Piranha Bytes is something of a divisive developer. It maintains a cult-like following for its particular flavor of jank-ridden RPGs such as Risen, Gothic, and ELEX. While some find an endearing ambition and ingenuity in its games, others are unable to see past the layers of grimy technical issues. It would be a bit strange then if ELEX II were to buck that trend. I’m pretty sure the reactions are going to be just the same.
ELEX II is an open-world sci-fi fantasy RPG that follows on from the events of the previous game. It sees protagonist Jax in a bit of a funk on the world of Magalan, having settled down and started a family after assisting the Free Peoples plight previously. They’ve not listened to his warnings of an impending alien threat for years as they bicker over the precious ELEX. So of course, he’s proved right as ELEX II begins with Jax’s shack being destroyed by alien forces and him being left for dead. Now severely weakened, Jax grumpily goes about the business of fighting back against the invading enemy and bringing relative peace once more.
It’d be fair to say ELEX II likes to stay in the past despite its science-fiction nature. Its structure is much closer to the ambiguity and freedom of mid-2000s RPGs, and this is inarguably the game’s greatest strength, even if Piranha Bytes struggles to keep it all packed into a sturdy and resilient package.
You’re free to explore wherever you wish, with the rather obvious warning that some places will be beyond your current capabilities. Coupled with an upgradable jetpack, it actually makes exploration seem worthwhile, like there could be an intriguing new discovery just beyond every horizon, and in truth, that’s often the case in ELEX II. You could point to any number of breathtaking open worlds that fail to encourage wonder and curiosity because they signpost too much. ELEX II has unpolished beauty to its world that surprises you when it pops up in an otherwise typical setting. Little flourishes of identity show it’s not always about how much power you pack into your visuals.
Adding to that sense of discovery is just how varied Magalan is. The mixture of science fiction and high fantasy means you’re just as likely to see monolithic high-tech facilities as you are an enchanted forest or a Raptor. You could say Piranha Bytes is simply taking its ‘throw everything at it’ approach to everything, and this is just a consequence, but it largely works quite well as a combination.
Also key to this freedom is interaction with NPCs and Jax’s abilities. Conversations are meaningful, and offer up consequences for a surprisingly large amount of your choices. Skill trees with only a limited amount of leveling points to play for allows for some flexibility in playstyle whilst not making Jax overpowered. This system informs how you end up tackling ELEX II. Need to head into an irradiated area, probably best to boost Jax’s resistance to it. Want to take the invading forces big guns on? Then set Jax up to become a walking war machine. Jax can be anything fromYou play as the Jax you wish to see in this world, and the world tends to react in kind.
This freedom comes with drawbacks, as they always seem to with Piranha Bytes’ games.
The dialogue often undermines the depth of its impact. The game’s first conversation sets a horrible example for the rest of the game, even if it thankfully ends up being perhaps the worst offender. Each line contradicts the next, sending the whole thing round in the kind of absurd circles that would lead you to believe this was a comedy.
The choice and outcome are far stronger facets of conversation than the writing in ELEX II (and overall the writing is fine) and does a lot of the carrying in that package, but it doesn’t excuse the issue. It’s great that Jax can be role-played almost exactly in the manner you want, but not every tone works in every conversation, and once again, there are times when you end up having to contradict your character in order to get what you want.
ELEX II isn’t just about having lovely chats on a nice walk though, there’s a lot of fighting to be done as well. Skirmishes see Jax use guns, swords, shields, and a form of magic alongside his trusty jetpack as he tackles the alien threat on the ground and in the air. Combat generally feels like a smorgasbord of things. A little bit From Software there, a little Bioware here, and a smattering of some other ideas on top.
The original ELEX’s combat had something of a reputation for its challenge, and Piranha Bytes has tried to make the sequel a little more accessible with difficulty levels. Two things make that difficult. One is that the scaling of combat is inconsistent. There’s no proper middle-ground option, just way too easy, challenging, or ‘God, just chill for a second!’ to pick from. The other thing is that the various combat styles don’t entirely mesh together. The game’s clunky animation proves to be the chief issue, making the transition between combat options a little too laborious at times, and at worst, fiddly in a crisis.
Time spent with it did help me learn to offset its deficiencies for the most part, but there were still instances where things got heavy and the sloppier side of ELEX II conspired to fail me at a crucial moment.
When it steps outside its brighter moments, ELEX II often treads the fine line between tolerance and disdain. This is for a variety of reasons, but mostly because of its kitchen-sink approach to making an RPG. It’s a tricky problem to have because whilst I could advocate for Piranha Bytes trying to funnel its ambitions into something a little less expansive, a huge part of ELEX II’s appeal comes from this big messy, freeform jazz style. I found it to be both a breath of fresh air and an aggravating slog. Depending on how warmly you embrace this curiously-shaped package, it might end up surprising you.
Open worlds are an easy road to Bug City and ELEX II is naturally on it. I wouldn’t say it felt particularly severe given the reputation previous Piranha Bytes games have, but it still threw up more than a few instances of bad clipping, texture popping, wavering frame rates, crashes, and the like over the course of my journey. It remains fairly impressive that a game as open as this doesn’t end up being a total disaster.
Nothing out of the ordinary here. You can change key bindings, toggle various HUD options on and off, and subtitles are available, but this is a pretty barebones effort in terms of accessibility.
ELEX II VERDICT
While there’s plenty to applaud in ELEX II’s freeform open-world approach, it comes at something of a cost. Technical issues, inconsistent dialogue quality, and some wonky combat do much to muddy the good that can be found in Piranha Bytes expansive RPG.
TOP GAME MOMENT
The quite bonkers mixture of things. Dinosaurs, aliens, high fantasy, future tech, and more are all thrown together into this RPG soup.
Consequence-led conversation options
A freeing open-world
Plenty of variety to combat and world
Plenty of technical drawbacks
Combat is messy
Some questionable writing