It feels really weird to admit that Elex is one of the few games that really left an impression on me at E3. For one, the state in which I saw it was pretty rough, and it was immediately obvious that Elex has a mountain of obstacles to climb before it will be anywhere near ready. Despite all that, I walked out of the demo feeling strangely enthused by the whole thing. Maybe it's because Elex is developed by Piranha Bytes, the names behind Gothic and Risen—two series that are as brilliant as they are flawed—or maybe it's the science-fiction-meets-fantasy setting that endears itself to me so well. Or you know what? Maybe it's just because Elex looks damn amazing and I don't need to justify why it excites me. What I can do, however, is explain what Elex is.
Well, it's an open world action RPG in a very similar vein to everything Piranha Bytes has done before. You wander around in third person, hacking up monsters and completing quests and exploring. But one of the biggest key distinctions is that Piranha Bytes has abandoned their medieval homeland for something altogether more original and exciting, and it plays a large part of why I'm excited for Elex.
While it doesn't take place on our Earth per se (just one extremely akin to it), Elex is set after an apocalypse of sorts when a meteorite struck the planet, bringing devastation. It also brought the magical crystal substance, Elex, which, overtime, has basically imbued the planet with a stiff injection of the fantastical. From the get go, I absolutely love this aesthetic. It's at once familiar and yet exotic, as it has the general structure of a fantasy landscape that, when you peer closely at it, is actually stitched together with highways, dilapidated skyscrapers, and mysterious technology. In a sense, Elex is a game about the seed of a new society sprouting in the ashes of an old one.
And that's really what's drawing me so closely to Elex at this moment. The rest of it seems impressive, and Piranha Bytes have shown they're capable of making RPGs that are typically good if not great, but I do think Elex represents the break from tradition that the studio needs to really reclaim their glory days of Gothic 1 and 2.
Elex is an absolutely massive open world free from loading screens that manages to deliver quite a bit of variety while still looking cohesive. At one point in our demo, we unhooked the camera from its third person perspective and one of the developers took me for a spin to tour everything they had created of the world so far. It was a series of moments where I thought, surely this world has to end sometime, and it just never really did. Eventually, we appeared back at my body and I realized we had basically gone full circle, and it actually felt kind of amazing. I'm typically one who cautions that size isn't everything (HAH!) but I know Gothic and Risen well enough that I believe they're both games that could do with a larger playground—especially one that's handscrafted.
The rest of the demo mostly consisted of touring features that aren't all that groundbreaking but, hey, I'm glad they're there nonetheless. For one, Elex takes place in a fully simulated world where characters move and act autonomously to your actions. As we were touring the world, we passed by a city with what looked like an energy shield dome, and out of its front gates two NPCs came sprinting toward the wilderness beyond. I asked the developer what they were doing, and the only reason I believed his reply that he had no clue was because he genuinely looked confused by their actions.
But what this means is that Elex is going to be very similar to a lot of open world RPGs of note, though with some subtle twists. At one point we entered a rustic village and entered someone's home. When we stepped into their private bedroom and the resident saw us, he immediately tried to remove us from the premises. It's not groundbreaking—a lot of games feature crime systems—but hey, it's there. It also extends to whole villages. Committing crimes will put you on a blacklist for that village for a time, that is unless you can commit the dirty deed without being spotted or by eliminating witnesses. The village will only learn of your actions if someone makes it to the village elder to tell them what you did.
As we sprinted away from the chaos of a dozen angry villagers (someone drew a sword and we had to defend ourselves!) the developer steered the character towards a cliff and lept off. For a moment I thought, great, this game doesn't even have fall damage? But the truth is that it has something much better: a jetpack.
This allows you to get around much easier, but the more subtle effect is that Piranha Bytes is able to build a much more interesting landscape to play around in. Verticality seems to be a big part of the design of the world, as villages reside on cliff edges or great structures from the past age jut out of the earth like gnarled fingers for you to climb on.
Finally, the last thing we spent time with was combat, which was my least favorite part of the demo because it was also the part that needed the most work. Being third person, the combat plays somewhat similar to previous Risen games and uses a stamina meter to dictate how many actions you can take before needing a breather. If you're unfamiliar with that, think of a less hardcore Dark Souls.
There's loads of different weapons, including guns, that you can mess around with but I found enjoying the combat to be hard just because it all felt so rough. There was a distinct delay in the timing which was frustrating to wrestle with, and it just didn't feel nearly as smooth as it should be. But, I will say that all the fundamentals like parrying are there, so if Piranha Bytes can work out the kinks, I'm sure combat will be just fine.
Either way, Elex really made an impression on me, and I feel excited about an open world RPG in a way that I haven't since The Witcher 3. That's not to say that Elex will be the next Witcher, looking at Gothic and Risen I'd be amazed, but those two series of games have long since been some of the most rewarding RPGs of their time. And yes, they're always a little broken, but they're also really endearing. Elex might not be amazing, but I hope it's going to be really damn good. If Piranha Bytes can remain aware of what held their previous efforts back while simultaneously pushing Elex forward, we might just have a winner on our hands.