Without being signed up to work on a big franchise, or having successfully developed one of its own over the course of 20 toilsome years, it can be tough for a studio to launch a new 3D open world RPG in a landscape dominated by Witchers, Mass Effects, Fallouts and Elder Scrolls. Piranha Bytes know this better than most, having birthed the revered Gothic series, only to see its legacy undermined by ongoing tangles over rights. It's not been plain sailing for the studio's subsequent Risen trilogy either, as a decade-long tsunami of icon-drenched Ubi-likes has rather altered perceptions as to what an open world RPG can and should be.
This time, in a bid to reassert its singular vision and stand out from its contemporaries, Piranha Bytes has brought together elements of science-fiction and fantasy and focused them within a fractious post-apocalyptic wasteland that, it's clearly hoped, will attract RPG fans of all the aforementioned franchises and beyond. There are three factions to align yourself with: one, the Outlaws are your standard issue wasteland scavengers. Next are the tech-obsessed Clerics, a bunch of nascent Space Marine-types with less impressive armour, but with a familiar socially conservative worldview. Finally there are the Berzerkers, a group of eco-warriors that look like they've deserted the Night's Watch having found a way to convert technological energy into fantasy mana, on the sole basis, it seems, that anything supernatural has to be more environmentally friendly than science. Quite.
Driving the motivations of the factions is the eponymous Elex, a substance that infuses the land like an alien fallout, having been brought to the planet by a comet strike that wiped out most of the population. Conveniently, Elex is coveted by all; by the Outlaws as a narcotic and a source of profit, by the Clerics as the primary source of their technology and by the Berserkers who just want rid of the stuff, or, rather, convert it to an energy they can use. Meanwhile, the Alb, the game's tech-infused master race, are more or less steeped in Elex, seeing it as a means to fast track their evolution and lord it over everyone else.
The setup is clumsy and contrived, and first impressions of the game itself do little to inspire confidence that things are going to get better. While it has a few impressive views and runs well on modest hardware, Elex has the look and feel of a remastered PS3 game, on top of which animations are stiff and the early encounters spiritless and dutiful exercises in exposition. Thankfully, while it takes a couple of hours to get going, the story does a credible job of picking itself out of the mire and carrying things forward.
You begin as an Alb - and a high ranking commander, no less - sent on a secret mission as a prelude to conquest. Things go awry and you find yourself waking up in hostile territory, having been left for dead by one of your own. Luckily, after some tutorial-infused meandering, you bump into a selfless soul willing to escort you to safety and exhaustively fill you in on the backstory, during which you become receptive to the commonly-held notion that the Alb are a bunch of dicks and that joining one of the other three factions might prove beneficial as you plan some form of revenge on your former employer.
You soon learn that there are dicks everywhere across Magalan. While each of the factions claim honourable intentions (well, the Outlaws don't, but at least they're honest about it), they all have their darker motivations bubbling beneath the surface, as do most of the characters you sometimes must endure dreary conversations with. For example, early on you'll likely be asked to investigate a murder on behalf of the local Berserker lord, in the course of which it becomes apparent your quest-giver isn't all he appears to be. Do you rat on him in return for cash and favours, or do you cover for him, risking instead your conscience and the truth biting you later on in the game?
The most important relationships to foster are those of future companions, characters who don't just offer up quests, information, skill upgrades or some kind of reward, but will fight alongside you as you traverse the wilds of Magalan. These aren't your usual crusader types, thankfully, but have quests all their own that you'd do well to assist with. One of the most likeable companions is Ray, the Outlaw who relieved you of your Alb gear at the start of the game. You want it back, of course, but the blaggard has sold it on and will only help you retrieve it if you uncover who's put a price on his head.
These are all distractions from the main quest, of course, but whereas in most open world games such missions are labelled secondary and served up as derisory busywork, here the quests are cleverly layered to form a web that you have to pick apart to get a fuller picture. That guy that put the hit out on Ray also knows a thing or two about other lines of enquiry you're following elsewhere, for some other character in another faction, and so it goes on and on. Moreover, because quests aren't shut off by a lack of level or experience, while you'll often find yourself at a literal dead end, unable to progress because the area you need to explore is just too dangerous, with some wily tactics and dogged determination, it's often possible to push on through regardless.
