Ah, good old Eurojank. They’re a curious thing, those games that are unwieldy, unpolished, even slightly broken, yet fascinating in the depth of their systems and creative ideas they entertain. Nobody does Eurojank quite like Piranha Bytes—after all, the pretty much invented the style with Gothic. The studio has come a long way since then, but they’re still championing the kind of messy charm that makes Eurojank such an intriguing prospect (at least, to people who don’t expect AAA polish), and ELEX II is a case in point.
Make no mistake, ELEX II is janky, through and through. Odd physics, animation quirks, and a lack of any real heft behind attacks makes combat an unwieldy affair at the best of times, and any semblance of trying to fluidly evade attacks and take out your enemies with well-placed strikes quickly gives way to mad flailing that mostly gets you through. Sometimes you’ll accidentally swing your sword a little too haphazardly and accidentally strike a gas tank, blowing yourself to pieces in the process, but that’s just life.
Bizarre animations, especially with characters’ faces, make uncanny valley ELEX II’s home, even when they’re not being hindered by rendering glitches or other strange graphical oddities. The story of a sudden alien invasion in a world already dealing with the warring factions of a post apocalypse is right out of a pulp novel, with comically cringeworthy (but occasionally genuinely funny) dialogue to really capture the mood. It’s far from the messiest Eurojank we’ve seen, from Piranha or anyone else, but it’s jank, through and through—if you expect anything else, you’re going to be disappointed.
There’s something oddly appealing in that, though—these games have their followers for a reason. It’s messy, often frustrating, and sometimes things break a little bit, but it’s far from unplayable, and approached with the right frame of mind, there’s fun to be found in the unwieldy nature of the game. And beneath the jank, there’s a substance and depth that the more polished games ELEX II will inevitably be compared to almost always lack.
First and foremost, we have an open world that feels well and truly alive. Where more polished games always struggle to hide their artificiality, rough edges give the world of ELEX II an organic quality—it doesn’t feel like a playground meticulously crafted to evoke particular responses so much as just… a world, in all its beauty and ugliness, to explore and exist in. It’s still filled with wondrous sights and plenty of things to discover, but they feel less handcrafted—and by extension, more believable.
What really drives that feeling home is how much the world and its people seem to respond, not just to your actions as a player, but to each other. There’s a heavy focus on player agency in ELEX II, with different factions to join and a huge array of quest branches that influence how everything plays out, but you’re not the only person in Magalan. Your role, as the person essentially in charge of building an army that can repel the alien invaders, one alliance at a time, is an influential one, but NPCs also have their own lives to get on with. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game where my first interaction with a key character was to lose a big chunk of reputation, simply because I tried to talk to them while they were otherwise engaged in a conversation with another NPC.
Instead of quest markers and other such icon cluttering the map, missions crop up organically and feel authentic—they’re not just a way of shoe-horning in a bit of gameplay, but a genuine extension of the world and its people. Of course, your decisions are the primary way of altering the state of the world: which faction you side with (if any), how you engage with them, and decisions you make along the way all influence the ebb and flow of the world, in big and small ways—you’re the player, after all. But your character isn’t the centre of everyone’s attention at all times, and ELEX II is great at selling the illusion that this world exists beyond your interactions with it.
Despite the slightly ridiculous, slightly convoluted nature of the main plot and the generally messy writing, the believability of the world lends itself to some thoughtful and thought-provoking moments. Against a backdrop of characters who wouldn’t look out of place in Mad Max or Fallout, ELEX II finds an unexpected degree of nuance in its explorations on the dynamics of tribalism and different social structures, from religious dogma to what happens when you try to practically apply the ideological dream of absolute, unfettered personal freedom. And then, just to balance everything out, there’s a healthy dose of subtle satirisation that takes aim at the entire RPG genre.
All these pieces come together to make ELEX II’s world a fascinating one to explore and get lost in, so long as you approach it with the right frame of mind. There’s more to discover than you could ever see in one playthrough, but that’s also not really the point—it’s not about checklists and activities that pave the road to 100% completion, but about discovery and adventure. And, yes, the jank is part of that—it’s unwieldy and often frustrating, it’s going to be a deal-breaker for a lot of people, but there’s a certain low-budget charm in the messiness of the game’s combat and pulpy dialogue. Polished to a sheen isn’t always better, and ELEX II is a nice reminder of that.
Developer: Piranha Bytes
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Genre: Action RPG, open world
Platforms: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC
Release date: 1 March 2022
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.