What’s that you say? You are hungry for an epic open world game, and there just haven’t been any released lately? (Don’t argue, I’m pretty sure that’s what you said.) Well, I’ve got a banger for you here, but we need to first make certain that you are among the select number of gamers that will appropriately appreciate Elex II for everything that it offers.
Back in the day, when you heard that open world games like Two Worlds were “broken” and “unplayable”, did you take that as a personal challenge rather than a warning? Do you enjoy projects where scrappy development teams bite off far more than they can chew, and then somehow cobble together what can best be described as an “admirable effort”? Can you squint your eyes and peer through a gauze of jank to find the hidden core of treasure in a game that is lurpy at best and hysterically off-kilter at worst?
Elex is a punk rock game, doing what it wants with all the grace of clanging guitars and pounding drums echoing out from your neighbor’s garage on a summer night. This is a game that has players jetpacking into battle against gigantic marsh ogres with a tiny hammer and a crossbow. So how about it? Are you the sort of person that needs all of the smooth edges sanded off of your studio-produced pop punk, or are you in the mood for something flavored with whiskey and pills?
What I’m trying to say is that while I’m sure there will be many reviews less kind than my own, there is an audience for Elex II, and I count myself among their number. Yes, there are a lot of new epics vying for your attention right now, but real talk: I’ve spent more time in Elex II than in Dying Light 2 and Horizon Forbidden West combined. But I want to be very clear – prospective players need to go into Elex II with their eyes wide open, fully informed that what they will find is something of a glorious shitshow, the video game equivalent of a bloody nose ring and a sticky barroom floor. If Horizon Forbidden West is a beautifully staged ballet, Elex II is a mosh pit.
I first discovered the original Elex over this past holiday season when I was looking for an open world game to play. I found Elex on the PlayStation Store for five bucks, and snapped it up, merrily spending twenty hours or so exploring its harsh post-apocalyptic landscape before peeling off. I couldn’t believe that something this big somehow slipped past me; I had never even heard of the Elex franchise before this.
But there is probably a reason that Elex has never reached critical mass with the gaming public. Developer Piranha Bytes defiantly follows its own template for games like this, and does not pause for one moment to give a crap about things like “modern design” or “fluid gameplay”. Piranha Bytes has always had its own structure for its games, and it sticks doggedly to it's blueprint. This is a team that happily drops the player into a world where just about everything can one-hit kill them, shows a hiccupping cut scene for story purposes, and then waggles its fingers goodbye while whispering “You’ll figure it out.” It is then up to the player to sink or swim, penetrate Elex’s impenetrable shell, or die trying. Think Dark Souls level difficulty, without the fluidity of combat.
So yeah, I was excited for Elex II, and having played the first game some, I was prepared to meet it on its own terms. Those coming in cold might be a little put off by what they find but sticking with Elex II will reveal a fantastically deep and detailed game world. Elex II might have a ton of jank in the tank, but it more than makes up for that with its stellar world building.
Hundreds of years have passed on an earth-like world since an unspecified apocalypse nearly wiped humans from the earth. In the years since, various faction-like civilizations have formed in the ruins, each with its own identity and customs. There is the group of generally peace-loving magic types, who eschew technology and try to live off the earth. Not too far from them, a death cult dwells in an underground bunker, committed to their dark god and blood rites. A band of outlaws has grouped together, figuring there is more power in numbers as they enhance their powers with various drugs, teetering precariously close to the edge of total burnout. The factions are rounded out by the Clerics and the Albs, both of which are committed to the adoption and use of technology in very different ways.
Into this shattered world (think Fallout crossed with The Last of Us, design-wise) comes a new group – an alien invasion that threatens to wipe them all from the planet. This invasion brings Jax, the infamous hero of the first Elex game, out of retirement. Infected with an alien virus, he must make contact with the leaders of each of these factions in an attempt to rally the remnants of the human race. He must get them all to forget their petty squabbles and unite to fight the common enemy.
In practical terms, this means that over the sprawling map, there are five hub cities, each with its own population, rules, ethics, and issues. Jax must visit each culture and dig in as much as is needed to gain their trust. This means that in each hub, he’ll be doing an enormous number of side quests in the name of faction building – expect to get sidetracked almost constantly. These places each have their own politics and concerns, and there are sympathetic characters all around - even down in the death-cult caves. And of course, this is a world, so there is plenty of shuffling about that goes on, with characters traveling between hubs. Along the way, Jax can choose to join any of these factions, or none of them; its entirely up to the player. Each faction unlocks special power and ability tracks for Jax, but in Elex, nothing comes easy.
Buckle up if you think you are in for a standard level grind. Advancement in this series is nightmarishly complex. Each level gained gives the player ten stat points to invest in Jax. Players must juggle the five stats independently and prioritize those needed to unlock desired skills and equipment.