The wonderful thing about the questing is that it seems to come almost naturally out of having a world free of many of the artificial barriers so prevalent in other games. There are guards blocking entry into towns, of course, and plenty of seemingly impossible creatures patrolling areas you might want to reach or pass through, but there's very little of the map in total lockdown that isn't in service to the narrative. Level scaling - frowned upon these days, thankfully - has never fully featured in a Piranha Bytes game, and while there are a couple of concessions to mainstream open world design, with an in-game map and mission markers, it is at least in keeping with the sci-fi theme and implementation is actually quite limited. Similarly, individual mission goals aren't always explicit and have to be extracted from mission texts or saved dialogue. Yes, it is a bit of a faff, further hindered by a character log UI that's functional rather than friendly - all of which underlines the fact that Elex is a game that requires as much thought as forgiveness if you are aiming to see it through.
One aspect of the game that certainly is hard work is the combat. It's not that the mechanics are particularly difficult to grasp, more the fact that it takes a while to get a feel for the timing of your attacks early on when the enemy - even a lowly rat - can cut you down with just a couple of swipes. It doesn't help that the animations are rather abrupt and hard to read and your weapons early on ineffectual, but you soon expand your arsenal and hard won experience soon brightens your prospects. Needless to say, melee combat is far less refined than Dark Souls and certainly not as theatrical or visceral as The Witcher 3's rather redundant wheeling and carving, but there is a comparable level of skill and timing required to master the combat process, which brings its own rewards.
The ranged combat is more of a mixed bag. The vast array of weapons types and abilities is perhaps unmatched in any other like-minded game, with bows, shotguns, plasma rifles, flamethrowers, grenades, spells, PSI abilities and explosives all there to be sampled, augmented further with multiple ammo types and weapons modifications to install. Unfortunately, ranged combat itself is less than satisfying, thanks to a fixed over the shoulder third-person view when readying guns, which is just plain disorientating and unnecessary. There's also a surprising homogeneity to the ranged weapons in spite of their apparent diversity, with a limited range of combat animations and a rather thin and overly distorted series of sound effects. Aside from the ability to reign down death from above, by utilising the giddying verticality across much of the landscape, ranged combat is not something you probably want to pour all your Learning Points into - at least, not for the time being.
Thankfully most tricky encounters can be evaded thanks to your jetpack, which allows you to quickly leap out of danger onto any nearby outcrop or platform and pretty much explore the entire map without enduring too many scrapes with the wildlife or competing factions. Some will argue that the jetpack affords the player too much leniency to play what should be a hardcore game in a perceived casual mode, but I would beg to differ in light of how uncompromising combat can be. In any case, while jetpack fuel is not something you have to scour the wastes for, it can only maintain a few seconds of thrust before you plummet to the ground.
More problematic in terms of cohesion is the pathfinding and AI systems, which allow you to aggro mobs and pull them towards NPCs so than they do your fighting for you. Given that the same functionality was present in previous games it's clearly an intended feature rather than a persistent bug, especially as you pay the price of missing out on any combat experience, yet it highlights a number of inconsistencies. For instance, while you can pull mobs to NPC easily enough, your own companions will only step in to help you if you have a weapon drawn and are engaged. In major skirmishes with leading characters, companions won't help out at all. At the conclusion of that murder investigation I mentioned earlier, I named the suspect in front of the local leader, only for the suspect to attack without any assistance from a room full of armed guards. Had I come running through chased by duck-billed raptors it would have been a different story, I'm sure.
There are other issues and inconsistencies, most of them amusing and all of them sure to be patched out of existence. I'll mention a few of them for posterity, such as footsteps that sound like stilettos on a tin tray, creatures than have been shipped in from the Risen series, behind-the-wall camera placement in numerous cut scenes and boobs that gently twitch when any female character is delivering her lines.
For more serious is the underwhelming and manufactured premise, a narrative progression that seems to follow, more or less, the same path as many of Piranha Bytes' previous games, and a combat system that seems focused on quantity rather than quality. If you can see past these issues, perhaps even embrace them as many people will, it becomes easier to appreciate the game's open world web of unscripted interactions and interconnected quests. Indeed, those that persevere will at times experience a world so rich with choice and consequence that it can sometimes make The Witcher 3 seem like a Fighting Fantasy gamebook.
One can't help but wonder what game might one day arise were Piranha Bytes ever given the development resources of Bethesda, because with less than a quarter of the numbers that worked full-time on making Fallout 4, Piranha Bytes have cobbled together an RPG that in some areas comes close to matching it. Yes, Elex is far, far scrappier overall, the lore is clumsy and unconvincing, and there's enough grit in the combat, presentation and parts of the narrative to have you running for the nearest GOTY Edition chart-topping RPG. But, if you give Elex the benefit of the doubt, it's many freedoms will start to win you over - to the point that on completion you may subsequently find yourself thumbing through this developer's undervalued back catalogue before cracking the seal on the Next Big Thing.