Elex II Review
I reviewed the original Elex back in 2018 based on some positive word of mouth and impressions from friends. While Elex was a clunky and ostensibly ugly game at times, I grew to really appreciate its strengths in solid quest writing and detailed quest design. Additionally, the premise of uniting different factions against a common threat, while maybe a little well-worn, was executed pretty well. Elex is a game that I often recommend to fans of RPGs, even if it comes with a few caveats to manage expectations.
The potential behind an Elex II was something I have been genuinely excited about ever since, to see if developer Piranha Bytes would be able to take the foundation of the first game and improve on some of the shortcomings behind the game's combat, presentation, world design, and overall level of polish.
Unfortunately, not only does Elex II not improve upon the original game, I find it a hard game to recommend to anyone besides the most ardent die-hard fans of Elex.
Similar to Elex, the primary premise of Elex II is that the Factions of the world of Magalan must be united against a common enemy, this time against a new alien threat known as the Skyands. The Berserker, Cleric, and Outlaw factions of the original Elex are joined by new factions of the Morkon and the Albs -- the original game's antagonists. Jax, an ex-Alb commander, once again finds himself made aware of the looming threat and in a position to attempt to align the various factions against these new alien invaders.
While the original Elex felt a little bit manufactured in a way to have the idea of "Factions" so clearly delineated across the continent, it was something that didn't really bother me too much. In Elex, each of the three major factions has their own region of the map, sets of gear and abilities, and tiered 'ranks' that Jax would progress through after joining. It felt clearly designed around "being a video game" rather than a believable world. Still, it was something that ended up feeling a bit of a nitpick to focus on as it was a new IP and a new cast of characters that the player could interact with. Elex provided a lot of freedom to players to explore the game how they wished with clear consequences to their actions. The framework was a bit stiff, but it ended up fitting the game well.
However, in Elex II I found myself running into these same impressions of "overly manufactured-ness" again with the now five factions of Magalan. Not only are most of the original factions in a mostly unchanged state than they were after the events of the first game, Jax as a protagonist himself almost feels like a different character entirely. While several returning characters do make appearances in Elex II, it feels as though a reset button was pushed with the events of the original game feeling like a distant memory. There is some attempt at justification to try to explain why Jax isn't more well known or regarded for his role in the events of only a handful of years ago and why the factions have stayed quite stagnant, but the end result is that Elex II feels in many ways like a retread. The new Morkon and Alb factions give a little bit more variety here, but only slightly.
Within the first few hours of Elex II, Jax finds himself in a prominent role of establishing "The 6th Power" a ludicrously on-the-nose named force that can counteract the oncoming alien invasion. While the creativity here is pretty lacking, it does create enough of a foundation to then set the player off in whatever direction they choose to start interacting with the different groups of the world. I wish this was implemented into the game a little bit more organically, but it serves its purpose just fine.
Despite feeling a bit samey with the introductory sections of the game, my first 20 or so hours with Elex II were initially very promising. I originally explored around a bit with the new Morkon faction, reunited with Nasty - a favorite character from the initial game, and encountered some similarly intricate quest design that was reminiscent of what the original game managed to execute so well.
Elex II allows the player to roam the world fairly freely from the outset, though in a fashion similar to Elex, Jax is initially quite weak and will need to spend some time being extra careful around anything involving combat. As I became more familiar with the world map, the location & main characters of each faction, and was able to get some better gear and attributes, Elex II was on a trajectory of being equally compelling as the first game for a lot of the same reasons.
One of my first series of quests started out involving tracking down a Morkon trader named Ivan, who was located at the Berserker Fort in another region of the map. In addition to this, the Berserkers are currently occupying a previously Outlaw-occupied region of the world, and I had an additional set of quests to infiltrate the Fort with the goal of acting as a double agent for the Outlaw faction as well. Working between the three factions of the Outlaws, Berserkers, and Morkons early on also meant that I had additional quest threads to follow to make nice (or make enemies) with different key members of the different groups. What started as a simple task -- to go find and return Ivan to the Morkons -- ended up resulting in several hours of following different intersecting questlines with ever-shifting objectives that took me to a variety of locations to fully resolve.
On top of this, I found myself joining the Berserkers and getting access to new gear and new spells in the process of carrying out the above questlines. Objectives were varied, combat was becoming less of a chore as I began to establish my playstyle and gear, and the story delivery was genuinely engaging. While certain quests were more "fetch quest" like in nature, many involved some degree of incorporating skill checks, fighting a mini-boss, or making some sort of choice about who to specifically side with. At this point, I was feeling quite positive about Elex II overall.
While combat is still not very fluid in Elex II, I found myself enjoying enemy encounters in Elex II a slight bit more than I did in the original game. Most gear or abilities is tied to the attributes of Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, and Intelligence, with minimum thresholds in each needing to be reached in order to equip stronger weapons or armor. Attribute Points are awarded upon level up and are quite scarce overall, requiring players to specialize in one combat style or another in order to equip the strongest gear or use the most powerful spells.
