February 2022 has been an incredible month for gaming, with titles like Elden Ring, Horizon Forbidden West, Sifu, Total War: Warhammer III, Lost Ark and other high-profile titles releasing within the span of fewer than 30 days.
While most publishers would probably be very hesitant about pushing out a new release immediately following this barrage of games, THQ Nordic decided that now would actually be the perfect time to launch Piranha Bytes’ latest title, Elex 2. I’m not entirely sure why they decided to do that, but here we are.
As a long-time fan of the German developer, I was pumped to check out its newest game and see how Elex 2 compared to its predecessor. The original had an interesting setting that combined fantasy, sci-fi and post-apocalyptic themes, but was unfortunately plagued by a number of issues that prevented it from achieving its full potential. Elex 2 is more or less in a similar situation.
You once again take on the role of Jax, a former Alb commander who decides to live in seclusion after defeating a powerful entity known as the Hybrid, and performing a variety of other legendary deeds, during the events of the original game. Jax is inadvertently dragged into the thick of things once again after alien invaders descent upon Magalan and threaten to wipe out all life from the planet.
If you’re familiar with previous Piranha Bytes games you already know what to expect from the opening hours of Elex 2. After some introductory videos and a short tutorial section, you’re chucked into the open world and are given free rein to go anywhere you want. And I do mean anywhere.
Much like previous PB games, Elex 2 features a completely open world with zero loading screens. The only thing preventing you from exploring any part of the map from the get-go is the fact that some areas are guarded by enemies there are too strong to tackle at the beginning of the game. You can usually bypass them if you really want to, but you probably won’t get very far without decent equipment.
Sequels generally do a pretty poor job at explaining why the protagonist has forgotten all the skills learned during the previous game and needs to start from scratch all of a sudden. Elex 2 is a bit of an exception. Near the start of the game, Jax gets infected with an unknown illness after being wounded by one of the alien creatures.
The illness makes Jax physically weaker while also affecting his memory. Which explains why he now needs to learn everything all over again. Piranha did something similar back in the day to explain why the Nameless Hero had to start from scratch in Gothic 2. The memory loss also serves as a convenient way of introducing players new to the series to characters from the original game.
Characters and Story
Just like Gothic 2, Elex 2 assumes you’re already familiar to some extent with its setting and characters. The game picks up several years after the events of the original, and much has changed in the meantime. The Albs are now in control of Ignadon, the Berserkers have occupied the Fort, and there’s a new faction known as the Morkons. On a more personal note, Jax and Caja now have a son called Dex.
If you’re new to the series, I imagine all of that probably sounds like a weird soap opera. I get it. To be honest, I was pretty confused myself by the exposition dump you get near the start of the game, especially the part involving Dex.
I never went back to Elex after playing through it back in 2017 when it came out and couldn’t remember most of the story and characters. However, I do remember not wanting to romance Caja in the first game because I found her annoying, opting instead to romance the only other viable candidate, Nasty.
For whatever reason, they decided to go with Caja as the canon romance option and, sure enough, she started getting on my nerves once again. Unfortunately, this will become a running theme with a lot of the characters found in Elex 2.
Characters in this game are a bit of a mixed bag. You’ve got some pretty interesting ones like Adam, a former villain turned good guy or Falk, an android on a quest to learn more about what it means to be human. However, you’ll also run into more than a few boring and often obnoxious characters that have about as much depth to them as a shallow pond.
Luckily, many of the game’s characters do have some redeeming qualities, especially in the voice acting and lip-syncing departments. While not great across the board, these areas have been vastly improved since the original Elex. Elex 2 has some of the best lip-syncing and voice acting of any Piranha Bytes game and this extends to the protagonist.
Jax is being voiced by a different actor in this one who, if I’m not mistaken, is the same person who voiced the Nameless Hero in Gothic 3. Or someone who sounds just like him. I wasn’t able to find out if it’s the same voice actor but, regardless of who he is, he did a good job. I imagine some people will be unhappy with the decision to change the voice actor but I personally think it was the right call.
