PAX West 2017: Elex is Piranha Bytes’ Dream Game

There is no faulting developer Piranha Bytes for being ambitious. The makers of the Gothic and Risen series has always had an eye for sprawling, complicated RPGs that pile on the gameplay. Every one of their titles is rife with myriad decision points and methods for reaching them. They are also known for being a bit flawed in a way that some simply cannot forgive. I’m not one of those and am more than willing to overlook the wrinkles to enjoy an overall experience. With the demo I was able to enjoy of their newest title, Elex, I didn’t notice any of those wrinkles. It might have been due to luck, or it could have been that this is a better polished experience than the developer’s prior efforts, but Elex has the potential to be Piranha Bytes’ magnum opus.

The setting is one that melds science fiction and fantasy. On an alien world filled with many factions, a substance, the titular Elex, is discovered after it literally falls from the sky. The material is soon discovered to have some interesting properties, giving the person who uses it newfound powers at the expense of their ability to feel or display emotions. The various groups around the world have decided that emotions are overrated and are desperately interested in getting their hands on the concoction before they are outmatched in a war of power. The player comes in without a specific allegiance to any one organization. They can play them all against the other, or swear loyalty to one. This is truly intended to be a wide open playground where the gamer can cut their own swath through the story.

Storytelling is extremely important in Elex. More so as the player really has true freedom. All options are open, to the point that the developer ensured that, even if the player kills all of the quest givers, there is still a way to complete the story. It might be extremely difficult, but it absolutely can be done. Of course, most folks in the world won’t take kindly to a spree killer and might do their best to stop the player. Plus, completing quests grants rewards, and those will be needed to survive in this brutal world. There are any number of things looking to kill the player, from fire breathing Utahraptor type creatures, garden variety bandits, and any number of other foe. Expect to be stalked and attacked when exploring. This happened to me more times than I care to admit during my demo.

This isn’t some haphazardly thrown together environment, either. Each time I died, I decided  to take a different path from the starting area and I never got through all of the options from just that one point.  The sprawling landscape is one that shows great care in design. Every landmark seen in a distance can be reached, with the end of the map being cut off with natural formations that make sense. Rock outcrops, mountains, villages, and even futuristic arches dominating the skyline are just begging to be explored by the intrepid player during this extremely long game. Moreover, they deserve to be explored, as every area I came across was interesting in its own way.

Although the game is challenging to a careless player, it’s not as though the developer is miserly with the implements of self protection. Embracing the melding of science fiction and fantasy, players will be able to use medieval weapons or an energy rifle to great effect depending on how they spec out. Flaming swords and lasers are both completely common here, and the planet is put together in such a way that the mash up feels entirely cohesive. These options make fighting the creatures that populate the landscape highly entertaining. Even running away can be quite fun as it can be done with the help of a jet pack. More games need jet packs.

While the final product will need to be seen to make a judgement, especially as I spent a large portion running in where angels fear to tread and ended up dead, this could very well be Piranha Bytes’ best game to date. Elex is a title that they’ve wanted to create for years and it shows. With the success of the Gothic and Risen titles, most publishers have wanted them to revisit those again. Fortunately, publisher THQ Nordic decided to take a chance on this one and it’s an opportunity that Piranha Bytes has no desire to squander. Everything I saw exuded great care. It felt like I was playing with the developer’s dream game. Even the representative that was showing me the ropes had a glint in his eye as I kept diving back in after every failure. It feels great to play and looks darn good, too. We’ll know for certain when it launches on October 17 for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, but I think this might secretly become one of the must-play titles of the year.