March kicks off with a few more high profile titles after February was already full of them. One of the first to launch if the long-awaited sequel ELEX II from Piranha Bytes, which is being published by THQ Nordic and marks the next-gen debut for the developer and franchise.
The first ELEX launched back in 2017 to a somewhat lukewarm reception, and became a bit of a niche hit. The sequel announcement wasn’t entirely unexpected though, as Piranha Bytes has a knack of making them for their franchises – Gothic and Risen followed a similar path. And although Elex II might lack the polish and shine of other open world RPG games, we enjoyed our time with it.
Part of the reason for that is that Elex II dares to be a bit different from other games. That results in it being a bit rough around the edges in places, but also something that lets you jetpack around a fantasy combat sequence. In a genre where many games play it safe, we rather enjoy stuff like that. If you mainly enjoy your RPGs for its narrative and rich world-building element, then Elex II has that in spades as well – though you have to get past some of the rougher gameplay elements to enjoy it (and having played the first Elex helps).
Narratively, Elex II takes place hundreds of years after a near-total apocalypse that almost wiped out the humans living in this fantasy world. Since then, as in any good post-apocalyptic world, factions started to form, each with their own focal points – be it dark magic or technology. A new alien menace threatens all of them, so we’re re-introduced to Jax, who now has to try and unite all these factions in order to fight an enemy that threatens them all.
Gameplay-wise, this translates to a game world where factions have their own cities for you to visit and immerse yourself in as you gain their trust. As you’d expect, a lot of that is done through (side) missions and objectives, but as you complete them you’ll also come across a lot of characters – some of which will be recurring ones that also pop up elsewhere, showing that Elex II’s world is a living and breathing one. That’s definitely also true on a micro level within each hub, where interesting personalities collide or align with you and you have the choice to join their faction.
Doing so will give you additional upgrade paths, but obviously it can make things harder for you to be successful in other hubs – so you can also choose to remain neutral. This all ties into your character progression though, which is a constant juggling act as stat and upgrade points are scarce and weapon or relationship goals can feel like constant compromises because of it. If you don’t commit to a certain direction and just want to upgrade across the board, then leveling up is certainly going to feel like a bit of a grind here – upgrading your stats, applying upgrade points and paying trainers to learn skills.
You can’t just ignore the upgrade system either, because combat is challenging in Elex II, even at the lower difficulty levels – though “story mode” simplifies combat to the point where it no longer poses a problem if you don’t want to fight. We’d recommend against playing that way though, because combat is an integral part of the story in many spots because certain quests and objectives are completely around it.
We don’t know exactly how big Piranha Bytes is as a development studio, but Elex II is certainly an ambitious undertaking and they clearly didn’t want to comprise the scope of what they had planned. The world design is fantastic and makes great use of the jetpack mechanic through verticality without ever seeming gimmicky. The game world is huge, and the diversity in its landscapes something to behold. Character models aren’t as impressive if you’ve just come from something like Horizon, but Elex II’s world begs to be discovered – and it rewards exploration as well.
At the same time, that scope also holds back the game at release, with plenty of little technical issues that just scream “we needed a bit more development time!”. This includes stutter that shouldn’t happen on today’s most powerful consoles as well as visual and audio glitches that will no doubt be ironed out post-launch but were distracting enough to be noticed for the 1.0 version.
It’s a shame, because Elex II has all the potential you’d want from a rich and epic action RPG and I can’t wait to go back to it for another playthrough in a few months. The initial playthrough already kept me entertained despite its clear shortcomings, so I look forward to seeing how it plays once it receives the polish it deserves.