I enjoyed Risen 3: The Titan Lords. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good, colourful, vibrant fun. So when the same studio made a sci-fi game that was noted for being pretty similar, I thought… Well, who doesn’t want more of a good thing?
It came on sale and I figured it had been out long enough to be stable and final, so like the comet that brought the titular magic crystal (and the apocalypse) to the planet of Magalan, I took the plunge.
It’s actually laughable how similar it is to Risen 3, at least structurally. Grizzly white man protagonist? Check. (Okay but that’s quite a low bar.) Previously a man of power and influence shot back to level 1? Check. Three factions with distinct philosophies and you have to pick one to join? Check. Good/Bad morality spectrum affected by how you treat people? Check. NPC pals to recruit and follow you around? Check.
It’s a formula, and yes, as a man who has spent his life honing a single formula to within an inch of its life, this is definitely a grass house in which I cannot stow thrones. The problem here is that… rather than being refined, the formula has suffered with this iteration.
It does not start gently. The land is full of mutant wildlife which is more than happy to take a bite out of you; so far, so open-world-RPG. What’s maybe not so cool is the melee combat system that lets you take maybe two swings before you’re out of stamina and locked off from taking any action.
Let’s compare it to Skyrim for a minute (seeing as the Berserker faction is clearly inspired by either Skyrim or at least the same Nordic sources, this is fair). In Elex, running, jumping and melee attacks are limited by stamina just the same as everyone’s favourite open-RPG baseline. The difference is that even if you have no stamina left, Skyrim will still let you perform an attack — it will do less damage, be less effective, but sometimes a crap flail is still enough to keep you on the front-foot. In Elex, a lack of stamina is a hard gate and it won’t even let you dodge or parry without it, let alone attack; you are left with your basic movement controls and, since your walk speed is not very fast, that inevitably means you’ve just been smacked three times and oops you’re dead.
Now this can actually be quite engaging, when you’re fighting against a single opponent. It leads to a lot of wary circling as you need to let your stamina recover by doing nothing but pacing; enemies, at least, seem to have the same stamina limitations as you. Once you get a shield, it’s possible to block attacks with it (there’s an implication that you can parry with a single weapon but I have thus far had no success), though of course that costs stamina so it once again draws out any battle.
But, as soon as there’s more than one enemy in play, it becomes something of a clusterfuck, as you cannot pace round one to let your stamina recover without the other nipping your heels (and let’s not get into the incredibly aggressive target lock aim-assist that makes it very difficult to even remain aware of more than one target at a time). Once you pick up a companion you can let them take a bit of the heat, but most monsters seem to single-mindedly focus on either you or them so the simple fact of who aggros first has a massive impact on whether or not you get slaughtered.
There is also clearly some kind of level gating, because there are enemies available that it is simply impossible to damage with low-level equipment. Now I’ve spoken about level scaling before, about how it makes open-world RPGs static and flat because the challenge rating of enemies is always a match for your combat prowess, and that’s one thing — but a lack of level scaling requires the developer to somehow guide a weak, low-level player towards challenges that are appropriate.
Elex does not guide you to appropriate challenges. If you encounter one Reaver or one Mutant in the wilderness, you are, quite simply, dead — your weapons are completely ineffective for no discernible reason and their weapons can fell you in one or two hits. There are some very light hints that maybe life is safer if you stick to the roads, and some wildlife will give you warning roars if you get to close rather than immediately engaging (one of the cuter features of Risen 3 I am delighted to see returning), but these signals are few and too subtle to be much help.
The boundaries between safety and annihilation are also very narrow, so the environment itself doesn’t help you get a “feel” for what types of places are safe to traverse. I was once wandering around an isolated farmstead quite happily, until I walked into a ruin right next to it and a gargantuan mutant smacked me one. Why had it not eaten the farmers yet? Why hadn’t the farmers run away? That’s not even mentioning the time I walked up to an innocuous-looking ruin and was suddenly engulfed in radioactive fog that simply wasn’t visible until I stepped into it.
