Elex tested – Piranha Bytes' best RPG since Gothic 2?

The wait is finally over: After more than 3 years Elex is being released, Piranha Bytes new roleplaying game. After the Gothic and Risen series Piranha Bytes creates a new universe with Elex, which they call a science-fantasy universe. Also Elex is supposed to be their biggest and best RPG yet. But how good is it really? Can it meet the high expectations? We have played the PC version for more than 100 hours in total to find this out for you.

By Ravenhearth and Tschlompf

At the Beginning of Elex, Jax, the hero of the game and also known as "Beast of Xacor", is a feared commander of the Albs, a group whose members have become enormously strong but emotionless due to permanent Elex consumption and are planning to subdue all free people living on the planet Magalan. When his glider is shot down, his superior Kalax has Jax executed for his failure. However, Jax survives scarcely but loses his strength through Elex deprivation and his equipment is stolen. Jax swears for revenge and then it already begins, a 50-70 hours lasting adventure in this huge, vast open-world which is shaped by Elex, a substance that was brought to planet Magalan 160 years ago through a meteor.

Swiftly after the bumpy start, it becomes obvious that Jax has to join one of the three big fractions of the free people of Magalan who have emerged after the meteor disaster. In order to get new equipment and to relearn his lost abilities, the former Alb has to become a Beserker, Cleric or Outlaw. Each of those three factions claims one of the five large regions of the game's world for themselves. In the first minutes of the game, Jax meets Beserker Duras who wants to accompany him to their settlement Goliet. However, thanks to the completely accessible world, you are free to leave him behind and explore Magalan on your own - if you're strong enough.

However, this isn't so easy at all, because Elex significantly increases the level of difficulty compared to Risen 3, and detours quickly end deadly not just at the beginning. Even on "Normal" the game is more demanding than Risen 3 on "Ultra". And even though you are extremely strong towards the end of the game you, you are not as overpowering as in Piranha Bytes' last game, also because you have to deal with particularly heavy opponents with whom the world is repopulated when changing chapters. It is also difficult to get overly rich, real treasures are more sparsely distributed in the world now. Instead there are smaller items everywhere (there are also great Easter eggs) and you often have to be content with a potion or a few Elexit splinters. Therefore, it is a good idea to join one of the protective communities early on. And that means: quests, lots of quests.

The first NPC Jax meets is Duras. The berserker can take you to Goliet.

Elex offers hard-working adventurers an abundance of side quests, most of which can be found in the four large settlements, but also some in the surrounding area. If you really want to do all the available side tasks before joining a faction, you will easily be busy for 30 hours - at this point the first Risen was almost over. However, this is not necessary, if you have done enough tasks for one of the factions and if you join them, you can still complete the other tasks later.

But not only the quantity is higher with Elex, the quality level of dialogues and side quests has also increased significantly. Much more often you can now decide how to react to the other person, which of course rules out other conversation options. There is no longer a separate silver tongue skill, instead Jax ‘Knowledge' opens up new dialogue options in various areas such as craft. [Combat 4] after a dialogue option means that you must have invested four learning points in the Combat branch in order to select this option. You will be rewarded at least with experience points, you can often avoid fights or save yourself the use of splinters.

In most of the side quests there is a chance of a decision, often in favor of a certain faction, with corresponding consequences. The conflicts between the factions can therefore be felt within the quests. In our experience, however, you cannot completely block access to a fraction. And even if a quest consists of a simple "kill this", it is at least packed into interesting stories. In Abessa, the domed city where all factions collide, you can even decide who should lead the city in the future through quests - accepting the risk of a violent rebellion. There is also a lot to read, in documents you can learn more about some characters and the background of the world.

An example quest from the game that focuses on a decision and its consequences (spoiler for this quest). [German]

In addition, the world in Elex has become significantly rougher and more mature, and that does not mean the ostensible fecal language and “full pound on the mouth” mentality, but the actual content. Colorful pirate world and gnomes are history, the world of Elex is populated by really seedy characters, murder is almost the order of the day, topics such as genocide and cannibalism are addressed, and quests often allow brutal solutions - to name just a few examples. The science fantasy setting works wonderfully and you can tell the game's creative esprit. However, the world does not appear as mature as in The Witcher 3, for example, Elex does not reach its socially critical level and is also much more buttoned up when it comes to topics such as sexuality.

