A strong heart beats in Elex II, but its design decisions and approach to the past make this RPG only recommended for the most dedicated fans.
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THE Piranha Bytes is no stranger to the video game industry. One need only look at the history of RPGs to trace their influence over more than twenty years, since the launch of Gothic and its sequels. Its style seems to reflect a desire to give players complete freedom, in a pursuit of ambition that isn’t always fueled by the resources needed to bring these worlds to life, full of choices and different approaches to storytelling and mechanics. They are wells of ideas, of creativity where their features stretch to such an extent that something ends up giving way. This is how the latest versions of Piranha Bytes have been, and Elex II is no different.
One only has to look at the Elex II map, which assumes itself as a direct sequel – again with Jax in the lead role – to realize just how ambitious Piranha Bytes is. The map is varied, full of aesthetic elements and strange creatures that bring a world at war to life. The faction system, which leads us to associate with one of them as the campaign progresses, reinforces the cultural differences between the tribes, from the most primitive Berserkers to the tech-savvy Albs and Elex. There isn’t exactly a generational leap between the two titles in the series, but Elex II proves denser in vegetation, with trees and bushes moving with the wind. They’re short moments of beauty, whose performance on PS5 is hampered by a lack of optimization, revealing all the shortcuts Piranha Bytes had to take to create this expansive, but equally visually limited world – even more so in the characters, whose models look straight out of Elex without any enhancements.
The ambition continues to be felt in the story, in the narrative choices, in the dialogues – the interpretation of which has not always been to my liking -, in the mechanical approaches to each mission and in the way we can make our character evolve. There’s a lot of content in Elex II, especially if it’s not limited to the main campaign. The different approaches are something that excites me for an RPG, revealing a space for the player to get to know the world better and how it works best, where combat shouldn’t always be the solution. This freedom extends to character development, with Elex II offering several parameters that we can improve over the course of the campaign. From the main attributes, such as the strength and dexterity of the character – the allocation of points of which influences not only the type of weapons that we can use, but also the unlocking of passive points – to special abilities, which influence not only their combat performance, but also its aptitude for crafting and science, Elex II is a game that tries to give its players as many options as possible without hurting their bet on an open adventure based on their choices.
The problem with ambition is that it blinds us to potential problems. We no longer know how to measure our limits and see if there are elements that we could remove to improve the experience or make it more attractive for fans of the genre. Elex II has the soul of an old RPG, still built on the foundations of Gothic and Gothic II, but it lacks the more polished gameplay focused on the experience it aims to deliver. The mechanics feel unfinished, not always satisfying to use – like the jet pack, which seems to get stuck in every texture of the map – with the combat system still a huge problem. Not only can we break the progression by acquiring ranged weapons, as in Elex, but we also see a combat system rebuilt around a stamina bar that completely limits the actions that can be taken during clashes. I know that’s the idea, to create a more tense system that forces the player to retreat and counterattack when necessary, with a parry button to wear down enemies – which also have a lag-, but results in slower, unsatisfying combat hampered by repetitive animations and mechanics. You don’t feel the impact of hits, the AI is inconsistent, and you continue to feel the pacing of fights being held back by this approach to the stamina bar that could simply be taken out of the equation. To these problems we can also associate the dangerous number of bugs that we find while exploring, the lack of visual fidelity, the unimaginative missions and the AI problems that haunt the enemies, but also our teammates.
Elex II will have its fans and that’s good. You definitely have to keep finding these ambitious experiments in the RPG genre, somewhere between classic and modern, but it’s also important to understand the limitations of these AA studios. Elex II might have won if it hadn’t been for ambition that drove Piranha Bytes to build such an interesting world that was so empty and hard to explore, and a combat system that was as functional as it was disposable. It’s a game lost between two worlds and design styles, but it has its soul in the right place. It’s not for everyone, but don’t put it off completely, especially if you liked Elex and previous Piranha Bytes projects.
Review copy (PlayStation 5 version) provided by Nordic THQ.