Editorials Reviews Previews Essays Worth Playing
Game preview 13 June 2016, 09:00

author: Hed

Elex Hands-on – the most ambitious game from creators of Gothic and Risen

Elex, the new game from Piranha Bytes, combines elements of Gothic with a completely new universe. We’ve had the opportunity to see and try out the game for ourselves.

This article was written prior to the game's release.

This text was based on the PC version.

Among certain circles of gamers, Piranha Bytes is a revered studio. When I was invited for a preview of their upcoming title, Elex, I was really excited; you don’t get the chance to speak with the creators of Gothic everyday. There wasn’t a lot of time to recollect the adventures in Khorinis and Mhyrtana though, because Björn and Jennifer Pankratz – a married couple of game developers – had a lot to say, and a lot to show. I even had a brief opportunity to grab the gamepad myself and see how does, among others, the combat system feel in Elex. It gave me a taste of the most ambitious project by Piranha to date – at least on paper. But what is Elex actually? It’s an entirely new universe, with dozens of new ideas, but does it mean that this is a new franchise first, and a Piranha Bytes’ game second? Absolutely not. The developers are still sailing on familiar waters, and the heritage of their previous games is very much alive.

Small studio, big games. Piranha Bytes is quite an unusual studio, considering modern trends in the industry – mainly because of the relatively small team. There are about 30 people in the German HQ working on Elex, a vast and complex game. Some work is of course being outsourced, but the main elements such as engine or story are being developed in-house. And it turns out the studio doesn’t want to change that anytime soon: “As long as people like our games, our spirit, and our freedom of creation, we’re not going to change our ways”, explained Björn Pankratz.

A man with a name and a past

Elex is a kind of a ‘reboot’ for Piranha Bytes, an attempt to invent a post-Gothic story from scratch – at least that’s what I concluded from what Björn Pankratz said during the presentation. In order to ensure sufficient extent of creative liberty, the German studio has created a new universe, where anything is possible. Events in Elex take place on a planet called Magalan – which is pretty much what you can get if you blend post-apocalypse with sci-fi and fantasy. In that world, the human civilization has been nearly wiped out after the impact of a huge meteorite. This meteorite brought a mysterious new element – elex. As you can guess, its properties are much more unusual than those of, let’s say helium; it can be used to improve weapons, advance technology, and do both to human beings. On the ruins of the old civilization, new empires emerge, including the one of the Albs. It’s a paramilitary organization, with headquarters in Xacor mountains, which – as a result of elex addiction – has lost all of its humanity and its actions are now based only on cold calculations. Its ultimate goal is to subdue the whole humanity and create a new, perfect world. The means of achieving this are obviously based on elex technology and weapons. The Albs will be the most powerful faction in the game, as well as the protagonist’s main enemy.

In Elex, the hero is no longer nameless (same as in Risen 3, by the way). In the new game, we’ll play as a former member of Albs, betrayed by his own people. When he wakes up after the crash of his fighter jet, he finds himself in a camp of Berserkers – Albs’ sworn enemies. Because he won’t be able to use elex for a long period of time, he will recover much of his human nature. The hero not only has his own background story, it will be a story strongly tied to the main plot of the game – the task is to get into the base of the heartless organization in order to learn the reason for the betrayal. Before that, the player will encounter a handful of other tribes struggling to survive under the regime of Albs, and will get involved into a tight network of intrigues. The main elements of the game are exploration, combat, decision making and questing – all of this should suffice for a couple dozen of hours of gameplay. What’s more important, though, is that in each of these elements, the players should have a lot of freedom.

Overdosing elex degrades human body and leads to transformation into a numb, emotionless being, or even a mad mutant. Such beasts can be encountered during the game, but the protagonist is unlikely to share their fate – it’s a long process, but should it eventually happen, it would mean the end of the game, as the developers themselves admitted. However, a certain degree of the element’s influence will be visible on the main character.

As the developers explained, the protagonist wasn’t just some regular grunt in the ranks of Albs. He was a high-ranked general. Of course, he cannot reveal this fact to anyone, since it would bring a certain, and possibly gruesome, death upon him. This, however, serves to build the whole intrigue of this game: why would Albs want to get rid of one of their experienced commanders? And will he even come back to them, after learning the other tribes’ outlooks? According to Pankratz, making such decisions in this game will not be a matter of choosing between good and evil, but between nature and technology, answering questions about the disposition of mankind somewhere in between. At the same time, we were assured that the humor typical for Piranha’s games won’t disappear, and there will also be some more light-hearted themes as well.

Three factions are too few

Piranha Bytes games are known for their distinctive factions that the player can join; the decision is most often ideological. It will be similar this time, since each of the groups we encounter will obey a totally different set of rules. The devs revealed that although there will be a lot of different sides of the conflict, ultimately, Elex uses the classic division into three factions which we can join. The abovementioned Albs are the villains of this story, and while the players will get to know a lot about them, they will not be allowed to side with this faction (although we think that one of the endings can be somehow connected to this thread). There is, however, nothing that can stop us from learning the ways and philosophies of the Outcasts, Berserkers or Clerks and joining one of those groups. The devs say they want to make sure the players will get to know the factions well before they decide which side to take. The point at which the decision has to be made comes after completing all the quests for the three groups, about ten hours into the game. With this decision begins another chapter of the story, where the events will quickly pick up the pace.

