Game name: ELEX II
Release date: March 1, 2022
Available on: Steam
Genre: Open world action RPG
Developer: Piranha Bytes
Publisher: THQ Nordic
I’ve been a Piranha Bytes follower for a while now, and while their game have always been flawed in one way or another, they almost never disappoint (I consider Risen 2 an exception to that rule, because in spite of my love for pirates and “Eurojank” RPGs, I didn’t enjoy it at all). The original ELEX sits snugly in my top 5 Piranha Bytes games list, so you can imagine that I was reasonably hyped for its sequel, and now that it’s here, it’s up to me to tell you what I think of it. Will it be a new Gothic 2, or will it be another Risen 2? Strap in, because we are going for a jetpack ride!
Let’s start at the beginning though. And when I say that, I mean the original ELEX, as this sequel doesn’t exactly hide that it is a continuation of the story told in the 2017 game. You can probably skip the prequel and still get a good idea of what’s going on based on the flashbacks that will play from time to time, and the intro does a relatively good job at explaining what happened, but as the adventure goes on, you’ll meet characters from the previous game who will talk about stuff that might have happened back then. Why do I say “might have happened”? Well, ELEX was a Piranha Bytes game, so players had plenty of choices to make, and this sequel doesn’t use a save game transfer system, so your playthrough of ELEX might have been different than the one the developers chose to use as canon for this sequel. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so, but then again, most of their choices closely match the ones I made in 2017, so your mileage may vary. This way of doing things helps a lot when it comes to onboarding newcomers to the series though, so in that regard it’s a pretty good thing.
The basic premise of the game is similar to countless other open world RPGs (and even ELEX 1), as our character will have to traverse the vast open world of Magalan, trying to form unlikely alliances to battle an alien menace that threatens to wipe out humanity. Sadly, this world isn’t exactly trouble-free, and everyone has their own issues to deal with, so poor old Jax will have to do a lot of busy work in order to get people to join his cause. Cue faction-related questlines and dialogue screens filled with choices (all of them voiced!). The player can influence how the story plays out in many ways, with the sort of “good/evil/neutral” choices we’ve all come to expect from major RPGs, though of course not their polished animations and award-winning vocal performances (there’s a Billy Idol cameo in the game though…). Will all this effort be worth it at the end? Only you can tell that, because I’m not the kind of person who spoils story stuff in a review.
What I can tell you is that unlike most modern RPGs, the world of Magalan is actually worth exploring. Our hero owns a magically replenishing jetpack, which has been noticeably improved since its appearance in the first game, and the developers went to great lengths to ensure that the play space takes that into account as much as possible, so if you think that a tall ruin that just happens to feature conveniently placed protrusions that would make climbing it easier than usual has something at the top, chances are it does. And even when that’s not the case, the jetpack is usually an invaluable tool in combat, or when you need to get from A to B quickly. Magalan is a very dangerous place, with predators lurking at every corner and no level scaling. As a Piranha Bytes game, ELEX II is also very much uninterested with standard modern RPG fare such as “you can’t go to this area yet because you are underleveled”. If you see a place, you can probably get there. Will you survive the journey or even be able to do anything once you arrive? That’s up to you, the game won’t do anything to stop you from trying though, and that’s what I love about this sort of title.
Actually, I might be lying a bit there. While I can’t praise Piranha Bytes‘ penchant for world building and quest design enough, I don’t care much for their combat systems, and sadly ELEX II is no exception there. Combat in ELEX II is often clunky and the game can at times feel like it’s helping our enemies with its awkward controls and weird animation priorities. This is something that was true in the original ELEX, and while things aren’t as dire here, there is still a lot of work to do before the combat system becomes good enough for a game of this scale (before I forget, if you are playing on PC with mouse and keyboard, go into the menu and find the auto aim option and disable it as quickly as you can, you’ll thank me later). Mechanically, ELEX II isn’t doing anything wrong per se, as it features the usual mix of light and heavy attacks, dodges, blocks and parries, with the option of learning advanced techniques from skill trainers. The tech aspect is the bottleneck, and I hope that the next Piranha Bytes RPG finally unshackles itself from this burden, because it would make my job a lot easier when it comes to recommending it to people without caveats.
