Is Elex II real? That’s the biggest question this sci-fi / fantasy action RPG sequel from Piranha Bytes has left me with. There are plenty of clues, including one massive one that I’m not allowed to talk about for this Elex II preview, that this is all in the head of some kid who hides his woes listening to heavy rock.
You’ve got an incredibly generic white male protagonist, Jax, who, despite saving his home planet of Magalan, has shunned society. After spawning a son, Dax, he’s chosen the path of a deadbeat dad and locked himself in his cabin. He only leaves when an orbital laser does some redecorating and a pack of mutant Terror Dogs decide to pay him a visit. Oh, and he just happens to have a jetpack.
The world, too, is a little off. Once a thriving society, Magalan was decimated by the impact of a comet, but 400 years later, it is only slightly further along than Fallout 3’s post-apocalyptic society. Yet one of Elex II’s factions, the Berserkers, has accumulated enough materials to build a massive gothic fortress, straight off an album cover, complete with pointy towers and a big pit.
But even if, back in the real world, “Jax” is mashing action figures together, Elex II is a lot of fun in preview. The self-charging jetpack alone is worth the price of admission, but not because you can soar across the landscape. (You can’t do that until you do some serious upgrading.) My first few take-offs ended with Jax expiring in a crumpled heap. Turns out you actually need enough energy to land, who’d have thought?
But the jetpack adds a welcome element of verticality to Elex II’s open world, particularly if ranged weapons are your thing. Stumble across a big building and there’s a good chance you’ll be able to boost yourself up to the roof, whip out a bow, and take pot shots at the foes that were nipping at your heels.
Close-up combat is just as satisfying as sniping, especially if you mix hand-to-hand with hand grenades. It’s not as fluid as some, but victory often left me with a grin a mile wide. One of the first tasks I was given was to sort out a group of rogue Berserkers. I tracked them down, and while it was clear they weren’t going to give up their murderous ways, I was careful not to antagonize them into attacking. I stepped back, hurled a handful of grenades, and waded in to mop up the rest. Watching their cockiness disappear in a cloud of blood and body parts was an absolute joy.
That’s not to say you can annihilate every foe you come across. It turns out the mutant Terror Dogs were just the vanguard of a larger alien force whose soldiers are, initially, more than capable of wiping the floor with you. There are multiple factions, each with their own agenda, and you’ll have to get some, if not all of them on board if you’re to save Magalan from this looming threat.
I didn’t get as far as brokering peace between any of them during the Elex II preview, but their animosity does at least make sense. The Berserkers are ridiculous edgelords, but the other groups are reasonably well realized. The titular Elex refers to the substance that enables magic use, so there’s a neat twist in that the world’s magic users, whose ranks you can join, are borderline drug-dependent.
I still have my suspicions about the reality of its world, but Elex II gets points for blending fantasy and sci-fi in a largely plausible manner. On a mid-powered PC, Elex II has a respectable draw distance and is, for the most part, suitably eye-pleasing. However, every now and then you’ll stumble across an NPC whose face is a little off. In particular, Dax suffers from a serious case of man-face; it’s so off-putting that I now wonder if Jax ditched him just so he wouldn’t have to read bedtime stories to Mr. Bean.
You can, however, forget about the NPCs and just potter around the open world, fleeing in mortal terror when you realize the beast pursuing you has three skulls above it. The game won’t murder you right out of the gate, but I appreciated that it didn’t coddle me, that I could find myself horribly out of my depth. The jetpack balances this out by giving you the chance to hop away from danger.
The pack’s presence also means that, when you hit the edges of Elex II’s pleasingly large map, you’re not flinging yourself against sheer slopes, trying to find that one foothold. Instead, hypothermia is the barrier. Jet close enough to the edge and you’ll start freezing your nu-metal nipples off – persist and an icy death is your reward. In fact, death is a frequent reward in Elex II, but during all my preview time in Magalan, I never once resented a demise.
Coming off The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (again), Elex II has been a breath of fresh air, both for its mash-up of science and fantasy and the jetpack-aided freedom it’s granted me. I’m sufficiently hooked that I’ll be jetting back in when it releases March 1, 2022.