As far as Dex is concerned, there’s not really much to say about the character. He asks dumb questions, draws ugly pictures, and can simply be ignored for most of the game. Which I strongly recommend doing.
After having recently played through the God of War PC port I can confidently say that there are indeed games out there that do a good job at presenting a believable and complex father-son relationship. Even in a fantasy setting. Sadly, Elex 2 is not one of these games.
Giving Jax a family serves no real purpose than to raise the stakes of the alien invasion and to show that he’s no longer the cold-hearted Alb from the first game. Jax grew, you see. He’s now a family man and has more motivation to fight for the freedom of Magalan. But while all of that may sound compelling on paper, it’s not something you’re likely to care about while playing the game.
Elex 2 has a story but it’s not a story-driven game. Not really. You will come across plenty of interesting side stories as you explore the world of Magalan but the over-arching narrative is unlikely to suck you in. But that’s okay because following the narrative is not the main point of the game as far as I’m concerned.
Welcome to Magalan
Piranha Bytes games have always revolved more around exploration than anything else. Sure, there’s usually some sort of cataclysmic, potentially world-ending event driving the plot forward but, as is the case with most open-world RPGs, you’ll miss out on a lot by trying to stick too closely to the main story. The game tries to steer you towards the main plot every now and then by instilling a false sense of urgency related to Jax’s infection, but there are no consequences for ignoring it as far as I can tell.
Magalan was designed for players who love immersing themselves in fantastical sprawling worlds while searching every nook and cranny for long-lost treasures and secrets. If that sounds like your cup of tea, you definitely won’t be disappointed by what Elex 2 has to offer. Everything in this huge open-world is hand placed and there are plenty of interesting things to discover just by randomly wandering around. Including quite a few easter eggs.
To facilitate exploration, the developers worked hard to improve one of the original game’s best features – the jetpack. Yes, there is a jetpack in this game. And yes, it’s pretty awesome. The game gives you the jetpack immediately after the opening sequence and doesn’t really put any restrictions on when or where you can use it.
Fuel capacity is very limited at first but you can still use the jetpack for quick traversal. As well as escaping enemies when you get overwhelmed and landing safely after jumping from high places. You can jump from tall buildings, cliffs or even mountains without taking any damage once you become good at managing your fuel reserves.
As you progress through the game, you’ll be able to greatly expand fuel capacity and upgrade the jetpack in a variety of ways. Towards the late stages of the game, you’ll be able to do things like float in mid-air while raining down fire on helpless enemies on the ground or fly around in high-tech armor pretending to be Ironman. Getting there takes quite a bit of time, though.
From Zero to Hero, Eventually
One of the other things Piranha Bytes excels at is character progression. In all of the studio’s games you start off with little more than the shirt on your back and have to struggle to acquire even a small sliver of power.
You can get your hands on decent armor only after joining a faction while weapons require a hefty investment of skill points and resources before they can be equipped. Same goes for things like magic, crafting, thieving skills, and pretty much anything else. Elex 2 follows Piranha’s tried-and-true formula to the letter.
During the opening hours of the game, all the equipment you’ll come across is junk, in many cases literally. The game features some of the most impractical and ridiculous examples of armor I’ve ever encountered in a video game.
I use the term ‘armor’ very loosely here because what you’re really wearing are things like slouch hats, sunglasses, studded leather jackets and shirts with random bits of metal, straw, and pieces of tire stuck to them.
Don’t worry, though, because you can increase your defensive capabilities by equipping a shield comprised of a bunch of frying pans soldered together. I’d almost give them a pass for that one since it’s an obvious reference to PUBG but it’s not the game’s only example of a cooking implement pretending to be a shield.
To say that none of that stuff would be useful in combat would be an understatement. My problem with a lot of Elex 2’s equipment is that it doesn’t make sense in the context of the world established by the developers themselves. People have forges in Magalan so why not melt the frying pans and use the metal to make a solid shield?
