I’m genuinely unsure whether to call Elex II a parody of an RPG or just a strange facsimile of one. It features just about every trope and concept the genre has gorged itself on for years now, oscillating between tone, ideas and mechanics in unfettered, wild swings. And yet, Elex II is destructively boring – every instance of potential intrigue or systemic uniqueness quashed underneath a script that feels as though the thing from The Thing was attempting to mimic an edgy teenager raised on Bethesda games and internet forums.
There are stretches where it manages to smooth out the parts of my lizard brain that are receptacle to open-world loops and developer Piranha Bites are to be commended for the bones of the narrative quest design but Elex II stumbles at almost every hurdle.
Elex II Review
Elex II is every bit the sequel to Elex, forgoing narrative onboarding in favour of jarring, confusing flashbacks peppered throughout the game. You’re back in the shoes of Jax, Elex’s hero who time has turned into a societal outcast accused of doom’s day fear-mongering and just generally being an arsehole. After saving humanity, Jax and Caja found some semblance of peace long enough to have a child, Dax, but in the ensuing years, their inability to be different people pushed them apart. Jax’s strained relationship with his son, and former life, are a cornerstone of Elex II’s narrative and define much of how your interactions in the world of Magalan begin.
The land itself is in something of an in-between phase, both rebuilding from the wounds of the last war but currently being torn asunder once more by an invading alien force. Elex II’s approach to world-building is buffet style, greedily filling its plate with individual delicious things only to be left with a sloppy mound of flavours and textures when you finally sit down to eat. The base foundation of the world is clearly Earth-adjacent with modern-day cars, technology and ruins littering a verdant green and earthy landscape. But slightly to the left will be a colony of fae-mood boarding magic wielders who reject technology. Over that hill is the old church which has been infused with robotic sentinels and neon light walkways by the Clerics who worship a digital god. And those guys over there in the Halo-lite base? Bro you don’t even want to know.
There are times when these contrasting elements work to uphold the game’s narrative threads but a lacklustre art direction holds back an otherwise neat concept. The tension between the old and new worlds, both romanticised, is an inherently interesting one and in a game as fixated on violence as Elex II there are myriad ways the competing world structures and technology could have been compelling. What if the game’s version of raiders were the one to be inspired by woodsy folklore aesthetics instead of rote Mad Max leather and grunge? Or the Clerics had succumbed to brute-forcing their ideology on the world and adopted a harder-edged culture because of it? There are so many ways in which the pieces on Elex II’s board could have been played in fun ways but it is content with dolling out the same game we’ve seen dozens of times. Only with more screen-tearing.
That same creative malaise is found in the game’s script too, though in arguably far harsher quantities. The overarching narrative of one man’s quest to save humanity from both invading force and itself is a staple of the genre but Elex II adapts it with disconcerting loyalty. Every beat from the strained father-son relationship to the warring factions is rote and hostile to any real emotional investment. Academically I can understand why I’m supposed to play Jax as a man with ideals but in reality, every NPC is so profoundly unlikeable (the game’s “fuck” count must be in the hundreds) I almost always defaulted to brutish efficiency.
Still, the bones of what Piranha Bites have built here are somewhat impressive. Countless games promise that your choices will impact the narrative but few ever deliver, Elex II manages to pull it off. The interlocking narrative design is surprisingly robust, with quests and choices colliding to tangibly alter your path through the game.
One quest saw me accompany a merchant back to his home in another city but he wouldn’t leave until I had retrieved his stolen goods. This was late on a weeknight and I simply couldn’t be arsed to find his junk so I strong-armed him into leaving anyway, both textually and externally hand waving away his concerns that he needed said junk. Halfway through our journey, we ran into a roaming gang from the merchant’s home town and they proceeded to question where his junk was. I’m the protagonist though so I attempted the same lazy strong-arming and was promptly told to mind my own business, the gang then chastised the merchant and “took him off my hands”. Text splashed on the screen – quest failed.
Elex II‘s ability to adapt to choices like these and many others was consistently the best thing about it. When a game’s narrative design work is smarter than your average bear you engage with it differently, your role-playing and logic both thrown off the usual rhythms in the best way possible. It’s such a tragedy then that Elex II’s script and story are so banal. Jax is such a thoroughly unengaging protagonist that even the best systems couldn’t make me care about his struggles. Never mind the fact that skill checks in dialogue trees seem to do very little in some instances – why can I pass a high strength persuasion check only to still have to pay or fight my way through a place?
Elsewhere Elex II’s open-world action loops are serviceable. Combat has a solid variety of approaches though by extension becomes a jack-ish of all trades and a master of none. A limited range of early game options can funnel you toward a melee-focused build but as you expand your scope of the world you’ll find a selection of guns, projectiles and even magic. Hits don’t so much collide with enemies as pass through, and the game hitches violently during charged attacks, but there’s a charm to combat that took me back to first-person Skyrim melee – for better or worse. And despite occupying some less than stellar locations, most enemy design is a lot of fun. Grotesquely mutated creatures are found all over Magalan, often a weird cross-breed of animal and dinosaur. These encounters help break up the monotony of human raiders and sterile alien designs.
Elex II takes a theoretically fascinating world and buries it under a mountain of uninspired mechanics and repellent character work. You’ve played these ideas before, almost assuredly in better ways but there is still a modicum of comfort to be found in the embrace of the familiar if your tolerance for jank is exceptionally high. Even then, Elex II‘s performance issues and general lack of identity make it near impossible to recommend to anyone who isn’t already primed to enjoy this brand of “Eurojank”.
At the time of writing this review, I still haven’t seen the end of the overarching narrative – hundreds of quests, dialogue choices, fully upgraded gear and so on later though and I just don’t see it mattering all that much. The foundations of Elex II’s narrative are so flimsy that even a surprise ending wouldn’t be enough to pull this one out of the fire. The third act is also level gated and based on the amount XP I was receiving relative to the necessary level I saw hours of grinding dreary quests ahead of me and just…couldn’t do it.
There are only so many times a person can escort a slow NPC, kill ten rats or craft another potion before they lose a little bit of their humanity. There might be something in there that relates to Elex II’s thesis statement but I’ll blow my back out doing that heavy lifting.
Elex II was reviewed on PlayStation 5 using a digital copy provided by the publisher.