The setting for this game is a world much like our own modern world, or at least it was until a comet made of a strange mineral called Elex smashed into it, nearly obliterating all life and reducing society to primitive tribes. Centuries later, society is on the rise again with several factions vying for control of the powerful comet substance Elex, which has many uses. Players take on the role of Jax (the first protagonist from developer Piranha Bytes who has ever had a name apart from “you with the face”), a super-soldier from a warlike faction called the Albs who inject Elex into themselves to become emotionless killing machines. While on a mission, Jax is betrayed by his own brother and left for dead, but he survives and breaks free of the mind-controlling properties of Elex and begins to question his old life – and of course, starts a quest for revenge against his brother.
I first learned of Piranha Bytes, a small German game studio that exclusively develops their own unique style of hardcore open-ended RPGs, in 2006 after I was crushed to learn that my PC was not up to the task of running Oblivion, even with the R1.6k (that was a lot of money for me back then) I dropped on a new graphics card to try and make it so.
My attempts to fill the void led me to the Gothic series and eventually the Risen series. I’ve played every game PB released – with the exception of Gothic II‘s Night of the Raven add-on, which I own but haven’t gotten around to completing yet. Although, after visiting forums and other sites for technical solutions for the older games, I’ve noticed something about PB fans.
They’re a pretentious bunch, always going on about how Gothic had choice-and-consequence gameplay long before Mass Effect and The Witcher, et al. It’s true, but not to the degree they’re claiming, especially fans of Gothic 1 and 2 – it’s like listening to a Zelda fan fawning over the Ocarina of Time or a lover of Final Fantasy furiously fellating FF7. Yes, PB makes good games, but let’s be honest shall we? They really are acquired tastes. The combat is frustrating, even for veterans, progress is slow and hard-earned, the English voice acting is often hilariously bad, and they’re always a bit behind the times graphically, if you care about that.
Elex, the latest release from PB, is no different – in fact, you could consider it a return to the developers’ roots. The Risen series was slowly becoming a bit more accessible with easier combat and faster-leveling – but Elex has gone waaaaay back to Gothic levels of difficulty. So, if you expect to start the game, choose normal difficulty and actually be able to kill the first mutant chicken you see with your steel pipe instead of getting pecked to death in two hits – you’re not going to like this game. However, if you’re up for challenge or you’re a veteran of Gothic and Risen, you’ll probably be able to figure out some survival tricks.
In typical PB style, if you hope to achieve Jax’s main goal, you’re going to have to join a faction to do it. There are three to choose from: the Berserkers, superstitious, magic-using nature-lovers who regard technology as religious taboo; the gun-loving but anarchic Outlaws; and the technologically advanced clerics who use mind control or brute force to convert people to their cult. In each faction, you’re going to have to prove yourself before they’ll even admit you, then you’ll have to do quests upon quests to rise through the ranks and gain access to better training and equipment. I went with the Clerics myself, because they remind me of the Brotherhood of Steel from Fallout.
You’ll have to choose carefully though, because each faction wants different things, and by helping one, you might tread on the toes of another. In fact, even the short, standalone quests you find while wandering the huge world often have more than one solution with multiple outcomes. The way in which you’ve developed Jax will also determine how you tackle quests. For instance, a technician might send you on a dangerous and quite tedious mission to find some parts – but if you’ve spent enough points in the crafting skill tree to pass a skill check, you can help the technician right then without having to go on a tedious fetch quest.
Combat makes up a large part of the gameplay, and it’s probably the thing that will lose most new players. Don’t get me wrong, I fully support PB in what they’ve always tried to do with combat: making a system where you can’t just whale on enemies until they die, but have to pick your shots, block, parry, dodge – it’s just that they’re not very good at it, and the combat is clunky and unresponsive sometimes. You’ll get it eventually – not because you came to understand its brilliance, but more because you adjust to its crap factor.
In addition to this, you have to make peace with the fact that it takes hours and hours to make any progress at all in the game. You’ll be running away from most mid-level enemies for up to the first 20 hours of gameplay before you can even start facing them. There are several companion characters you can befriend and take with you as backup, but they only serve as distractions at best and can be knocked out – but thankfully not killed. Good gear also costs a hell of a lot of money, so you’re going to have to get busy grinding and selling.
But assuming you can manage all this and actually start to make progress, climbing the ranks of factions, getting the good gear, finally being able to take on the enemies you used to run from and advancing the main story, it’s rewarding in a way few other games are.