Sunday, November 5, 2017

Beginner's Guide to Elex: Tips and Advice

Helping you get the most enjoyment out of Elex's sometimes rough and daunting beginning.

Elex is a third-person open-world action-RPG from Piranha Bytes, a small German studio, that blends traditional fantasy, science fiction, and post-apocalypse themes. Set on a world 200 years after a comet wipes out nearly all life on the planet, the survivors have split into three factions that use elex, a mysterious substance that appeared with the comet, in their own unique way to fulfill their own goals and agendas. You can be a Dungeons & Dragons-style berserker who wields swords and casts fireballs, or a Mass Effect-style cleric who uses plasma rifles and psionic mind control, or a Mad Max-style outlaw who makes their own gear from scrap and enhances their abilities with powerful stims. It's got a huge world full of diverse environments, tons of quests, lasting consequences for decisions you make, and three different factions you can join, all of which radically alter your gameplay experience by offering unique equipment and skills.

It's surprisingly good, but like other Piranha Bytes games, it has a lot of quirks and idiosyncrasies that can make it difficult for unseasoned initiates to figure out how the game actually works, what you should be doing, and so on, combined with a really steep difficulty curve that makes no effort to hold your hand. For many players, this can lead to a lot of confusion and frustration right at the start of the game, which is never a good thing, obviously, but is especially unfortunate because Elex offers an extremely compelling, rich, and rewarding experience for those who can get into it. As a long-time Piranha Bytes veteran, I still struggled with a few things in my first playthrough, and had some of my expectations subverted when I realized, dozens of hours into it, that I wished I had done things a little differently.

The purpose of this article, therefore, is to help new (or prospective) players with general tips and advice about how the game works and what you should expect, with a few basic, spoiler-free strategies to facilitate a better gameplay experience. A large part of the fun in these games is the satisfaction and reward that comes from exploring the world and discovering things on your own, so I won't be going into specific detail about "go here and get this item, then do this quest as soon as possible, build your character exactly like this, etc," because I want to leave you that room to figure things out for yourself. But some things are tough to figure out without doing a lot of trial-and-error and seeing how things pan out over the course of a 50-100 hour playthrough. So, here are some of my thoughts and observations after pouring 143 hours (and counting) into multiple playthroughs, which I think should be helpful to other new players.

Elex has a very steep difficulty curve. It is intentional.

You will die a lot in this game. Most enemies will be too strong for you to even think about fighting in the beginning. Lots of enemies will kill you in only one or two hits. Some quests that you pick up early on will be basically impossible to complete until much later because of the enemies they expect you to face. This is an intentional aspect of the game's balancing and ecosystem; you're meant to start out feeling incredibly weak and helpless so that as you level up and get stronger, you actually feel like you're getting stronger. You're supposed to feel yourself working your way up the food chain, so to speak, and it's meant to be satisfying when you come back to kill enemies that were giving you a tough time in the beginning. It's also part of making the world feel dangerous and hostile, which adds tension to exploration and quests because you never know what dangerous threats lie in wait and which NPCs could betray you and kick your ass at any time. So if you feel like you're struggling a lot in the beginning and can't kill anything, don't get discouraged; that's how it's supposed to be.

Avoid combat early on; level up by completing quests.

With the game's steep difficulty curve in mind, you need to accept the fact that you won't be a badass killing machine at the start of the game, and therefore need to pick your battles. In the beginning, this means avoiding combat basically whenever possible, because you're too weak to fight anything but the absolute weakest variants of the weakest enemies in the game. Even these ones can pose a serious threat, and the reward you get for killing enemies really isn't worth the time, effort, or risk of killing them. A typical enemy that you stand a reasonable chance of killing may only give you 10 experience and net you a single piece of raw meat. This pales in comparison to the hundreds of experience and shards (the game's currency) you can earn by doing a single quest within the safe confines of the first town, Goliet. Duras, the first NPC you meet on your way down from the radio tower, will escort you there; follow him, and do as many quests in town as you can. If a quest tells you to fight a tough enemy, save it for later. If a quest sends you into dangerous territory, try to complete the objective while avoiding the enemies. Basically, don't even bother trying to fight until you've leveled up several times and have put significant upgrades into your equipment and abilities.

Get a companion as soon as possible. 

One of the quickest and easiest ways to mitigate the game's tough difficulty curve is to get an NPC companion who will follow you on your adventures. They each have their own quests associated with them, interject in conversations, and react to the way you behave in the game, but their main function early on is that they're all decently competent fighters who can tank hits for you and dish out a lot more damage than you're capable of, making difficult fights much more manageable. Duras, the first NPC, can become a companion if you work on the quest associated with him. You can also find CRONY U4, one of your combat drones who became separated from you when your raider crashes in the opening cutscene, somewhere in Goliet, though he's a little harder to find. In each case you'll have to trek long distances across the map through dangerous territory to advance the quest, but you don't actually have to fight anything, especially with Duras's quest, so keep the above point in mind about avoiding combat and just focus on getting to your destination and completing the objectives.

Make sure "close combat focus" is set to manual.

On normal and easy modes, when you approach an enemy the game will automatically lock on to the target, which focuses the camera on them and alters your movement patterns so that you stay facing that enemy at all times. While this can help keep your eye on the target and ensure your attacks are more likely to hit, it's extremely problematic when facing multiple enemies. First of all, it hampers your mobility because your movement speed gets lowered slightly, and you lose the ability to sprint, or turn and run. Plus, it just becomes awkward trying to weave in and out of enemy attacks and switching target locks. With it set to manual, you can choose when you lock on to enemies, instead of being forced to. You may still want to use the lock-on feature against single targets, but against groups you're generally better playing unlocked; it just improves the feeling of movement and gives you a little more control of your positioning and what you're attacking for virtually no downside, as long as you're capable of adjusting your facing and the camera orientation when you attack.

