The original Elex was divisive, to say the least. It was a game in which I was perpetually lonely and confused and being battered to death by carcinogenic poultry, but it must have been a profitable enough venture on its own terms to warrant a follow-up. That follow-up is Elex II, which is still several months away from release right now, but one I've been playing an early preview build of recently, showing off the first chapter of the game.
I was talking to Graham (RPS in peace) about this and he said: "Eventually one of these RPG sci-fi fantasy things will get close enough to being a BioWare game that it makes loads of money." This being the games equivalent of monkeys and typewriters. But although I agreed with Graham at the time, I think comparing it to BioWare might be mistaking the particular appeal of Elex II. It would be too simple to say that I "enjoyed" the hours I have spent with it so far. I didn't not enjoy it. I mostly came away respecting it for how little it respected me. Like the popular kids on the playground making life so difficult for you that you wish to become best friends with them.
The Elex world is a curious mixture of post-apocalyptic sci-fi and medieval fantasy (aka "science fantasy"). Imagine, if you will, Mad Max x Kingdoms Of Amalur. In Elex II you play Jax, the same gruff, bald warrior man as last time. In the previous game, you united three thematically opposed warring factions against a common enemy, and thank God a mysterious bunch of aliens have now appeared to threaten that frail piece, or Jax would have no reason to do the same thing again in this game. Jax has also been scratched by an alien monster, rendering him a weak little baby man capable only of flailing at things with a pipe.
In the early chapter I played, it became apparent that Elex II doesn't give a shit if you played the first game - or, if you did, whether you remember any of it from four years ago. The dialogue early on is a recursive stream of expositional sentences that each contain at least one more term that requires exposition. Everyone is called things like Thialg and Caja. They wield a combination of flails, axes and shotguns. Elex itself is some sort of (possibly radioactive, possibly magical) power-giving mineral from space, but it is also the basis for the world economy. The elex must flow. Except, uh, now there is also "dark elex". Look, I'm unclear on a lot of things. Sometimes I liked to imagine people ground up elex to snort it like cocaine, other times I liked to imagine everyone had a bit of a New Zealand accent and were all talking about a really important guy called Alex.
Whatever the case, your job is to establish a sort of independant enclave of cool bois that will rise above the factional squabbling to save the world. This world is impressive in size and explorative scope. Elex II has that "see those mountains? You can go there!" vibe - or possibly "you can rocket there!" given that Jax has a little jetpack strapped to his bum.
This is a landscape that segues quite impressively from whispering forest to rocky plains, to terrifying blasted city. The whole place is littered with the rusting corpses of cars or hollowed out buildings, as well as interesting little nooks. Sometimes you'll be plodding around on a nice sunny day, and find a big blood-stained patch of grass covered with bones, tucked away in a corner. I came to a settlement and realised I'd walked into two men planning to run away, and could follow them to see where they went. This sort of stuff is great. But there is a problem.
It is an intended feature of Elex that you will get beasted by a mixture of dinosaurs, and vermin-but-big creatures like giant rats, giant lizards, giant mosquitoes, and so on. Many of these spit some kind of poisonous or burning ichor. There are also a few very angry people as well. A majority of enemies, be they beast or man, will kill you in one hit. This makes the early stages of the game very stressful.
The sense of wonder that the world engenders thus comes into conflict with everything being an utter bastard. You can try to explore, sure, but you will be swiftly turned back by snap of jaw and swipe of claw. But Elex II is better at gradually giving you harder, more complex tasks than Elex prime was, so you start at the centre of your new enclave and work out. But though Elex II pleads that the difficulty is intentional, there are things that make it harder just by being annoying.
Important things like teleportation pads, some quest givers, and even traders, aren't marked on the map automatically. You have to go and talk to all the dudes in a fort or camp or whatever until one of them is like, "Yo, you wanna sell me a load of spoons?" He won't be yelling, "Spoons, bought and sold!" every five seconds to give you an ambient clue, either, you just have to speak to every gurning beardy man standing around to check if this beard might be useful to you. There's a balance to be struck between players exploring a rich world, and players feeling like they've been dumped in Swindon town centre without a map, money or shoes.
The smallest but most annoying thing, which I didn't discover until about two hours in, is that you can't loot or pick anything up if you have a weapon out. This meant that I didn't discover some pretty beefy weapons on a bunch of corpses very early on. They were right next to a trader I also didn't notice.
It probably wouldn't have mattered if I had seen them, though, because leveling (though many of its vagaries remain a mystery to me) happens relatively slowly, and weapon usage is gated by quite high ability points. To switch from my trusty bit of pipe to a sword, for example, took 25 strength and 17 dexterity. It's a system which doesn't encourage experimentation: you need a build plan going in, and if you've not played Elex before then the safest, quickest option is to default to hitty-sword melee man.
But the thing is... although I spent a lot of time raging at this game and reloading (the ratio of hours actually spent in the preview vs. hours logged according to my save file is currently about 3:1, I reckon), the first time I managed to successfully beat a group of marauders to death with my lead pipe was magnificent. I could have wept. It was such a hard-won victory. And when I finally did switch up to a sword, it was transformational! I killed a raptor dinosaur, a monster that I had previously run from in terror! I can imagine people being into Elex II. It looks like it's going to be a better version of Elex, which means you're getting overwrought sci-fi fantasy, some cool side missions, and absolutely no concessions.
I don't know if the cycle of failure into gradually less failure could sustain me for a whole game, especially because I found it very difficult to engage with the plot. But monkeys and typewriters be damned, I can still see why people will like Elex II. If, in the next few months, they make quest markers less annoying, the menus easier to use and key NPCs easier to find (and good God if they fix that thing with the looting!) then it'll probably open it up to a few more fans, too.