ELEX is an open world role-playing game from a developer with an incredibly spotty track record. No stranger to B-tier titles (with the B sometimes standing for Bin), German studio Piranha Bytes has amassed something of a cult following over the years. ELEX is bound to find an audience, but that audience is bound to be small – and for good reason.
If there's one thing that you can't criticise ELEX for, it's ambition. This is probably the developer's biggest project yet, boasting an open world that's as diverse as it is detailed. It's an interesting sci-fi setting where various cultures clash and three established factions battle it out over a post-apocalyptic landscape full of ruins and strange plant life. It's certainly an intriguing backdrop, but how much of the planet Magalan you actually get to explore will depend on the amount of time you're willing to spend with this relative mess of a release.
For all of its ambition, ELEX is a very, very rough experience. To get the most out of it, you need to dig past its boring opening hours, its shoddy presentation, and its supremely clunky combat. At first, the game almost feels like a survival sim. Main character Jax is basically a big bald walking target for anything that's feeling remotely murderous, and it'll take most players far too long to feel like they're actually able to put up a fight in this harsh environment.
This is mostly thanks to how the perk system works. You're free to assign attribute points however you see fit as Jax levels up, but in order to unlock specific abilities, you'll need to plan ahead and pour your points into certain stats. The problem is that these stat requirements are generally very high, meaning that it takes ages just to form a somewhat basic character build. To make matters worse, the abilities themselves aren't even that impressive, especially the ones that appear to be outright bugged and don't seem to function properly.
The same is true of equipment. The good stuff is hard to come by when you're barely able to hold your own against mutant pigs, and even then, so much of the gear that you find will serve no purpose because it won't gel with your character build. Jax can handle multiple different weapon types, but none of them feel particularly fun to use. Aiming with ranged weapons is twitchy and unwieldy, and unpredictably skittish enemy movement makes it difficult for projectiles to find their mark. Melee weapons fare better overall, but attacks are so cumbersome and the hit detection feels so off that you'll rarely come away from a fight feeling at all satisfied.
Some combat skills and special attacks can spice things up just a bit, but ultimately it's difficult to deny that ELEX's action is little more than a farce. Compared to the best combat systems that the genre has to offer in games like Bloodborne and Dragon's Dogma, this feels borderline broken.
However, despite everything that ELEX gets wrong, there's something here that's compelling. Discovering what that something actually is takes the kind effort that most players are never willingly going to apply, but it's there all the same. If you can somehow look past the layer of crap that coats almost everything ELEX tries to accomplish, we dare say that you'll find a role-playing game that genuinely cares about role-playing.
Jax may be a personality-less clone of Jason Statham, but the path that he takes across Magalan is yours to decide. Many quests feature player choice, and you're free to pursue a working relationship with any of the three main factions, subsequently opening new doors and closing others. While ELEX doesn't weave the most complex of webs, it refuses to hold your hand as you forge your own tale, and that makes for a surprisingly engaging set of stories. If recent blockbuster RPGs haven't been able to scratch your role-playing itch, then you might get a kick out of this – assuming that you can stomach the game's many flaws, of course.
As with just about everything in ELEX, though, there's a caveat. Yes, you can really get stuck into role-playing as a certain type of character, and it's admirable that the game's able to pull this off to the extent that it does, but boy do you have to listen to some painfully dull dialogue along the way. The title loves to throw huge chunks of exposition at you whenever you strike up a conversation, and although this subtle-as-a-brick approach does help paint a picture of Magalan and its inhabitants, the writing is so straightforward and bereft of character that it's hard to stay engaged. The voice acting doesn't help either, with the quality usually ranging from awkward to simply mediocre.
Whether it's that unmistakable Euro-jank charm or its commitment to providing a surprisingly robust role-playing experience, ELEX definitely has something going for it – it's just that most players will likely never make it far enough to find out what that something is. Piranha Byte's latest has ambition, but barely any of it is realised. As far as B-tier games go, this criticism is nothing new, but when so many amazing action RPGs are already available on PS4, you can't be blamed for ignoring this seriously shoddy release.