There will be many NPCs in this game – some of them, the most important ones, will likely be ‘immortal’. But other, less important characters can die – if this will influence the story somehow, an information will appear saying that the death of that person will shape the following events.

The main difference between the factions is mostly their attitude towards elex. The Clerks, for example, think that it’s the evil in the purest form and want to completely abolish its usage by humans. To achieve that goal, the technologically advanced group builds machines and plasma weapons based on the mysterious substance. Berserkers are the main enemies of Albs – they oppose technology in any form and refrain entirely from taking elex. They are, however, able to transform elex into mana, which gives them access to magic. The last of the playable factions, the Outcasts, are the most “post-apocalyptic” tribe, somewhat inspired by Mad Max. They exist far from the civilized world and take elex in all kinds of forms, which makes them pretty powerful but is deteriorating their bodies at the same time. Each of these groups will have its own motivations and goals, which can lead to a couple of different endings. The quest system is said to be the most complex in the studio’s history, so the plot ought to be pretty interesting. Members of Piranha also mentioned that the players will be able to witness the consequences of their choices, since after finishing the game, they will still be allowed to roam the world of Elex.

Another important factor influencing the decision of ‘who to join’ is what the factions have to offer. The Berserkers will provide access to magic and non-technological weapons – the most powerful swords and axes belong to them. The Clerks also have some magical abilities, but they’re mostly about advanced plasma weapons and different machines (riding a mech is unfortunately impossible). The Outcasts will specialize in more improvised equipment, such as flamethrowers, and of course elex-based drugs increasing their power. Pankratz pointed out that access to weapons and tools won’t be strictly limited, because the game promotes freedom. On the other hand, each faction will have their own teachers who can turn ability points into real skills. Equally important is the fact that in each of those groups, the players will encounter interesting characters, some of whom will be able to accompany the protagonist. Some threads of the story, uncovered through special missions, will include those NPCs. Players can only have one companion (man or machine), but sometimes additional characters will join (mainly in case of some specific challenges).

Exploration on jet

The main difference between Elex and other Piranha’s games will be the freedom of exploration. “That’s nothing new”, you might want to say. True, but what I have in mind is the freedom of movement given to the protagonist. His basic equipment includes a jetpack, which will make exploration much easier. The players will still have to travel to certain places on foot – for example, getting on top of a mountain requires some hiking – the way down, however, will be much easier. But don’t get any ideas; that jetpack isn’t going to be a counterpart of mechs from Xenoblade Chronicles X, which allowed us basically free flight. In Elex, the engines will have their work capacity, so they have to be cooled down sometimes. It’s possible that there are going to be some upgrades of the jetpack available – one of the devs told us that people ask about this a lot, so maybe we’re onto something.

While visiting the settlements of other factions one has to stay alert, and holster their weapons (otherwise people might attack). There’s supposedly a system of crimes and offences – if the player commits a murder or steals something, the local population will be after them, until the score is settled.

According to Piranha Bytes, the world of Elex will be the biggest world ever created by the studio – and it was made possible by the implementation of the said jetpack. Improved mobility of the protagonist allowed much more vast areas to be utilized, so get ready for some serious walking (or flying/gliding). Considering the studio’s previous games, it’s great news, because they sometimes had pretty claustrophobic moments. And then, it’s clear that Piranha doesn’t just want a big world – they want a big world full of stuff. The short fragments that we’ve seen suggest that the game is full of enemies, various challenges and interesting locations. We already know that there’s going to be a couple of different settlements and many smaller outposts of different factions. Bigger, denser, more interesting – those are the devs’ promises about the world. The fragment that we’ve seen was really cool, and the authors supposedly have numerous other interesting places to show. Let’s just say that there were some snowy mountains off in the distance and that one of the factions supposedly lives in a desolate wasteland-like region. There were also some mentions of swamps, forests, etc. – we’re rather unlikely to be disappointed by in-game diversity.

At this point, we should mention a couple of elements that the creators would like to emphasize. First, there won’t be any level scaling – if the player encounters a powerful robot early in the game, he will be torn apart. The logic and the realism of this universe demands it. Another thing is the fact that there will be an increased number of narration devices alternative to typical conversations with NPCs. In short, players will encounter more audio logs, scribbled notes, or elements of the so-called narration through environment. Stay calm, though; Elex won’t become another Dear Esther, and the authors promise they will use such elements wisely. During the preview, we’ve seen an example of this: the protagonist reaches a small Clerics’ outpost, where a mysterious massacre occurred. Simply by thoroughly raking the area full of chaotically scattered bodies, the player can learn all about what has happened there. Another thing is that, thanks to new technology, the devs managed to eliminate unnecessary loading screens – the locations don’t have to “catch-up” with the player anymore. Piranha Bytes have also assured us that the game won’t be short on various dungeons, mines, caves and other such unpleasant places. But, most likely, they won’t be extremely huge.