Needless to say, it is a fairly dour game. Every character you meet is either angry, miserable, or angry and miserable. Sure, cheerful people don’t tend to have RPG-like problems to solve, but after a few hours of every character being relentlessly hostile you kinda stop caring about helping anyone. I just want to make people happy! Why can’t I ever succeed?
It doesn’t help that many dialogue options have unpredictable consequences. As a character strung between three opposing Factions it’s important to suss out who you want to side with, but even asking an innocent-looking question can make them dislike you (or worse, make your current companion dislike you). Similarly, if you accidentally stumble down the wrong conversation track, the game can even infer your support for a cause or course of action that you never intended.
This could be a writing issue or a structural issue; many conversations seem to have jarring changes of track, where it’s clear that two independent chains of dialogue have cut together in an unexpected combination. With the number of dialogue options (let alone preconditions you can accidentally trip over while exploring) I can forgive a few clunky bits, but there are a lot of stumbles that cause proper and regular confusion so it goes beyond forgivable and into “maybe you should have made a smaller game” territory.
Speaking of which, it’s very easy to hand in a quest to one person and, hours later, find somebody else to whom you could have handed in the quest, who is now looking at you very disapprovingly. During the intro, I picked up some high-tech weapons that I couldn’t sell (nor use), and when I got into town I met a man happy to take them off my hands; he was a bit shady, but money is money that early in any open-world RPG. Much, much later, I met somebody who wanted these weapons so she could have them safely destroyed; I had no choice but to say they were long gone and she immediately started hating me, and passed that hatred onto the nearby faction leader I’d been trying to butter up.
As I said, it’s relentless. Choice and consequence are everywhere and while that’s not in itself a bad thing, the game never lets you present mitigating circumstances or defend an honest mistake or simply express regret at a poor choice made in the past — every action you take, whether by accident or design as a player trying to feel their way around an unfamiliar game, is treated as fully intentional by your character, always resulting in the most extreme consequences.
So, yes, maybe I shouldn’t have traded guns to the nearest person available, but the game gave me no signal at all that there could have been another resolution. Am I honestly meant to hang on to everything until I’ve been round the world three times? How can I weigh up the consequences of my actions if I’m only aware of a single path (and I can’t find others because the wildlife on the way keeps tearing me a new one)?
Maybe I’m too conditioned by video game structures and this is teaching me valuable life lessons. Maybe I need to just not exhaust every dialogue option before moving on. Maybe I’m desperately trying to blame my own personal failures on game design.
But there are other peculiar design choices. Crafting is present, so you can make potions, items and upgrade weapons as long as you have the skills, ingredients and money. I had a basic sword so I was eager to upgrade it into something that could maybe do some actual damage, and after obtaining the necessary skills I rushed to the nearest workbench to do the deed… only to discover that I did not have enough strength nor dexterity to use the resulting weapon.
Again, I should have read the page of small-print more carefully, but… well, while having requirements for fancy weapons is a fairly reasonable way to lock progress and encourage specialisation, I don’t really think upgrading a level 1 sword to a slightly sharper level 1 sword should be enough to make it unusable. After all, I’d just spent a lot of skills, money and ingredients on doing that upgrade, so I reckon I’d already paid more than enough to get through the gate. Isn’t that the point of crafting upgrades? I can’t use the megasword I just found, but I can hone my wooden one a little bit until I’m strong enough to swap it out?
So yes, Elex seems like a bit of a bust, which is a shame — especially when most of its fundamentals are perfectly reasonable in spirit. It just needs all of its too-subtle borders blurred off and made clear. And some more cheerful characters. And target lock to be removed.
… I’m still going to keep playing it though. I’m curious enough to explore its world and its plot, and now that I’ve got the hang of how it works I think things should start looking up. After all, I might have made one faction hate me but that leaves two to get right…