And what do you do in a city? Stealing, of course! Elex offers some improvements for this: The lock picking works in principle as in Risen 2 and 3, but the lock pick can now break off, which subtly increases the difficulty. The new pickpocketing, which is not just a boring dialogue option, is better. For a successful pickpocket, Jax first has to sneak up on a victim from behind without being seen, and then can poke an item from their inventory in a window that pops up. The reactions to theft are consistent this time, everything works as it should.

However, the system also has irritations, because if you get caught, you will be attacked and killed immediately, instead of just being knocked down and taken to the head of the respective faction. Only if you manage to escape and return does the leader demand a punishment from the hero. If you do not comply with the requests, you are only prohibited from trading, with high penalties even bounty hunters are sent out. However, since most players die when seen or simply reload, this system doesn't make as much sense as it could have been. In addition, you can no longer just knock down opponents, but kill them immediately (except in duels).

The richly detailed landscapes are a highlight of the game.

The quests quickly send you out of the settlements and encourage you to explore the world. At least now it is noticeable that Elex is really huge and clearly Piranha Bytes' biggest game. Even after 10 hours you have the feeling that you have only scratched the surface. And yet the hand-built world is designed with great attention to detail. Forests, meadows and bodies of water merge very naturally, there is an opponent around every corner, something to pick up or just a great view. We even completely deactivated the radar and only orientated ourselves using the game world and the world map - a welcome change from The Witcher 3 or Horizon Zero Dawn, where at least in the standard configuration you are more busy following the minimap or navigation instructions than that to actively explore the world. No question marks on the map point you to interesting places. The game demands a willingness to deal with the world and rewards the urge to explore. If, despite the descriptions, you cannot find a place, you can mark it on the map. This is also necessary when characters simply transfer a location to the adjutor - the good old "I'll mark it on the map for you".

The now connected world is also very beneficial for immersion. Apart from that, one is often forced to return to areas that have already been visited and therefore cannot simply explore the regions one by one and then never come back. The links between the areas are therefore better. In the cities there is also a lot of life, residents run around doing their day's work and the taverns are even full in the evening. Caravans of traders and hordes of monsters roam the wilderness, sometimes meeting and then fighting each other. In comparison, the worlds of other PB games seem static. Elex is a very atmospheric game in which simply exploring and hiking is fun.

However, Elex does not come close to the density and intimacy of a small world like Gothic 1/2 or Risen 1, the game world is much more extensive and in this aspect goes more towards Myrtana from Gothic 3 - not everyone will like that. For some players, the world will certainly be a bit too empty of quests and characters. However, we appreciate the pleasant spaciousness, because Elex does not degenerate into the gigantomania of other open world titles. In addition, the proportions in Elex now seem more realistic, and since opponents perceive you earlier and pursue you further, the spaciousness is sorely needed. Teleporters and jetpacks also shorten walking routes, so the exploration really never gets boring. The heavily guarded converters of the Albs in each of the regions are also interesting. Over time, however, these become a bit repetitive, as they are all structured in the same way.

Speaking of the jetpack: the new tool fits very naturally into the exploration of the game world and is particularly useful for climbing greater heights, where hidden items can often be found. Moving forward over abysses, however, is fickle. There is also a glitch that allows you to fly over long distances: if you equip a ranged weapon and repeatedly press the right mouse button to aim while flying, it is possible to replenish the energy while flying, and you can fly very far.

Elex also offers a day / night change, as can be seen here in time lapse. An in-game day lasts 120 minutes.