But let me give you another example. In The Fort you come across a blacksmith that sells some of the aforementioned shirts with junk attached to them alongside hoods and arrow blueprints. Upon convincing him to teach you his skills, he can show you how to improve your armor rating and resistances. None of that makes any sense.
First off, the man is presumably an armorer who’s selling everything except actual armor. Secondly, he’s supposedly also a blacksmith but he doesn’t actually sell any weapons. Instead, he asks Jax to bring him parts of various creatures so he can use them to forge a special sword. Huh? How exactly are you going to make a sword out of animal parts?
Listen, I don’t expect too much realism from a fantasy/sci-fi game but I do take issue with absurd things like that. You can have characters that behave realistically even in a fictional world. Piranha Bytes themselves proved that with the first two Gothic games. Unfortunately, the studio once again chose to draw inspiration from the objectively inferior Gothic 3 when designing most of the NPCs.
Affiliation Not Required
Circling back to the topic of equipment, you will of course gain access to better (and better looking) weapons and armor as you progress through the game. Towards the later stages of Elex 2 you’ll have the chance to get your hands on some fantastic-looking armor sets, including some improved versions of sets from the first game.
Unlocking most of Elex 2’s best equipment requires you to join a faction. This has been the case with all of the studio’s previous games but there are a couple of important differences this time around. Instead of the usual three joinable factions, Elex 2 features five of them – the Outlaws, the Berserkers, the Albs, the Clerics, and the Morkons.
Each of the five factions specializes in a specific style of combat and offers exclusive equipment you won’t be able to get anywhere else. You can join certain factions and then switch your allegiances further down the line, but once you advance to a certain rank you’re stuck with that faction for good.
For the first time in a Piranha Bytes game, you can play through the entirety of Elex 2 without joining a faction. Since much of the story revolves around uniting all of Magalan’s factions against a common threat, it makes a lot of sense to have the option to remain independent. However, there are so many perks to joining a faction that it’s hard to justify being a lone wolf. Still, it’s nice that the option is there.
Everyone Disliked That
Throughout the course of the game, you’ll get the opportunity to recruit companions from all of the joinable factions, plus a couple of wildcards. Elex 2’s companions are far from memorable but they do come in handy in a fight and occasionally make interesting comments. More often than not, though, they just spew random lines that may or may not be relevant to what you’re currently doing.
I was disappointed to find out that the developers brought back the approval system from the original game. The same dreaded system used by games like Fallout 4 that tells you when your companions liked or disliked something you do or say. This is one of the worst systems ever designed and I can’t understand for the life of me why some studios insist on using it.
Just to be clear, I’m not against having a system where your actions have an impact on how certain characters perceive you. Quite the contrary. I love games where your actions have consequences. What I don’t love is games that constantly inform you whenever you’re doing something that a character approves or disapproves of.
Seeing things like “Caja likes that” is annoying enough as it is but the game takes things one step further by having characters verbally enforce what you already knew by reading the text.
The main problem comes from the vagueness of this system. Characters don’t have well-defined personalities like in Mass Effect, for example, which makes it hard to know why they like or dislike something. They don’t explain their change in disposition either. Most of the time they just say things like “that’s good” whenever they approve of something, but there’s no further context. What’s the point of all of this again?
Piranha Bytes have been making games where actions have consequences for longer than most studios but their early titles went about it in a much more natural way. Elex 2 goes to great lengths to inform you when you’re being nice or naughty instead of letting you discover the consequences of your actions on your own. This extends not only to the protagonist’s relationship with other characters but also to Jax’s alignment.
Elex 2 tells you that your “Destruction” increased or decreased after pretty much every conversation but there’s no way of knowing what that actually means. The original Elex had a similar system but instead of “Destruction” you had “Cold”. I didn’t see the point of this system back then and I don’t see it now. If this was an attempt to replicate similar systems found in Bioware games I have to say that it comes across as half-hearted and amateurish.