Say you find a nice mace that you really want to use. That mace is likely to require that the player be at a certain strength level and a certain dexterity level. So if you want to use this mace, you might want to try to grind up a couple of levels to raise those stats. But – uh-oh – you are also trying to work towards some of your Berserker skills (they’re the magic faction). So your intelligence should be prioritized. Oh, and you want to unlock some armor you’ve been carrying around. So that’s a different stat. And so on. You get the point. Elex puts the entire world in front of you, and then asks you to choose what you want to do. If you’re patient, you can do it all (I’m pretty sure there is no level cap), but who is patient?
Oh, and did I mention that you can’t just unlock the skills you want once you have the appropriate stats? Oh, no, that would be too easy. You also need to spend an ability point (you get one per level), so even if you have the right stats, you can’t just go nuts and learn a bunch of stuff. You also have to go find a trainer to teach you the skill and pay them to do so. Luckily, money is fairly easy to come by, as stuff you can pick up and sell is laying around everywhere in the open world.
Combat is crazy tough at the beginning of the game, but eases some as you level up through questing. At first, you will be running from even the lowliest of monsters, feeling slightly ashamed at your inability to perform in battle. This time around, Piranha Bytes was kind enough to add some difficulty settings, which can bring things under control a little bit for those that simply can’t tolerate retreating. But I would encourage players to not drop all the way down to “Story” difficulty, as that removes the teeth from the game entirely, making it lose part of its charm. Knocking it down one level feels pretty good for me personally. I still have to work for my wins, and it’s entirely possible to get clapped by a random trash mob if I get sloppy.
The world itself is sprawling, and the engine behind Elex II is capable of some real moments of beauty. I love the torn landscapes, and wandering around the battered cityscapes gives me a real sense of wonder that I haven’t felt in many games lately. That’s not to say that the visuals are all gravy. Frame rates plummet, animations stutter, characters sometimes look like animated skulls (what is up with those teeth?), and there seem to be some weird v-sync issues that I’ve not often encountered in a console game. Picture some early PS3 character models against some pretty high-end PS4 scenery, and you get the gist.
The level of jank on display across the board in Elex II is unpredictable, hysterical, and kind of breathtaking. You just never know what the game is going to throw at you. Sometimes quests are interrupted by your companions, who whisk you halfway across the map to fight some zombies that have been getting on their nerves – screw whatever you were currently working on. At one point, the camera got lodged inside a character’s head for a cutscene, painting the inside of his mustache across the unfolding drama. Voice actors seem to change on the fly in the middle of conversations. Conversation flow can go incredibly awry, with humorous results; I’m particularly fond of the companion that follows me around, screaming the word “NICE!” whenever he approves of an action I’ve taken.
But for every weird, stilted moment on display, there is a moment of glorious battle, a gorgeous vista, an amazing discovery hidden deep within a cave. The world in Elex II is clearly a labor of love, with plenty of great nooks and crannies to discover, and awesome environmental storytelling tucked into corners. And a special shout out must be given to the game's jetpack, which may be my favorite manner of traversal since Assassin's Creed's climbing. Players can jump off of the highest peaks with no fear; just a tiny blast from the jetpack will slow your fall. It's fantastic.
And to be fair, lots of open world games are pretty torn up upon release (upside-down dragons come to mind) and that’s all part of the charm of Elex II. The game feels like a small team decided to make an open world epic on 40% of the budget normally devoted to the creation of a game of this magnitude, and for the most part, succeed admirably. I have a soft spot for teams that decide to just go running face first into a brick wall, willing something magical to happen.
So no, Elex II might not be for everyone. Some people will look at the game’s rough edges and pronounce it “trash” in that elitist dismissive internet way. But I unashamedly enjoy Elex II, which offers the patient player so many fun and funny moments. I admire its audacity, it’s smash-mouth sensibilities, and its punk rock spirit. Piranha Bytes could have looked at other open world games and said “We just need to do it like that, and we’ll be fine.” But instead, it created a game that is fiercely independent in design, refusing to follow the trends, confident it could do something better. I’m not sure if it is better, but it is certainly worthy of consideration. And if you can ride the vibe it is putting down, you might end up having a blast with Elex II.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Howdy. My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids. During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I am intrigued by the prospect of cloud gaming, and am often found poking around the cloud various platforms looking for fun and interesting stories. I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I've since added an Oculus Quest 2 to my headset collection. I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.
My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then. I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep. Currently, I play on Stadia, PS5, PS4, PSVR, Quest 2, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, and a super sweet gaming PC built by Joh Yan. While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.
When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect.
Follow me on Twitter @eric_hauter, and check out my YouTube channel here.View Profile