Speaking of skill trainers and combat difficulty, ELEX II goes for the always smart approach of letting you put points into a few key stats, but withholding access to specific perks and even actions unless you happen to find people who can teach you. In the context of the game, it doesn’t always make sense, since our hero was actually quite proficient in combat and survival, if my playthrough of ELEX 1 is anything to go by, but gameplay-wise, it’s an excellent choice that adds even more importance to the simple act of going around the place talking to anyone willing to share a few words and exploring every nook and cranny of this world.
Thankfully, the jetpack and the way the game is built around it can do wonders to help alleviate the combat system’s unpleasantries, even creating interesting situations that aren’t often explored in this sort of title. As an example, during the opening section of the game, I had a quest that required I find some alien scouts and take them out with extreme prejudice before they could report back to their masters. Piece of cake, right? Well, they were carrying equipment that was far better than anything I had on, and with the limitations of the combat system in mind, taking on more than three or four targets at a time, even while wearing adequate gear would be a challenge. I decided to take my chances, cornered one of the scouts, and it promptly beat me to a pulp, forcing me to execute a hasty retreat into the nearby hills. I could have chosen to follow a different questline, but I’m a bit stubborn, so I decided that this was my objective and I’d get it done or die trying. I’d been in the area earlier, doing some reconnaissance of my own and trying to find a hammer for a builder, so I knew that there were a bunch of highly aggressive creatures lurking around and waiting for any chance to pound at someone’s throat. How would that help me? Using the jetpack to put elevated terrain between my tender flesh and their jaws, I manipulated the beasts into attacking the scouts, getting rid of them and lowering their health in the process. I still wanted the gear the aliens were carrying, but now I had a pack of ravenous dinosaurs furiously pacing around. Back to square one, right? Wrong, because ELEX II has a pretty nifty day/night system, and hostile creatures can actually go to sleep at night, leaving the place open for some careful moonlit scavenging.
Interestingly, that wasn’t even the best way to solve that particular problem, as I learned when I started a separate save file to try out some of the more aggressive dialogue options without ruining my playthrough. The area the scouts patrolled was in the direct path of a pair of NPCs who ended up acting as my tour guides for all the major settlements in a weird way. How did that happen? I overheard two young Berserker warriors talking about a trip they were about to undertake, and speaking about their need to make sure they weren’t followed. Naturally, my first instinct was to follow them, and I was able to enjoy something close to the life of the traveling merchants that roam Magalan, as these two hotheaded warriors dealt with every approaching danger with quick blades and precisely aimed crossbow bolts. Sadly, I lost track of my travel companions when a city guard stopped me while they ran past, but it was a truly unforgettable experience.
Going back down to Earth for a minute or two, I have some potential disheartening news on the technical front, as ELEX II doesn’t exactly run as well as it should for a game that looks like it came out in the past decade. I’ve experienced a number of crashes and while my framerate held steady at 60 for the majority of my time with the campaign, I did find situations that tanked my frames to the low 40s for no apparent reason (I’m running a 5600x/32gb RAM, RTX 3070 system with the game installed on an NVME SSD). Things improved a bit with the day one patch (the crashes seem to be gone, or at least I haven’t been able to trigger them again) but I’m hoping the developers will be able to squeeze a bit more performance out of my hardware, because if I’m getting framerate drops, people running min spec will probably have a far worse experience.
This review is getting a bit too long, so I’ll offer my final thoughts. ELEX II is a massive improvement over its predecessor, though its dated graphics and awkward combat can drive players away before they get a chance to truly explore the vast world of Magalan. Anyone who sticks with the game won’t be disappointed, however, as Piranha Bytes have become masters of their craft when it comes to creating living, breathing worlds that respect the player’s choices and reward those who can think out of the box.
8/10 (Very good)