Elex 2 Needed More Time in the Oven
Before I start wrapping up my review of Elex 2 we have to talk about the game’s technical issues. Of which there are many. If there was ever a game that deserves to be labeled as Eurojank it’s Elex 2. With all the good and the bad connotations that come with that term.
Elex 2 has severe technical issues that will greatly limit the enjoyment of the game for a lot of people. I’m not even going to waste time talking about glitches and bugs because they’re all too common in open-world RPGs. What I do want to focus on is the performance.
Trying to maintain constant FPS in this game is an impossible challenge regardless of your hardware. I’m specifically talking about the PC version here but I imagine the performance on consoles isn’t exactly stellar either.
As long as you’re okay with turning down some of the graphical settings, the game should run more or less smoothly while you’re wandering around the open world. Once you step foot inside a settlement, though, expect your frames to drop like a rock.
Sadly, we’ve seen more than a few examples of poorly optimized games as of late, including the likes of Warhammer 3, Horizon Forbidden West and even Elden Ring to some extent. I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising that Elex 2 also launched in a poor state, but that doesn’t mean we can just overlook its problems.
In addition to certain areas of the game being almost unplayable, Elex 2 also has a tendency to crash quite a bit, especially during combat. Granted, the situation has improved somewhat thanks to the day one patch but there’s still a lot of work to be done.
Between the poor performance, nausea-inducing camera and lack of an FOV slider, it’s very hard to play Elex 2 for more than an hour at a time without becoming enraged.
As far as the combat and animations are concerned, they’re pretty much what you would expect from a PB game. Combat has always been the studio’s Achilles heel and that continues to be the case with Elex 2. There have been some slight improvements since the last game but a lot of things still feel janky and sluggish.
When THQ Nordic acquired Piranha Bytes back in 2019 I was expecting them to send some folks from other subsidiaries like Gunfire Games to help with the development of Elex 2. And future PB games. Imagine a Piranha Bytes game with the fluid and action-packed combat of Darksiders. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. I don’t know much about the inner workings of game publishers but I guess sending devs from one studio to another is probably more complicated than it sounds.
Magalan is a world unlike any other. It takes a lot of work to combine fantasy, sci-fi and post-apocalyptic themes in a way that doesn’t result in an incomprehensive mess. Fighting aliens and mutants with poisonous warhammers and laser rifles while your companion shoots fireballs at mechs and drug-fueled cowboys is quite an experience. Sure, you will invertedly get some inconsistencies when you combine all these different elements. But, for the most part, this bizarre setting works.
Equal parts wonderful and infuriating, Elex 2 is a game that follows Piranha Bytes’ unique formula to the letter. Say what you want about Piranha Bytes but the studio always manages to impress its fans with unpolished and janky games that somehow still deliver a memorable experience.
In spite of all the criticism it has received over the years, the studio once again sticks to its guns and makes another game that is unapologetically Piranha Bytes. You have to respect that level of commitment. Elex 2 isn’t for everyone and the developers know that. As always, their goal is to make something their fans will enjoy and that’s exactly what we’re getting here.
I won’t lie. If you’re new to PB games you’ll probably have a hard time understanding what all the fuss is about. Elex 2 doesn’t make a good first impression and feels almost intentionally hostile to new players. Expect to die repeatedly during the first few hours while constantly questioning some of the weird design decisions made by the developers. If you manage to get past those initial hurdles, though, you’ll find a very ambitious game that greatly rewards patience and perseverance.
Elex 2 is spectacular at its best and abysmal at its worst. We rarely get games that are so specifically tailored towards a certain audience. If you’re part of that audience, you’re going to have a field day with this one; either now or after PB rolls out some much-needed optimization patches and hotfixes.
If you’re new to the studio’s work, on the other hand, I can only give Elex 2 a soft recommendation. I enjoyed my time with Elex 2 so far and will continue playing it but the game is definitely not for everyone. Nor does it try to be.