Elex II Review (Xbox Series X)

Elex II Review: A Roleplaying Masterclass

 

Whilst never the most polished or technically sound of experiences, I’ve always had a soft spot for Piranha Bytes’ work. Janky, often bug-ridden, and always slightly clumsy feeling, what Piranha Bytes games lacked in polish they always made up for with an abundance of heart, soul, and ambition. The original Elex was no exception to this rule, and yet, it turned out to be perhaps my favorite title yet from the German studio. It was much to my delight then when I found out that Elex II was in development, and thankfully, it delivers in providing another slice of ambitious, deep, and of course, janky western RPG action.

 

A Straight Sequel

 

Elex II

Set after the conflict with the Albs and the Hybrids in the original Elex, Elex II sees players return to the world of Magalan.  We again take control of former Alb, Jax, who has spent his time since the first game warning the civilians of Magalan of the danger posed by a strange object that appeared in the sky following the defeat of the Hybrid in the original game. This ominous object, as it turns out, is a wormhole through which the Skyands, the new threat in Elex II, make their move on Magalan, terraforming its lands and infecting its inhabitants in what appears to be a hostile takeover.

The chain of events this new invasion sets off means Jax will have to swallow his pride in teaming up with antagonist from the original game, Dr. Adams, to aid in setting up the 6th Power, a new super faction with the ultimate goal of helping defend Magalan from this fresh new threat.

Admittedly, being a direct sequel, Elex II comes with a lot of baggage in the form of the backstories and events that factions and characters from the first game bring with them on this new adventure. Having said all that, I don’t think playing the predecessor is absolutely necessary to enjoy Elex II. Piranha Bytes has done an excellent job of frontloading the first chapter with dialogue and exposition that does stellar work in joining the dots for anyone who hasn’t had the opportunity to play through Elex.

 

Incredible Depth

 

ElexII (3)

Much like its predecessor, Elex II’s greatest strength lies within its world-building and ability to deliver quests that interlink and overlap in a non-linear fashion. Miraculously, it does so in a manner that somehow never feels disjointed. From the moment you receive your initial quest to help strengthen the 6th Power through aligning with one of Magalan’s primary factions, the choice, and freedom to go about achieving your goals are truly staggering.

I lost count of the number of times I would stumble across what seemed like a dead-end to a quest, before finding a solution presented itself much further down the line as a result of exploring and exercising my influence over how I approach my playthrough.

I’ve been refused entry to Berserker strongholds in my quest to bolster the 6th Power, only to stumble across a tiny, initially unimportant, side-quest at the other side of the map, which, upon completion, improved my standing with the Berserkers to the point where I was able to join their ranks and open up entire new quest chains. I’ve turned down opportunities to work for the savage Morkon faction, before finding a troubled Morkon trader in a totally different region who promised to gain me entry if I could help him find his stolen goods. I’ve even visited an empty amphitheater, only to randomly trigger an objective much later that prompted me to return there and attend a concert performed by rock legend Billy Idol (I kid you not, this is a thing, and it’s glorious).

What I’m really trying to get at here, is that Elex II is a game that manages to break down that awkward barrier between side-quests and critical path objectives that exist in so many RPGs. I’d go so far as to say that side-quests are virtually non-existent, such is the ripple effect that even the most minor of actions can have.

It’s unbelievably refreshing. Rather than following a series of linear objectives across the map, you’re instead invited to explore and immerse yourself in the alien world of Magalan, drawn in by the emergent way in which the art of the possible presents itself as you go about accomplishing your goals. That Pirahna Bytes were able to keep this up over my 40 or so hours with the game, and still leave me feeling like I had barely scratched the surface of this world, speaks volumes about the scale of the choice on offer.

Interestingly, Elex II landed with me around the same time I was starting to sample Guerrilla Games’ latest epic, Horizon: Forbidden West. Jumping from Elex II to Horizon was an incredibly jarring experience largely due to the reasons set out above. Compared to the incredibly linear nature in which Horizon tells its story, Elex II feels incredibly liberating. It draws me back to that word I used at the start; ambition. Whilst this is a game that, of course, does not even begin to scratch the surface of its triple-A competitors in terms of polish and budget when it comes to sheer ambition and complexity in how you can carve your own path through its narrative, Elex II is leaps and bounds ahead of any other competing open-world action RPG that has come out of the west.

 

Slow But Effective Progression

 

Elex II

The depth of the world and quest progression extends to character development also. It’s all too common these days for RPGs to instantly make you feel like a God. That couldn’t be further from the truth in Elex II. Starting off incredibly weak, Jax barely can effectively wield the broken pipe you start off with. Put some time in, though, and you will find that Elex II has one of the most satisfying progression trajectories in recent memory.