In addition to a relative scarcity of Attribute Points, Learning Points -- which teach abilities, and Elexit- the game's primary currency, are also quite scarce when starting out. This often means that choices between when to spend on new gear or new skills is often a difficult and meaningful decision since it's usually not possible to afford everything you'd like. Elex II does not flatter the player with copious amounts of resources at their disposal, which is something I grew to really appreciate.
However, some balance between the different gear and weapon types felt awkwardly implemented. For instance, once I was able to afford the Berserker spell Rain of Fire, this ended up trivializing pretty much every fight in the game at the relatively small cost of just holding on to a stash of Mana Potions. I would simply need to cast the spell and watch as most enemies melted around me. However, the melee and the ranged combat that I dabbled with wasn't exactly more engaging, so I allowed myself to utilize the overpowered spell instead of being frustrated with clunky stamina management or underpowered ranged options. Melee combat feels better than it did in Elex I, but only barely.
Similarly, unique weapons and gear in Elex II often easily outclass the gear that you can buy or craft. For instance, I had planned on gathering several Alb Shields and enough Attribute Points to tier it up to an Enhanced Alb Shield which would protect against 90% of damage. This involved spending elexit and rare Learning Points on different crafting skills, finding damaged Alb Shields to craft into upgraded versions of the gear, and improving my Attributes in order to carry out the crafting process in the first place. However, I then came across the rare "Steel Net" shield which provided 100% damage reduction for a fraction of the investment. I would eventually find a similarly powerful one-handed weapon that was immediately an upgrade to my current blade. While it was engaging to find effective combat tactics and to acquire gear that meshed well with my build and playstyle, the implementation was uneven enough to still feel unsatisfying a majority of the time in retrospect.
To exacerbate this feeling, while the early game quests started out with a fun and varied mix of dialogue, exploration, and combat, the last stretch of the game involved several quests simply designed as wave after wave after wave of enemy encounters. Many of these quests would immediately note dozens of yellow markers on the map that outlined the mass of enemies that needed to be defeated. A quest would ask me to defeat several dozen creatures, then dozens of mutants, followed by several asking me to defeat hundreds of Skyands. Later quests involved heading deep into enemy lairs called "Formers", where I often found myself jetpacking myself past all of the enemy mooks because I simply had no reason to engage them and did not find fighting them at this point to be any fun.
As combat wasn't a highlight of the original game and feels only slightly better implemented in Elex II, I found the last several hours of the game absolutely fatigued me due to the number of uninteresting quests that I was being asked to undertake at this point. Instead of being asked to navigate the intricate mingling of interesting factions, I was just asked to kill a dozen mooks and return for a reward, and repeat the process a handful of times. It was deflating and I found myself pushing through to reach the credits at this point.
Companion quests in Elex II, unfortunately, feel like an afterthought as well. Most companion quests in Elex II involve doing a small task in a small location, defeating 5 to 10 enemies, and repeating under a slightly different context for each companion. Caja wants to investigate areas infested with Dark Elex, C.R.O.N.Y wants to scan Skyand data archives, Nyra wants to steal secret plans from each of the other factions (which are never adequately detailed), and so on.
Each time I returned to the main base, I would have a handful of companions reach out to say that they had another quest to undertake, which often felt like chores to check off a list rather than anything meaningful. Each companion was given a small framework of a task that they want to complete which is then repeated a number of times until the player is patted on the back. Compared to the companion interactions of the first game, the implementation of most of them in Elex II is quite disappointing.
Elex II's new Destruction mechanic doesn't help make anything more interesting. Similar to the original game's "Cold" mechanic, Destruction serves as a sort of morality system that interfaces with the game in a few small ways. However, while the "Cold" system of the original game resulted in some poignant differentiation between actions that are emotional versus actions that are logical, Destruction often boils down to "kind" versus "unkind."
All of the companions other than Nasty seem to prefer actions that decrease Destruction, which simply results in being kind to all of your companions to get more uninteresting quests from each of them. Oftentimes, I would get notifications that my actions increased or decreased my Destruction level, but it felt like enough of an afterthought that I found myself not even registering the notification past a point.
Finally, despite a handful of patches since the launch of Elex II a few months ago, performance issues still abound, even on a powerful PC. While graphical artifacts, clipping animations, and the worst cases of disappearing heads seem to have been largely addressed, framerates still often drop to a crawl in crowded locations such as the Morkon city or Outlaw Crater. In conjunction with the environments and facial animations of Elex II often looking worse than the 2018 original, it's difficult to not wish that the visual fidelity would have taken a more noticeable bump since the first game. The fact that several voice actors changed between the games as well doesn't help matters either.
Elex II is a disappointing game that fails to build on the potential of the original. While at some moments it manages to capture some of the same strengths, it feels like a poorly implemented retread in several ways. Slight improvements to combat don't make up for a less interesting story, worse characters, weak quest design, and a stark lack of polish.