Swords, flamethrowers, plasma guns and mechs

The most interesting part of Elex is the eclecticism – also in the combat system. This diversity is pretty astonishing: we have classic swordplay, technology, and magic, and each of them is somewhat boosted by elex. Piranha still depends mostly on fights between small groups of warriors or monsters, or just simple duels. But contrary to previous games, we will now be able to use plasma guns and flamethrowers in addition to spells. It’s all complemented by classic types of melee weapons, which can be further upgraded via a separate system. Even basic swords are supposed to offer a wide array of combat moves – depending on their type and power they will enable powerful attacks, various blocks, and dodges. There will also be riposte mechanics. We haven’t actually been able to see the magic in action, but the developers said that the game will include typical defensive and offensive spells. And they can be used in different combinations: some can be assigned to the right hand, others to the left. The bottom line is that there are going to be tons of ways to surprise the enemies with swords, plasma, or an elex spell.

After the main presentation we were allowed to visit a fragment of the world and blow off some steam on a couple of enemies – mutated jackals, some humans, and mechs. The small predators were quick and agile, humans used a variety of tactics, and mechs did what mechs do – fired a hail of bullets and used jet engines. During its most powerful attack, the steel beast would launch itself a couple meters into the air and then come crashing down on the protagonist. His own jetpack can be used in the same way – at least in theory; during the presentation the animations and controls were incomplete, so the task wasn’t very easy. In combat, the most important indicators are stamina and combo bars. Every move – dodge, attack, or block – requires stamina, which renders the protagonist defenseless if depleted. Many fights are based on this principle, since very often to win, we need to lower the stamina of our enemy, and then crush their defenses. The combo bar I mentioned fills up when the player deals blows rhythmically. After reaching a certain threshold, a special attack can be performed – for example, a massive sword-hit from above the head while landing a jump – with a press of a separate button.

On paper, all this may produce a very solid combat system, but it’s honestly hard to evaluate it yet. If you’ve played any of Piranha games before, you will know that all of them had problems with combat. In most cases the developers managed to achieve decent level of ergonomics, but combat mechanics were never their games’ biggest asset. Playing an early version of Elex was all the more painful in that regard – you could clearly feel that the game still needs a lot of work. Character controls have to be polished if there’s going to be any fun in filling up the combo bar. People from Piranha will probably have to give a second thought to the interface as well; personally, I didn’t like the fact that the combo and stamina bars are in different areas of the screen – the former in bottom-left, the latter in top-left. On the upside of things: the enemies used many different tactics, and we’ve seen them act very differently in combat – if the same effect is achieved in the final build, encounters with hostile creatures will be very interesting. There’s not much we can say about audio and video – these matters also require some more work; we shouldn’t expect a revolution, but then again, a revolution is not what people want from this game.

Gothic is not dead

If I had to summarize my impressions from the meeting with Piranha Bytes, I would say that I saw what I expected to see. True, Piranha did came up with a totally different universe, which will allow them to catch their breath after a good many installments of Gothic and Risen. Now, the swordsmen and mages will be joined by mechs and mutated animals – it’s a very good idea, especially since it opens up many new possibilities for different enemies, creatures, and locations, but also – perhaps mainly – because it allows the devs to ask new questions on philosophy, ideology, and humanity.

At the same time, the connection between Elex, and previous titles by Piranha is very visible: they share the same approach to elements such as character building, construction of the plot, the combat system, and a number of different things. The question about whether you find this appealing is open, and remains for you to answer. I can’t wait to play another “Piranha Bytes production”, hoping that this time the developers from Germany will manage to tie all the loose ends before the game’s release. The productions from this studio have a certain common denominator with the element called elex – they’re addictive. Without the unpleasant consequences of being turned into a mutant, of course.

Hed | Gamepressure.com

Path of Exile 2 – A Worthy Rival of Diablo 4
Path of Exile 2 – A Worthy Rival of Diablo 4

game preview

Diablo's biggest rival has taken a collision course and is planning to thwart Blizzard's plans. Path of Exile 2 is basically a brand new game and it looks like there will be a duel between alpha males in the hack'n'slash market.

Forever Skies Preview: A Cozy Apocalypse
Forever Skies Preview: A Cozy Apocalypse

game preview

The demo for Far From Home’s debut release, Forever Skies is now available on Steam, and while it’s a short demo, it shows some serious promise.

Songs of Conquest Preview: Singing Hymns of High Praise
Songs of Conquest Preview: Singing Hymns of High Praise

game preview

Is Songs of Conquest the Heroes of Might and Magic 3 worthy successor? Do we have a winner? Here's our preview of the Early Access version.

See/Add Comments