It may not seem that way at first; experience and levels are doled out slowly in Elex II. Slowly but surely, though, you will dump points into a number of different attributes, meaning you can swap that damaged pipe up for a slightly stronger weapon, that makes the world slightly more approachable. This is a world where progression comes in tiny increments, rather than huge jumps, as evidenced by the roughly 20 hours it took me before I had wormed my way into the Berserkers ranks and was able to find someone to teach me in their ways of pyromancy.

Whilst this extremely gradual curve may frustrate the more bloodthirsty out there, it turns each level gained into a cause for celebration. I can’t even begin to explain how happy I was when I finally hit level 6 and had put enough points into strength to be able to ditch that broken pipe, allowing me to down basic enemies in three hits rather than four which enhanced my survivability ever so slightly. Finally passing the stat checks needed to start learning magic became a huge game-changing moment, which opened-up regions that were previously inaccessible due to their difficulty. Then, when I finally felt strong enough to hold my own in combat, I set about turning Jax into a top-tier blacksmith and engineer, able to craft my own weapons and upgrade my trusty jetpack, which makes its return after proving its usefulness in Elex.

Like other Pirahna Bytes games before, I think it is this initial hump in the progression that will turn most players off Elex II. Whilst I loved it, Elex II is already an incredibly difficult game at times, even in the lower settings. I fully appreciate that slow progression along with this difficulty may be a deal-breaker for anyone who appreciates a sense of immediate gratification in their RPGs. You won’t find that with Elex II but should you persevere and take solace in the fact that this isn’t a game to be rushed, you will uncover how incredibly rewarding the progression systems truly are.

 

Expected Jank

 

ElexII

If there is one area that doesn’t quite match up to the ambition of the rest of the package, it is, of course, the presentation and general way in which Elex II feels to play. Piranha Bytes games are known for having their fair share of jank, and Elex II is no exception.

Combat, for example, still feels wooden and weightless. Much like the first game, melee combat is particularly rough, with awkward animations, lack of feedback, and an unpredictable framerate being in plentiful supply. Using magic fairs slightly better, but the visual effects are unspectacular, to say the least, and the sound design never quite conveys the sense that your spells are forces to be reckoned with. Combat isn’t terrible as such, but engaging in combat, and some of Elex II’s incredibly tough boss battles were some of my least favorite moments of my playthrough.

The visuals are also a bit of a mixed bag. This is a game that undoubtedly looks better than its predecessor, on one hand. Textures and draw distance are much improved, and the level of detail in the environments has also seen a decent bump. On the other hand, character models still look and move like they’ve been ripped straight from the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 era, with incredibly basic animations and lip-syncing that is truly the stuff of nightmares.

Performance-wise, things also aren’t great. Whilst it was serviceable for a lot of my playthrough, combat would bring the framerate to a halt at times, and I’d frequently experience further drops when exploring, especially near water. Bear in mind, however, that I was playing on a pre-release build, so the situation may improve come launch dependent on what patches are rolled out.

Whether or not the above issues are enough to make you avoid Elex II will depend on the player. I’m conditioned to expect these issues from Piranha Bytes; after all, they’re a small studio, with huge ambitions and a relatively limited budget, and what they lack in polish, is more than made up for with how deep and engaging the game is in all other respects. If you are someone though, who has previously been unable to enjoy a Pirahna Bytes game due to the points discussed here, then I do have to flag that whilst Elex II is an improvement, it isn’t a huge departure in the jank department.

 

Conclusion

 

Elex II presents a world and narrative of immeasurable depth in terms of the freedom you have to play your way and the choices you’re presented with as a player. Couple that with an extremely gratifying sense of progression, and you have a world that begs to be visited for repeat playthroughs. If you can look past the inevitable lack of polish, and archaic presentation issues, do yourself a favor and don’t let this absolute gem pass you by.


Final Verdict:4.5/5

Elex II

Available On: Xbox Series S/X (Reviewed), PS4, PS5, PC; Publisher: THQ Nordiq; Developer: Pirahna Bytes; Released 1 March, 2022; Players: 1; ESRB: M for Mature; MSRP: $59.99

 

Shane Boyle
Shane's passion for gaming began many moons ago upon receiving his first console, Sega's Master System. These days, he games across a variety of systems, though he primarily sticks to his PlayStation 5 and Series X. Despite enjoying a wide variety of genres, he has a huge soft spot for RPGs, both Western and Japanese, whilst also being a self-professed Destiny 2 addict. Outside of gaming, Shane enjoys live music (as long as it's rock or metal!) and going to stand-up comedy shows, and is also Father to a little boy who he hopes will one day be raiding alongside him in Destiny!

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