Elex 2 review: a bonkers RPG hampered by unpleasant characters
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Just a few minutes out of Elex 2’s, pleasantly brief, tutorial area I came across a radio. The broadcast was announcing a concert at the nearby amphitheatre. A Billy Idol concert. Yeah, you read that right. I immediately made a beeline for the concert venue and was treated to a rather unflattering rendering of Billy Idol and his guitar-playing chum performing a song. (Whiskey & Pills from his 2014 album, rather than anything you’re likely to have heard.) After the cutscene, you’re left in the empty amphitheatre, alone apart from a couple of guys talking about how great the concert was.
There is no context for this cameo. Billiam doesn’t feature as an NPC. In the 40-ish hours I spent playing the game, I had no reason to return to the amphitheatre. It makes no sense whatsoever and the only explanation I can come up with is that someone involved in the game really likes Billy Idol and just wanted him in their game. It’s the sort of random that I can respect, and I only wish the game had more.
At first glance, this kind of “why the heck not?” attitude is all over the place. Elex 2 returns to the post-apocalyptic world of Magalan, which looked a lot like modern day Earth until a comet carrying the eponymous substance smashed into the planet. 160-ish years later, we’re left with a handful of different groups who have all learned to use elex in different ways. The mix of factions is wonderfully bonkers and makes me think of a bunch of LARPers who all turned up to a game expecting entirely different settings. The Outlaws are the most stereotypically post-apocalyptic in the Mad Max-cum-Fallout vein, all scrap armour and conventional weapons. The Clerics are a hi-tech religious order who have definitely been playing too much Warhammer 40k. They birthed the pasty-faced Albs, the baddies from the first game, who you can now align with. Multiclassed hippy-vikings the Berserkers reject technology and have figured out how to convert elex into mana which allows them to cast spells. And last up are the Morkons, the new kids on the block, who lived out the apocalypse underground, worship a god of destruction, and dress like the Cenobites from Hellraiser.
Somehow it all hangs together, even when you add the game’s baddies, a group of techno-organic alien invaders, into the equation. The plot is huge amounts of sci-fi guff and endless exposition, but it seeds just enough mystery in there to hold your interest and does a decent job of foreshadowing the inevitable Big Plot Twist. I also very much appreciated the decision to locate the game in more or less the same place as the original and being able to witness the effects of time’s passage. The high point of this is definitely the Fort and its surrounding environs. In the first game, this was a desert region inhabited by the Outlaws, but the area has been conquered by the Berserkers and terraformed with the aid of their magic tree thingies, making it lush and green.
Elex 2 is very much a Piranha Bytes game. It’s an open-world RPG that cares precisely not one jot about whether you live or die. It’s clunky and janky, but compelling and can be a breath of fresh air when you’re used to a steady diet of over-polished AAA affairs. Sadly, it also has the same problems as the previous game. And the Risen series. And Gothic 3. Presumably the first two Gothic games, but I could never get past their terrible controls.
The difficulty is all over the place. It starts off hard because protagonist Jax is rubbish, gets way too easy once you figure everything out and then just inflates the damage and health of all the enemies until everything takes an age to die, but can kill you in a few hits. Balance isn’t even an afterthought, it’s just nonexistent. I was still using a mid-game shotgun on the final boss because it clearly did so much more damage than my magic powers, or my supposedly endgame quality unique weapons. The downside of said shotgun was the lengthy reload time, but since all ranged weapons instantly reload when holstered, that could be circumvented by tapping the hotkey a couple of times. Sometimes quests require you to go back to the quest giver before they’re listed as complete, as you might expect. Other times they’re marked as complete when you’ve killed ten spikepoodles or whatever, but you still need to go back to the quest giver to get a reward and advance the story. The pacing is flat out terrible, with the last few hours of the game just being an endless slog requiring the slaughtering of dozens upon dozens of the same handful of enemy types.
It starts off hard, gets way too easy once you figure everything out and then inflates the damage and health of enemies until everything takes an age to die
I understand that this is a sprawling, open game from a relatively small developer, but it’s also a developer that has been making the same sort of game, right down to the levelling systems and the combat, over and over for two decades. All that time and they still haven’t got the fundamentals right. At the same time, it’s all starting to feel a bit stale. As much as I like the formula, and as much as I enjoy the setting and the jetpack, there’s no real surprises for anyone who has played Gothic or Risen. Before writing this review, I looked back over RPS founder Alec Meer’s (RPS in peace) writing on the Risen series to make sure I wasn’t misremembering and, sure enough, found him experiencing the same issues, making the same complaints.
If it was just a case of jankiness caused by a small, overambitious team then I’d be happy to give Piranha Bytes a pass at least one more time. Sadly, that’s not the case. Elex 2 is, by far, the most unpleasant, mean-spirited and plain nasty game I’ve played in a very long time. Almost everyone you encounter is just a horrible person. They’re generally rude and abrasive, and even the friendlier ones are just annoying. One of your party characters, literally named Nasty, is flat out abusive. I’m assuming that this is supposed to be “mature” or “realistic” but it’s neither of those things. The game is like a twelve year old who thinks that being rude and swearing constantly makes him well ‘ard. These aren’t nuanced, well-rounded characters, they’re flat automatons who are unrelentingly awful instead of having any personality.
It could be argued that something was lost in translation, since Piranha Bytes is a German developer and I’m playing the game in English, but I think that’s just being terribly unfair to all the lovely Germans I’ve encountered in my lifetime. It would also ignore the fact that the same unpleasantness isn’t restricted to NPC dialogue. Elex 2, like its predecessors, has a problem with women. It’s not quite as front and centre as in earlier titles from the developer, since there are a good amount of fully clothed female characters, but the attitude on display is shockingly backwards. The women in the game are bitchy harridans, jealous and spiteful. When I decided to have Jax continue his relationship with Caija (a character from the first game who he had since had a child with and then abandoned) both of the other women in his entourage reacted negatively, losing loyalty. That’s one character who I’d hardly interacted with, and another who verbally abused Jax at every opportunity. I had no idea they even were potential romance options, but of course they hated Jax hooking up with another woman. As you may be able to guess, none of the male characters had the same reaction.
Speaking of Jax, he isn’t any better. No matter what options you choose, he will be rude, angry and shouty at every opportunity. For me, this came to a head during a late game conversation with his son, Dex (who is, for the record, seven or eight years old at most) where I was presented with the option to threaten to beat him. Worse still, at least one of the companion characters will approve of that decision. Even with the general nastiness of the characters in the game, this blindsided me, forced me out of the game and away from my computer for some time.
There is certainly room for games that deal with child abuse as a subject matter, or that have such deeply flawed people as protagonists, but that requires care and tact. Neither of those are on display here, or anywhere else in the game. Instead it’s a throwaway line, with no real consequence, that exists for you to show off how eeeeeeevil you are. There’s also plenty of interesting discussion to be had about what sort of behaviour games allow us to portray, how they choose to condone or condemn and why we react viscerally to some actions and not others, but this review is already far too long.
Cyberpunk 2077 is the game that sprang to mind while I was mulling over how to approach this review. It’s also a janky, overambitious RPG full of sweary, violent people doing horrible things to each other. The difference is that, by and large, the characters in Cyberpunk are compelling, well-rounded characters with depth and nuance. They’re frequently likeable, even caring, forcing us to deal with the contradictory aspects of human nature. Elex 2 has none of that, it’s just a game filled with deeply unpleasant people.