As a big, open-world RPG, Elex shows great ambition. The world of Magalan is a fractured yet beautiful place, having spent the last 150 years recovering from the devastating impact of a comet. It’s not your typical post-apocalyptic world, showing the signs of rejuvenation that makes exploring its heavily scarred, mountainous surface an enticing and occasionally captivating proposition. But despite this, a disjointed story, unresponsive controls, and frustrating combat mechanics consistently suck the life out of Elex, making its 30-hour campaign too arduous to recommend.
You play as Jax, a widely feared former Commander within the Alb faction, the game’s main antagonists. Albs are known for their addiction to Elex, an element that has permeated through the planet since the impact of the comet, which makes them both immensely strong and emotionally void; the perfect soldiers. Driven by their dedication to their leader, The Hybrid, and his directive to gain control of all the Elex in the world, they begin an aggressive reclamation of the planet, waging war on the other factions and building giant Converters to rip the Elex from the ground.
The Alb Directive demands the punishment of death for failing a mission, and when Jax is deemed to have failed, he is put down, albeit unsuccessfully, by another Alb commander who leaves him for dead. Having woken up some time later--a fact that is poorly communicated through the course of the intro--with his armor stolen and the residual Elex gone from his body, Jax begins his search for a new place in the world. The Alb’s savagery is a gripping premise of its own accord, but it never really lives up to the potential of its setup.
Where Jax goes from here is entirely up to you, though you are given a little direction by way of Duras, a Berserker warrior who leads you to Goliet, the main Berserker settlement. Peaceful settlements dot Magalan, as do raider camps, mutants and other assorted creatures who have been transformed into ghastly beasts by the Elex that has ravaged the land.
You can learn unique abilities from each faction, like casting magic or suggestive mind control through dialogue, once you’ve proven your worth. The Berserkers retreat to nature, transmuting Elex into Mana for magic and using it to revitalise the scorched planet, while the religiously bound and technologically advanced Clerics utilise Elex-powered technology built upon remnants of the old-world. The lawless Outlaws live off the scrap of the desert, while all three factions live under the threat of the Albs' aggression. Appeasing their needs is no easy feat, though, largely due to the balance of difficulty in the game’s opening chapters.
Starting on the 2nd hardest of the four difficulty levels, it didn’t take me long to wind it back to normal, and then to easy. But regardless of difficulty level I felt hopelessly underpowered, even against enemies that appear early on, so much so that the only way I felt I could make significant progress was to run from as many encounters as I could. However, avoiding combat doesn’t help in the missions where you’re forced to fight.
Feeling under levelled in an RPG isn’t the problem here, rather it's that there's no real way around it. Any time I would find a newer, stronger weapon, I’d try to equip it only to be denied by my lack of certain skills. There are five main attributes you can pour your skill points into, and most weapons require you be at a minimum level with at least two of those attributes.
Upgrading weapons feels equally trivial, as doing so also affects their stat requirements and can put them well beyond your character’s capabilities, rendering it a pointless pursuit. This becomes less of a problem in the late game, but it wasn’t until around 20 hours into Elex that I felt marginally comfortable jumping into a standard, open-world encounter.
Even then, there are still some real issues with the game’s controls and combat that present themselves early; something Elex never truly recovers from. Melee combat feels cumbersome, with Jax’s quickest attack requiring a hefty wind up before the swing. The auto-targeting function doesn’t differentiate between friend or foe, and when combined with poor hit detection and slow animations, it causes all manner of problems when fighting next to groups of friendlies. Ranged combat is a little better, but similarly suffers from some problems with hit detection.
Most frustrating is when you successfully hit an enemy with either a melee or ranged attack and it does no damage whatsoever, at least until you’ve hit it three or four times. Initially I thought this had something to do with my stamina meter being drained, but that just stops you from attacking in the first place. I never did work out the precise reason why this happens, but it’s stunningly frustrating as it makes nearly every engagement feel horribly unbalanced, overshadowing Elex's better qualities.
While character models and faces leave something to be desired, much of the environmental art is incredible. Separated into distinct regions, Magalan is gorgeous. From the green, flora draped lands of Edan and the canyon laced deserts of Tavar, to the volcanic region of Ignadon, the layout of its heavily cracked and damaged surface feels superbly hand-crafted. The details can lead to occasional frame rate drops, especially with lots of characters onscreen, but it’s hard to deny Elex’s wonderful art design. The addition of a jetpack to help you traverse mountainous regions, despite feeling a little clumsy, is also a nice touch.
Some of the inter-factional rivalries are interesting on the surface, with politics between clan leaders and in-fighting providing a bit of fun through dialogue and faction missions, but the overarching narrative rarely proves to go anywhere significant. Some of these missions touch on thought-provoking themes, like the idea that, despite being of the same faction, one person’s morality doesn’t always equate to another’s. Despite the interaction of different factions being a running theme through many of the game’s quests, Elex doesn’t have much more to say on the topic.
The main story quests aren’t quite as interesting, and are riddled with bugs in their presentation. Jax’s back story is slowly pieced together through memories presented as cutscenes during moments of exposition, though the transitions between these are jarring at best, with some cutscenes occasionally not playing at all. Numerous times did I come out of a cutscene only to find the world tearing itself apart and my character falling through the floor, either crashing the game or requiring a full restart and forcing me to replay the same section over again in the hopes that it wouldn’t fall apart.
Elex's world is no doubt enticing, but the good moments are heavily dispersed among some rough technical problems and odd designs that only serve to frustrate. The game offers an incredibly designed world and the basis of a compelling RPG that disappointingly fails to live up to its potential in almost every way. For a game that relies heavily on its combat for progression, it feels overwhelmingly geared against you, and with the added technical issues and lack of a compelling story to tell, Elex takes the wind out of its own sails at nearly every turn.