Developer: Piranha Bytes
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Genre: Action role-playing
Platform: PS4, Xbox One [reviewed], PC
Release: October 17, 2017
I think we’ve all experienced, or at least heard of the dreaded difficulty wall in many a video game. It’s that moment when a game ups the difficulty to an insane level and can usually found in RPGs in an attempt to force you to level up to be at the right level to fight some big boss. Elex has this difficulty wall, only it comes within the first few minutes of gameplay.
For quick reference I jotted down some notes about my first 7 hours of playing the game and came away with some interesting statistics. In that time I manged to rise a measly 6 levels, which wasn’t even enough to allow me to carry a weapon other that a lead pipe (I found an axe around hour 6), I only killed 10 enemies in total (got an achievement for it and everything), died multiple times if I even thought about wandering outside of town too far, and only felt capable when I had a companion friend join the party at around hour 5. Yeah, Elex doesn’t just hit you with a difficulty wall, the whole game is a giant difficulty wall.
And yet, I couldn’t stop coming back again and again, saving the game like I was playing an old-school PC adventure where death lurked around every corner. Hell, it did lurk around every corner as even a lowly ROUS can one-hit you, ending the game. This isn’t your modern, inclusive RPG in any sense of the word, and while the game is a true open-world experience, it doesn’t level with you like so many others, instead punishing you for getting even a little too cocky. This is going to turn people away in droves, sure, and while I thought about putting the game down after the first few hours, I simply couldn’t.
And yet, even that is strange in and of itself because Elex really isn’t all that good of a game. The graphics feel almost a generation behind, I like to say it looks like an online MMORPG that looks good, but is designed to run on as many systems as possible. There are glitches all over the place, from minor to more major. There were times where I would pause the game to go grab a drink, or use the bathroom, and the game would freeze up. It wouldn’t require a restart, but it would take a minute or two before the game caught up with me telling it to unpause. It’s a weird glitch that I’ve never experienced in all my years of gaming.
Then there’s the combat which even after hours of getting used too, feels clunky at best. Targeting items or enemies is a real chore, and the hit detection often leaves you questioning the engine itself. Sometimes you’ll swear you hit an enemy, while others you’ll clearly whiff it and still land a blow. And then there’s the loot collecting problem that I simply can’t get over. When ever you draw your weapon for any reason, you can’t pick up objects around you. This doesn’t seem all that bad, but when in combat mode you can’t even see the items around you! For a long while I thought that there simply wasn’t any loot to be had.
Then there is the level caps that are simply far too high for weapons to be enjoyable. Nearly 10 hours into the game and all I had to use was a rusty axe that I found in the forest around hour 6 or so. Look, I know games can be a slow burn, but nearly 10 hours with a lead pipe is just plain silly. And if you do have the cash to buy a weapon it won’t do you any good. You have to have the strength and dex (or whatever pair of traits) to buy/wield them, but good luck with that. You earn 10 points per level, so at level 6 at had 60 points doled out across Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, intelligence, and Cunning.
This is fine, and in most RPGs I’d build a character to my liking. Max out strength early on to help with leveling up quicker and so on, but Elex doesn’t want you playing that game. The first sword you can buy requires 33 Strength and 33 Constitution. So you can do the math on that for yourself. But in case you don’t want too, that’s nearly 7 levels before you can think to even use a damn sword. And that’s only if you knew about the curve and didn’t spend a few points per level on each attribute. Goliet is the first city in the game and you better be ready to send a whole lot of time there, kids. And that’s not the worst of it as the game hates telling you anything helpful. There is no on-screen indication when you do reach a new level and the level indicator is burred in the menu. So you won’t know what level you are, and the game won’t tell you when you do reach a new one. Hell, for the first hour or so I didn’t even know leveling was a thing.
But it goes even deeper than that as you must also upgrade abilities like Combat (there are 7), Survival (also 7), Crafting (I hate crafting), Personality (7 more), Berserker (you get the idea here), Cleric, and Outlaw. And each of those abilities requires a trainer to teach them to you if you have the skill points required. 15 hours into my adventure and I only had a few things trained. Grinding is really an understatement in Elex, not because you have to do it, but because it sometimes feels like the game punishes you for exploring; at least in the first dozen hours or so.
Then we come to the loot; the aspect of RPGs that make players all warm and fuzzy inside. In that regard, Elex does have a lot of loot and stuff for you to collect. You start the game like Symphony of the Night as an uber bad-ass only to lose everything and start from scratch, building to what you know you can be. But like with everything in Elex, there’s a catch; finding and being a high enough level to wear a hat. By hour 5 of the game I had managed to find a single Worker Helmet (leather cap), a pair of Miner Pants, no gloves, no neck piece, and most importantly no body armor of any kind. Yeah, Elex is a very, very slow burn even in the best of cases.
And all of this is because Elex is a very deliberate game. Everything in the world is placed there for a reason and very few, if anything, is randomly generated throughout your adventure. For such an open-word, the game has a very, very, strict path that it wants you to go down, and god help you if you stray even a little from it; which is often as the game doesn’t tell you what “it” wants you to do next. The first quest you take might lead you outside and you can pretty much expect to die the first time you run across one of the deep friend McNuggets; and heaven help you if you run into one of the hairy pigs with a baby face on it…
And yet her I am still playing Elex long after I put in enough hours to complete this review. Still slowly sloughing through this war of inches in an attempt to see what’s next. Still picking up new companions and explore new areas. You see, that’s the real magic that Elex has to offer. If you can get past the dreadfully slow pace you find one beautiful and fully realized world that is a joy to learn about. So many characters and NPCs are fully voiced and let you in, little by little, into this post-apocalyptic future. Your interactions with them can go on for ages, but never does it feel boring. An NPC won’t simply ask for help with getting a gem, they’ll give you their backstory about their relation to the gem and let you ask them a dozen questions before you can accept of ignore the quest.
There isn’t some little World of Warcraft mission here. Every task in Elex feels meaty, and with the difficulty so high, even going to interview a few people can be a dangerous affair that will test your limits; and I absolutely love it. The narrative has weight to it and never makes you feel like some super-powered hero, or some chosen one while playing. You’ll find yourself turning down quests simply because you know you are nowhere near ready or capable to handle it. And if you say no, then you may never get another chance to take said quest. This in and of itself adds some huge replayability to the game.
You also build this strange bond with companions you come across as they too can also die if you wander into the wrong area. They will certainly help you during combat, but don’t expect them to handle everything. The first time I watched a companion die I freaked out because not only because I was screwed, but because the way the game is laid out you actually build this connection with them though tons of interaction.
In the end, Elex is a severally flawed experience that isn’t for everyone, and that’s especially so for casual RPG fans of games like Final Fantasy and the Elder Scrolls series. But if you like a good challenge and are willing to overlook some bugs and gameplay issues, you might just find a game that’s destined to be a hidden gem of this current generation.
“Elex is a very flawed but rewarding experience, if you can get past the steep difficulty curve.”