced technology found by studying Elex. As it is custom with Piranha Byte games, you will have to eventually choose a faction to advance through the story.
There are not only the camps and cities of the factions for you to explore. Magalan is a huge world full of secrets to be found and discoveries to be made. Your trusty Jetpack will give exploration in an RPG game a new and refreshing spin. And the world has an intriguing flavor to it. Much of the landscape is full of abandoned structures, old buildings, and forgotten cities, telling you the story of a once flourishing civilization and its downfall.
The occasional NPC encounter and plenty of diverse enemies round this experience up and make exploration a fun and worthwhile activity in Elex. The world feels alive and hand-made (which it is) and invites you to see what it has to offer. For an open-world RPG game, this is obviously a must, but I am pleased to say that Piranha Bytes manage to nail that one on the head.
Quests, or missions as they are called in Elex, are perhaps one of the most important aspects of an RPG. I want to avoid spoiling the story beyond explaining the setting, but the questing is in this game is probably its strongest feature. Even beyond the main quests, many an encounter with an NPC or faction will yield some sort of mission with a twist. Often there will be multiple ways to solve a quest and even more consequences you might have not expected. There might be a simple mission like finding the weapons of clerics or complicated ones like finding Alb-separatists for the Berserkers and having to decide their fate. Again, I am in danger of spoiling too much, but a mission like the abovementioned of the Alb-separatists will have multiple unique ways of solving it, ranging from simple elimination to complicated negotiations.
While the combat system deserves an own paragraph, there is not much to say about it, beyond that it sucks. Barely a game Piranha Games has made features a truly engaging or good combat system, but this one is probably one of the worst. It’s essentially a game of trying to find the right timing to hit enemies while having to deal with an annoying stamina bar that limits your moves. There are some interesting elements like magic or a variety of ranged weapons (guns, flamethrowers, and the likes) or even enchanted melee weapons, but most of the time the combat will feel dull.
While that is never a good thing, and it certainly can feel frustrating in Elex, I don’t feel like it is a deal-breaker. As I mentioned, even the high-praised Gothic 2 didn’t feature a particularly good combat system. Elex just has the distinct disadvantage that the stamina bar and the ability to stun enemies after multiple hits make the system extra annoying.
Ultimately, it is what it is. Unfortunately in this case it’s just a disadvantage of the game. Elex is an RPG that features a lot of combat and almost all of your abilities will revolve around changing and influencing the way you fight. As such, if you can’t get behind the system, the game will just be less fun. That being said, I don’t think it is bad enough to stop anyone from giving the game a try. But more of that in the conclusion.
The direct comparison to Gothic
Truth be told, I do feel a similarity that is not just intentional, but goes beyond titles like Risen. Elex definitely attempts to be a spiritual successor to Gothic and not just another RPG with similar design choices. Unfortunately, it does fall short in one or two aspects. For reference, check out the Gothic 2 Night Of The Raven Analysis to refresh your memory.
For one, the atmosphere is one of Gothic strongest suits and while Elex tries to create something similar, it just doesn’t cut it. Gothic’s atmosphere is a combination of a brilliant soundtrack and a world that was carefully planned to feel alive through aspects such as NPC-routines or witty dialogue.
Elex on the other hand doesn’t quite manage to recreate that same feeling, particularly in the settlements of the factions. It does the job well enough to convey the feeling of each individual faction. The base of the Clerics, for example, will feel high-tech and awe-inspiring in its red and black design, with those giant robots running around and almost scaring you. But compare it to the monastery of Khorinis in a playthrough as a Fire Mage for example. In Gothic, you would go through the arduous process of being a novice for an extended time, doing menial tasks for the priests, before eventually being able to take the test to become a Fire Mage. It is what makes playing a Fire Mage in Gothic feel so authentic and conveys this unique atmosphere.
Elex can’t quite manage that. The dialogue, the routines, and the questing will not be bad, but simply not work as seamlessly to provide a better atmosphere as it could.
Dialogue & NPCs
This is essentially also part of the atmosphere but deserves its own mention. Gothic’s dialogue is for one brilliantly voice-acted (in the German version at least) and is witty and funny, and also manages to give the game its own unique allure. The NPCs and their daily routines and the way they will often naturally interact with the protagonist are all particularly successful in enhancing your experience through the world of Khorinis.
To be fair, Elex does reasonably well in that regard. It does depend on where you are in the world though, as some areas are just weaker than others. I’d say that the Outlaw camp is probably one that comes closest to the Gothic feeling (both 1 and 2), while the Berserkers are overall the weakest. Unfortunately, the Berserker camp is the closest to the start of the game, so it could dampen the initial impression.
Elex is a good game. It has its weaknesses but I can confidently say that its strengths manage to outweigh any issues. There is tons of content to play through, a huge and interesting world to explore and an intriguing story waiting. It’s not the best RPG out there but it has its place within the genre and it deserves it.
It probably is the best Piranha Bytes has made since Gothic 2. I know that the direct comparison to Gothic 2 focuses more on the criticism and what is lacking, but in Elex’ defense, this direct comparison is only possible because it already does such a good job at getting close to Gothic. There would be no point in going in-depth on the similarities and differences between the two games if there wasn’t a basis that both share. I certainly would not go through the trouble if I didn’t think that it deserves it.
Is it worth it? I am going to have to go with an unsatisfying it depends. If you’re someone who lives and dies for a good combat system in an RPG, I would say no. If you are more about questing and engaging with the world, then it is a yes.
The price is a little bit steep, sitting still at the 49,99€ mark on Steam. However, in times of a sale, it gets a whooping -75% discount, which makes it absolutely worth it. The ultimate verdict is to wait for a sale and then buy it.