"Fickle" is also a good keyword for the combat system, which is an improvement over Risen 3, as it is much more tactical thanks to special attacks and stamina, but does not come close to the simple directness of the first Risen. To really do damage, you have to hit a lot of punches in a row, which is difficult due to the stamina. This is used up in all actions - hitting, blocking, evading - and only fills up when the hero does nothing. So often you can't avoid just circling your opponent or running away to avoid getting hit, which doesn't always work. The new opponent lock is positive, thanks to which you always keep a certain opponent in focus. Then it is also possible to go backwards and do jumps instead of dodging rolls. The automatic opponent lock is tricky to play, but a manual one is also available. The fact that medicinal and other potions are now drunk with animation again has a positive effect on the difficulty.

The ranged combat system isn't perfect either, as it just doesn't feel as straightforward as it does in other ranged-oriented games. It is not possible to take cover, and there is no hit feedback, also because opponents do not show any hit reactions with normal firearms. Even the criticized system from the 10-year-old Mass Effect is better. When it comes to archery, it is annoying that you no longer have to think about the flight curve, you just aim and shoot, with the arrow automatically making the necessary curve, which seems strange. However, it is positive that in Elex there is a clear feeling of progress, simple opponents are later transported to the afterlife with a few blows. Due to the long playing time, it takes some time to get there, so that you have to do a lot of tricks, especially on higher levels of difficulty.

The character system in Elex is basically simple, but since many talents are extremely useful and you generally have too few points and Elexit (the currency in the game), you always stay motivated. The system works like this: You collect experience points and receive ten attribute points and one learning point when you level up. The attribute points can be invested in attributes in a similar way to Risen 2/3, whereby the point costs increase with increasing values. With the learning points and Elexit, you can buy new talents from teachers, provided the attributes are right. There are now fewer levels, the talent "Melee weapons", for example, only offers three levels that can be learned, so that each new level increases the damage caused more significantly.

In addition, all weapon types - whether swords or axes - are summarized in this one skill, the same applies to ranged weapons and heavy weapons. But there are also a few downsides: all teachers of a certain type (combat, craft, survival, etc.) teach the same thing, teachers who only teach certain talents or only up to a certain level no longer exist. Skills are also no longer explained at all, you just buy them as if you were buying an item - another shame, as these explanations were always interesting.

The crafting system in Elex is extensive, but only takes place in the menu.

There are also changes to the crafting system: Forging completely new weapons is just as impossible as assembling them from fragments. Instead, weapons can now be upgraded in a maximum of three levels, whereby the values increase just as dramatically as the requirements, because weapons now require certain attributes again. There are now relatively few different weapons for this, with a handful for each type (e.g. one-handed swords). You have to save and work for a long time towards a new weapon or armor, every new piece of equipment gives you a sense of achievement.

It is also possible to enchant and to insert magical stones. That being said, jewelry can be made, potions can be brewed, weapons can be disassembled, and you can cook. All of this takes place at a workbench, you don't have to go to different places for forging, brewing potions, etc. In addition, all of this is no longer animated, but takes place alone in a window. This is a step backwards for Gothic fans, even if, strictly speaking, the adjutor is part of the world and the crafting is faster that way. Things like mini-games aside from hacking, digging up treasure or transformation spells are missing in Elex, Piranha Bytes has focused on the most important parts.

There is a reason why we have told so much about the other aspects apart from the story: As in many other open world games (including those by Piranha Bytes), the main story takes a back seat, especially in the first third of the game. It quickly splits up into different tasks, but you don't get bogged down as much as in Risen 3, because you always have a few clear goals in mind.

After joining a faction and finishing the first passage (the new name for chapter), the story slowly picks up speed and sends you on more and more dangerous missions. The background story of the main character also plays an important role - a novelty in PB games. There are sometimes flashbacks that shed new light on Jax' past. Unlike Nekroloth in Risen 3, the Albs are not just a pale opponent who is evil because he is, but have clear motivations. The fact that the interesting story becomes more important later is also due to the fact that there are no new side quests in later chapters - a shame.

10 minutes of gameplay recordings that focus on exploring the varied landscapes.

