Elex II - Blast from the Past
PS5, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series, PC
Player choice is such an integral part of RPGs in their ability to reflect consequences back on the player. Reflecting on my real-life choices, one such I’ve made in recent memory is tapping out very early in the original Elex due to it being very, very arcane in a sea of hyper streamlined games back in 2017. However, in the ramping up of 2022, and an accompanied promise of refinement, Elex II has become a notable blip on the release radar despite the titanic titles surrounding it. And after spending close to 40 hours with Piranha Games’ newest RPG, Elex II offers a window into Gaming’s past in an unexpectedly enjoyable experience that’s still a little rough around the edges.
Simply put, Elex II is a massive game. One that is surprisingly mostly killer and rarely filler. With it comes an enormous world and story that has you, Jax, a gruff, bland, and stereotypical protagonist from a bygone era trying to prevent Magalan from being colonised by a race of cosmic beings called forth at the end of the previous game. Now while this sounds like every videogame plot ever, and it is, it’s the incorporation of player-choice that uplifts it in an unexpected way.
At both a macro and micro level, Elex II shines brightest when it’s bonking you on the head with consequences for some of the most innocuous decisions you make. Examples like walking with companions to their quests instead of fast traveling or closing a door during a break & enter give this mystique of the game testing you at every turn; reminding you that it isn’t strictly your dialogue or faction choice dictate the outcomes. It genuinely feels or at least creates a believable illusion, that the world perceives you and your actions, with most NPCs’ (especially your companions’) affection towards you being able to be shifted between hatred and adoring love.
A fair warning though, there is a stiltedness and flat delivery of a lot of the voice acting. Characters in conversation are animated and emote like a broomstick leaning against a wall, occasionally shifting in a breeze when they need to do something very specific. Albeit the conflicting ideological positions and territory disputes of the five factions creates an interesting enough backdrop to carry the weight of said broomstick issue. What elevates it beyond simple political disagreements, both internal and external to the factions, is the poignant characterisation of these conflicts being petty squabbles in the face of total annihilation. It’s a consistent and well-layered theme that runs throughout the entire game, only growing more prescient the more you discover about your common enemy the Skyands and their motivations. As a whole, it’s by no means brilliant or deeply insightful but uplifts a story that might otherwise be passé.
A criticism I would levy about “choice” mattering in Elex II is a missed opportunity that inaction isn’t a viable option. Several quests are given the air of urgency without actually being so. The issue is, when there’s some demonstration that even the smallest choices can have larger consequences, it gives weight to the urgency. However after letting a few of them stew for hours of gameplay it became apparent that it falls into the old trope of urgent quests being anything but, with no material outcomes if you leave them to the wayside. Maybe I want the Outlaws to be overrun by mutants, they’re assholes and Baxter their leader can eat my-
Dictating your overall playstyle is the vast plethora of skills that hits all the notes you expect it to. Whether you’re casting magic, shooting laser weapons or bludgeoning enemies with a caveman club, combat in Elex II can be best described as an obtuse, yet satisfying experience. Melee attacks have a floatiness to them, you slide off of and towards engaged enemies in a strange capacity. It’s as if every fight is a naked oil wrestling match with lasers and magic. It’s strange because most games that look like Elex II have finely tuned combat feedback for the player’s benefit, whereas here it feels like something ripped from the mid 2000s. Gunplay also has a weird obscurity, as sheathing and unsheathing your weapon is a quicker reloading method than watching the locked animation. None of these functions are a major deterrent from enjoying the combat as learning to overcome these oddities has a rustic charm of yesteryear. Especially when Elex II pulls no punches with its difficulty, with respect to its engrossing exploration, and progression.
When you initially set off into Magalan’s wasteland, it’s a visually impressive yet seemingly empty steppe that meets an icy tundra. It’s very experiential, immersive in some ways but definitely antiquated. There are no icons to tell you where the ‘content’ is as Elex II begs you to take your time, explore and accidentally stumble your way into its quests. It’s the way I personally like, and I find this method of exploration creates a level of attachment to the world when I’m not constantly looking at map markers to check for content.
So as you become more familiar with the intimidating map, the more traversal becomes a point of enjoyment by way of teleportation and your jetpack. It’s this wonderful positive feedback loop whereby the more you explore to find fuel upgrades for your jetpack, the quicker you can whoosh across the wastes and ergo find more upgrades hidden on higher ground. It’s as if they yoinked the only redeeming quality of Anthem and applied progression to it; making it all the more satisfying when you go from no jetpack juice in the beginning to having entire Dragon Ball Z-esque aerial fights with grotesque winged beasts.
Finally, and to that point, player progression is such a notable aspect of what really drives Elex II. If you give the game a chance, be warned that you’re going to get your ass handed to you in the beginning. However, by building up your character in the desired way, you’ll eventually eclipse the difficult curve. It has that classic sense of immense gratification you get when you meet back up with the Rock Dragon that gave you so much trouble 20 hours ago, sneeze in his general direction and he just absolutely crumbles to dust. Only for you to realise that was the son of a larger dragon that you now call daddy.
Dominating-daddy dragons aside, Elex II feels like a game out of its time. But while that might sound like a knock against it, I assure you it’s not. The oiliness of combat and stiltedness of the story’s presentation are definitely thorns in the side of this immense game, just not enough to bring the old beast down. Instead they feel like glimpses of how games used to play. Along with old school world-design and a sense of giving genuine consequences to the player, there’s nostalgic wonderment hidden in a game that’s more accessible than its predecessor. In all honesty, it’s worth taking a risk on if you find yourself yearning for a big RPG from times past.
Elex II was played on Xbox Series X with a code kindly provided by Koch Media