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Preview: ELEX II

6 Dec 2021

In October of 2017, German developer Piranha Bytes asked a question: “What would an open-world RPG that mixed worldbuilding elements of both fantasy and science fiction look like?” The provided answer to this question was ELEX, an acronym representing the words Eclectic, Lavish, Exhilarating, and Xenial.

Taking place on the planet Magalan after an apocalyptic meteor crash, ELEX presented a swirling fusion of the two speculative genres, where swords and sorcery went hand in hand with guns and gadgetry. It featured all of the staples you would expect from the studio behind the Gothic and Risen series, chief among them being an action combat system and the ability to support a faction of the player’s choosing.

The game’s sequel, aptly titled ELEX II, is currently slated to release on March 1st, 2022 for PC, PlayStation 4/5, Xbox Series X/S, and Xbox One from publisher THQ Nordic. I recently had the chance to get my hands on the game’s first chapter, and after several hours braving the ruined, overgrown landscape, I found myself the most excited I’ve been for a release from the developer in years.

ELEX II once again puts you behind the reins of Commander Jax, now living the life of a hermit and far removed from the politics of the world’s five factions. Without warning, he’s thrust into the middle of an alien invasion that smashes his home to splinters and forces him to return to society.

After the events of the previous game, each of the remaining settlements took on policies of isolationism and territorial expansion, leading to disputes and squabbles between themselves. As a result, Jax has to work to create a “6th Power” with the express purpose of rallying the five factions against the invaders. Without any backing from the other groups, Jax’s main goal at the game’s beginning is to travel to each of them and garner support for the 6th Power, which serves as a perfect excuse to explore the game’s world.

Though the invading force is new to ELEX II, it’s abundantly clear you’re playing a sequel. Many of the NPCs you interact with in the first chapter are people that Jax has a history with and hasn’t seen in some time, resulting in a lot of dialogue referencing the first ELEX; I imagine if you’ve completed the original, you’ll feel like you jumped right back in with the sequel. As someone with only indirect knowledge of the title, it was easy enough to piece together the context, but even easier to let it go in one ear and promptly out the other whenever I heard a name I was unfamiliar with.

That said, I still found myself enjoying the character interactions and humor. Jax’s personality does suffer a bit from a “CoolDude McToughGuy” style of characterization, but some of the dialogue he has—particularly with his son—did a lot to humanize him in this early stage of the game.

Putting narrative to the side for now, ELEX II‘s initial gameplay is very true to its post-apocalyptic setting. As you travel between the settlements, you’ll come across hollowed-out buildings and decayed structures dotting large swaths of the landscape. These structures are almost always ripe for scavenging resources, and I quickly found out that if something caught my eye off in the distance, there was always something there for me to find. It helps that the game encourages you to set out and explore by granting you near-immediate access to a jetpack. Naturally it’s only good for a short burst to start with, but it’s a free jetpack. You just can’t beat that.

In that same vein, the level of agency the player is given to explore the world on their own is impressive. The mini-map is more of a radar, offering very little information outside of quest objectives and enemy positions, and the world map does little more than show you the topography of the ground and the general shape of any structure there. Aside from marked quest objectives, the only thing pointing you to specific locations is your own curiosity, and that makes for a much more engaging and rewarding feeling of exploration. Many open-world games have a tendency to mark things on the map preemptively, in turn making them into something of a to-do list, and the absence of this in ELEX II feels like a barrier is removed. Between each settlement, it’s just you, the world, and the roaming beasts that want Jax for a meal.

In terms of progression, the game isn’t afraid to give you things to work toward. Within thirty minutes of my first play session, I found a two-handed weapon that required a strength stat of 66, and I’d started with less than 20. You get ten points to distribute to the various attributes per level up, so the wait isn’t agonizing, but it’s a far cry from instant gratification. Similarly, I came across quite a few jetpack components, but it was some time until I had enough currency to actually install them at a workbench to improve its functionality.

This theme of building yourself up extends to the action itself, too. There were more than a few encounters I had to turn tail and run away from in this chapter, with reasons varying from being simply outnumbered to taking a wrong turn and finding a troll waiting to swat me like a fly (as denoted by three frightening skulls next to this health bar).

One of the most memorable moments took place when I took on a group of bandits. The melee attackers I could handle, but the two shotgunners forced me to run until a rabid dog sprinted through the bushes and distracted them long enough for me to deal the killing blows. It felt like an authentic, unscripted experience, and it was a treat to see the game’s difficulty working in tandem with the environment.

Combat (especially melee combat) has a considerable heft to it. Every swing is weighty, and in the case of charged attacks, you’re committing to multiple seconds of animation lock. Ranged combat is available in the form of bows, crossbows, guns, and the like. Each of them feels distinct from the other, which is necessary when your comparing loosing an arrow to firing a buckshot, but the non-firearm options did feel a bit undertuned compared to the damage I could get out of my melee weapons. I wasn’t able to dive into offensive magic as much as I wanted to in the first chapter, but magic in the hands of my follower NPCs was devastating. It was a treat to see a giant mosquito’s HP just melt after it caught a fireball with its face.

If you’ve had the pleasure of playing a Piranha Bytes game in the past, you’ll know they tend to feel a little rough around the edges mechanically, but never with enough severity to put you off of playing it. It’s never that something is outright broken, just a bit unrefined or clunky.

I was fully prepared to feel this way playing ELEX II, but the feeling never really came. Even from this relatively brief slice of the game, I’m confident in saying ELEX‘s sequel features some of the studio’s most polished combat controls to date. It isn’t always perfect, and balancing may change in the coming months, but it’s responsive and feels grounded. Perhaps most importantly, it feels fair when you take a hit thanks to enemy attack animations being clearly timed and telegraphed, which is especially promising considering the game is still about three months away from release.

The first chapter of ELEX II didn’t hook me with its characters or narrative, but it absolutely did with its highly engrossing world. Character interactions, while enjoyable, felt a little too referential to events of the previous game, though this could very well be a temporary consequence of the game needing to do some heavy lifting in order to catch new players up to speed.

It was easy to fall into a groove and lose track of time roaming the destroyed countryside with a companion NPC, slowly building up Jax’s capabilities while scavenging weapons and ammo to facilitate more of said roaming. I could easily see myself enjoying this gameplay loop for the span of an entire game, even if the narrative might take a little bit to kick into gear.

Preview build provided by THQ Nordic for PC. Screenshots taken by writer.