In spite of everything, however, the main story cannot develop any real drama, which is partly due to the static staging. Cutscenes are rare, and most of the time characters just stand in front of each other. In addition, the growing threat from the Albs is hardly noticeable, since the Albs behave more passively in the main story and only new monsters spawn in later chapters, but no Albs, for example, that spread over Magalan. So there is no such thing as the seekers in Gothic 2 or the lizard people in the first Risen. In contrast to Risen 3, the ending is satisfactory. After the outro you can also continue playing, talk to many people again and do open quests.

The coldness value is also problematic: Firstly, the system is not explained in the game, so it is up to the player to find out how it works and what it does. Secondly, it is also not clear how the system gets along with the lore of the game, because people here actually get “colder” through the consumption of Elex and not through how they behave. In addition, you can swallow Elex drinks that contain pure Elex and, depending on the variant, bring experience, attribute or learning points, but do not change the cold value. This makes the cold value feel like a piece of the puzzle that doesn't quite fit. The origin of the teleporter is also not discussed. However, it is positive that the cold value, unlike the soul value in Risen 3, affects at least a few dialog options and opens or closes them. There are also a few skills that depend on the cold value.

The graphics are generally good; Although the art design of the individual set pieces is quite generic, the game manages to set its own accents through the mixture of post-apocalypse, science fiction and medieval fantasy. In addition, the design of the monsters is really great. Piranha Bytes is also making great progress technically: The lighting is modern thanks to Global Illumination and Unified Volumetric Lighting, the vegetation looks dense, the visibility is high and the texture resolution has increased enormously compared to Risen 3, pixelated textures are rare. The dynamic weather and the day / night change provide visual variety and the latter also affects the gameplay. The new water simulation leads to much more natural river courses. The fact that the current does not affect the hero and that you can leisurely swim up rapids is an annoying omission. The other weaknesses of the graphics are mainly the animations, which have got better in dialogues, but still seem out of date, and the NPCs, whose faces and hairstyles repeat themselves. As expected, Elex also doesn't come close to the level of detail of a Horizon Zero Dawn in terms of environments.

When exploring, you often come across such great designed locations. Here, for example, a lighthouse on the coast of Tavar.

In addition to the main story and the side quests, the game also offers a few faction quests that need to be completed in order to advance through the ranks of a faction. However, these quests are kept simpler than the often great side quests, real decisions are not required - as a member of one guild, playing into the hands of another however wouldn't fit. Each faction offers three ranks, but one of the groups can't be led. Instead, a camp can be found which Jax can claim for himself after completing missions and which is from now on used as the basis for him and his companions. Unfortunately, it can only be expanded very rudimentary.

Speaking of companions - there are seven in number, in addition to the Duras mentioned at the beginning, there is also the drone C.R.O.N.Y. U4, the outlaw bride Nasty, the magician Caja and others. But we don't want to reveal more at this point. Jax can take one companion with him, who regularly makes a comment and also interferes in dialogues, which can sometimes even influence the outcome of quests. In addition, the companions react to many of the hero's actions and can even become a true friend - or an archenemy. In addition, all companions offer individual quests and can often have secrets, which sharpens their profile and makes them more interesting. Completely characterless companions no longer exist, and some offer more than just one trait. The romance announced in advance is kept simple and no comparison to Bioware games.

It becomes a little illogical, however, when you walk with a companion in settlements that are actually closed to strangers, or at least the supporters of a certain faction. First a cleric has to be incognito with the berserkers, then you walk through Goliet with a cleric or outlaw in tow. It would have been interesting to have to have access to a companion first, even if it were just a short dialogue. The companion Arx causes an individual problem, an outcast Alb, with which one can calmly stroll into all human settlements, although he wears the armor of an Alb and otherwise looks like one. This is where the world's credibility gets clear cracks. In addition, there are AI dropouts, especially in connection with the companions. Often one of the companions simply runs past an opponent, stops attacking in the middle of the fight, or watches leisurely as we duel with an opponent. Something like that shouldn't happen.

It is possible to give the companions simple commands in a dialogue and ask them how they are.

