Which is worse: to have lots of ambition but botch the execution, or to dial back the ambition and actually deliver? In the case of Piranha Bytes' Elex, we have a pretty clear example of the former, a game that would love to stand with the classics and even has some genuinely fresh ideas, but which stumbles at nearly every turn.
Post-apocalyptic scenarios are a staple of science fiction and fantasy, and in the case of Elex, the apocalyptic events happened on Magalan, so Earth-like that it contains both natural and man-made landscapes that are virtually identical to our own. A comet collides with Magalan, bringing expected drastic changes in the natural world. Decimated by the catastrophe, the population eventually coalesces into four factions: the Berserkers, the Clerics, the Outlaws, and finally the Albs who are the main enemy. The Albs have a single-minded goal of obtaining the mysterious Elex, a drug-like substance that came from the comet and which either turns the user into a zombie-like creature or give them incredible power.
If that all sounds pretty standard, Elex manages to add some texture and interest to the story. Such elements as magic and factions which both embrace and eschew technology, give the player a seemingly clear choice through the game. Characters can specialize in magic, melee combat, ranged combat - all usual RPG staple and seasoned with some Elex-specific variations. In practice, a lot of the potential skills are practically useless in the game's frequent and sometimes frustratingly unfair and unbalanced combat.
While there are many potentially interesting NPCs sprinkled liberally throughout the game, they are rendered less interesting by incredibly generic-sounding voice acting, overly-expository and unnatural sounding dialogue, and long-winded speeches that cannot be skipped. Impatient gamers will be frustrated, and even those with a tolerance for verbose dialogue, will be dismayed by the abysmal lip-syncing and bland facial animations.
Mechanically, Elex seems to embrace some antiquated conventions that other RPGs have streamlined. Healing potions must be purchased, armor and weapons upgraded by specific vendors, and quests are overly difficult to complete, both because of bugs and hard-to-use map and quest markers. Actually, bugs and graphical glitches are everywhere and give Elex a very unfinished and rough-around-the-edges feel.
The landmass of Magalan is impressively sprawling and varied, and occasionally beautiful to look at, at least from a distance. Up close, things are less impressive. Like so much about Elex, the visuals are a mixed bag. There is attention to detail in the armor sets and weapons and the ways in which each faction is represented, but the character models are unpolished.
Despite all this negativity, when everything works, I had a good amount of fun with Elex. Like so many Piranha Bytes games, it's easy to feel some affection for the sheer ambition and quirky execution of the premise. Even some of the messy, so-bad-it's-good acting has a bit of hokey charm. The reality is that Elex is several significant patches away from any greatness and even then, some fundamental mechanics are too hardwired into the game to be patched away. As I played Elex, I kept wishing that a triple-A developer could get its hands on the story, setting, and concept. Then again, maybe the appeal of Elex lies in it being messy, broken, and ambitious, and not the product of a bland corporate insecurity.