The extensive soundtrack by Elex almost always succeeds in providing the hero's adventures with a suitable sound and supporting the game with atmosphere. However, it does not quite come close to the compositions of Kai Rosenkranz, because none of the melodies is really memorable. The sound effects are sometimes a bit cheap and somehow overdone. The voice actors, many of whom have already been on Gothic and Risen, do a consistently good job and manage to breathe life into the characters, even if some of the sayings repeat themselves quickly.

On the other hand, there are problems with the controls, because the key assignment often seems unintuitive. The standard assignment for "back" is backspace, while Escape sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. However, the problem is alleviated by the second assignment via the right mouse button. However, this assignment cannot be changed, which also applies to other assignments such as X and Y. In addition, the interface is designed very functional and due to the reduced appearance, it is often no longer just the symbols that indicate which item is involved. In addition, information is missing, so the cold value cannot be viewed as a number, it is not possible to see how many experience points you have exactly and how many are missing until the next level, the current life points are also not visible, as well as, for example, the exact melee value, which can be influenced through strength, skills and so on.

And the bugs? These occurred more frequently in the version we tested than in the Risen series. These include problems with the enemy AI, inexplicable drops in performance, missing collision detection from objects, rare crashes, a quest that could not be completed, spelling errors and more. In view of the long playing time, these errors only occurred rarely though, Elex is by no means a second Gothic 3. In addition, the test version did not include the day-one patch.

Ravenhearth's opinion: The list of minor and not so minor problems that plague Elex is long. Nevertheless: After a short time the game developed a pull that I might have last seen with Piranha Bytes with Risen 1. And this pull is not only based on the collecting instinct, but also on the interesting world, good quests and the high level of difficulty - Piranha Bytes managed many of the important points very well with Elex. So for me Elex is clearly better than Risen 2 and 3 and is even just above the first Risen. That doesn't make it a perfect game, but it does make Elex Piranha Bytes' best RPG in 15 years.

Rating: 8/10 (good)

Tschlompf's opinion: I had more fun with Elex in the last few days than in any other role-playing game in a long time. Despite the small problems, I was so fascinated by the game that I didn't want to stop: There is a quest waiting everywhere, an item is hidden in every corner, and there is so much to do that you can easily walk around hundred of hours in the rough world and always discover something new that was previously overlooked. Once again it's great not to be stopped by artificial barriers in the world, but by monsters who beat you so hard that you prefer to run until you are strong enough to conquer them. For me Elex is clearly better than the last Piranha Bytes games and again a title for which I can give a clear buy recommendation for everyone who loves RPGs of this kind.

Rating: 9/10 (very good)

Brief summary with pros and cons
Pros Cons
+ Interesting setting - Bumby beginning
+ Solid story - Static cutscenes
+ Opponent with a motivation... - ...who remains passive
+ A hero with a backstory - Coldness has little effect
+ Rough, adult world -
+ Great atmosphere - A few bugs
+ Good quests with decisions - No new side quests in later chapters
+ Good dialogues and speakers - Sayings repeat themselves
+ Atmospheric music... - ...which is hardly memorable
+ Huge, open, varied and lively world - Size could annoy some players
+ First-class level design -
+ The urge to explore without minimap and question marks - Interface takes getting used to, strange key assignment
+ 50-70 hours of playing time -
+ Four larger cities -
+ Decision about Abessa -
+ Three factions with conflicts -
+ Faction quests and ranks -
+ Our own camp... - ...which can hardly be expanded
+ Companions with interesting stories - Arx creates problems with credibility
+ Romance... - ...which is very rudimentary
+ High level of difficulty - AI problems
+ There is a lot to read -
+ Satisfactory ending -
+ Picking locks, hacking, new pickpocketing -
+ Penalties for crimes, bounty hunters - You are killed instead of being knocked down
+ Consistent figure reactions - Opponents can no longer just be knocked down
+ Jetpack... - ...that takes getting used to
+ Improved melee combat... - ...which isn't direct enough
+ Different kinds of weapons - Close and long-range combat are notchy
+ Motivating character system - Skills are no longer explained by NPCs
+ Extensive crafting... - ...without animations
+ Nice graphics - outdatet animations
+ Current in rivers... - ...which doesn't affect the hero