Time your attacks to take advantage of the combo system.

When you attack, a blue meter in the bottom left of the screen progressively fills up; this represents your combo meter, which on all difficulties except for easy, requires you to time your attacks just right to build the meter faster. After it crosses the light blue line in the middle, you can execute a special attack, which does extra damage. If you click too quickly, then the bar stops filling prematurely, and you'll likely run out of stamina way before reaching the special attack point; if you click too slowly, then you'll stop attacking for a brief moment and have to restart the attack animations. You want to time your attacks so that you click immediately (or very shortly) after each attack connects, which you can gauge by the sound effect, or just by watching the meter fill up and clicking right before it reaches the full threshold of each attack. You also need to monitor your stamina, since each attack, dodge, parry, and block will consume stamina, and you can't perform any actions except basic movement when your stamina is depleted. You need to pick your moments to attack, ideally attacking in moments when you have enough stamina and a clean opening to execute a full combo on the enemy.

Put a skill point into stamina.

At the start of the game you have just barely enough stamina to execute a full attack combo, if you start from full, but doing so leaves you completely drained afterward and therefore unable to dodge, block, or parry possible counter-attacks from enemies. With a single skill point invested into stamina, you can boost your total high enough to leave you with a little bit after a full combo, which gives you a lot more flexibility and control over your options in a fight. You don't really need this skill to get by with melee combat, but if you find yourself struggling or want to focus more heavily on playing a melee build, then you should consider investing in it. 

Attributes don't give the benefits they suggest.

Each attribute gives a brief description of its function in the game. For example, strength says it increases melee damage, and constitution it says it increases your health. This makes it sound like each point you put into these attributes will also improve your melee damage or health by a small amount. That is simply not the case. People have tested this, and if there is any increase it's so minuscule as to have no practical benefit. For that reason, you should treat the attribute points as simply requirements necessary to equip better gear and to learn new abilities, and therefore don't have to push your attributes any further than the minimum necessary for your next upgrade.

Attribute costs increase as your attributes increase.

At the start of the game, it costs one attribute point to increase an attribute by one, in other words, you increase your attributes at a one-to-one ratio. Once an attribute hits 31, it starts costing two points to increase the attribute by one, a two-to-one ratio. At 61, it starts costing five points, a five-to-one ratio. At 91, it starts costing ten points, a ten-to-one ratio. This is easy enough to discover on your own, but I want to warn you in advance, because it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking "I just need 20 more attribute points to learn this new skill, which means I can learn it in two levels," when in actuality you're looking at three or four levels because you didn't realize the costs would increase. 

You can increase attributes and skills with jewelry, but...

Rings and amulets (and even sunglasses) can give you a lot of good benefits, like increasing your attributes or allowing you to use or benefit from certain skills (like +1 lockpicking, or highlighting items in the environment) as long as you have them equipped. These can be extremely useful, especially if equipping a ring or amulet will give you enough of an attribute boost to equip a new weapon, but these attribute boosts do not apply when learning new skills at a trainer. If your base dexterity is at 30 and you've improved it to 35 with a ring, a trainer's skill window might show that you have the 35 of 35 necessary dexterity to learn a new skill, but when you click on the skill, you won't actually be able to learn it, and the game won't tell you why. This is because learning skills requires your base attributes to meet the requirements, meaning you have to get your natural dexterity to 35, without the aid of rings or amulets, to learn that skill. You can still use those extra attribute points to equip weapons and armor, but not to learn skills. Note that any skill for which you meet the base requirements will be marked with an exclamation point to the left of the list; if that exclamation point isn't there, even though your stats appear to match the requirements, then they're being boosted by equipment and thus you won't be able to learn the skill.

Join a faction sooner rather than later.

Don't be afraid to join a faction relatively early in the game because you think you'll miss out on other factions' quests. Although there are many quests that you can do in each faction before joining them, only the faction leader's official membership quest will be canceled if you join another faction, first; every other faction quest will still be available to you, later, even if you've already joined another faction. I'd still advise visiting all of the factions and checking out their skills before making a decision (don't just rush into it), but the faction armor and abilities give you a pretty big boost early in the game, which means the sooner you join a faction the sooner you can get into enjoying all of their benefits and having a somewhat easier time with the game's tough difficulty curve. If you wait to join a faction until you've already done everything else, then you'll just be unnecessarily handicapping yourself and missing out on the fun, unique faction stuff.

Periodically advance the main quest; don't put it off.

Likewise, don't put off advancing the main quest until the very end of the game. You can continue playing after you complete the main quest (though how it resolves will have consequences for how different NPCs and factions treat you), so you don't have to save it for last. But really, the reason I say you should advance the main quest is because a lot of the objectives send you out to explore wide swaths of the world map, and a lot of these objectives can be completed or discovered long before you pick up the quest to actually do them, which I feel has a negative effect on the pacing and impact of the story when you meet an important NPC, and they tell you to go do a whole bunch of stuff, and you tell him then and there that you've already done all of it, because there's no build up for the next section of the plot. So, since you're going to be exploring all these areas, anyway, you may as well have the actual quest for them active so that you discover things when the main quest expects you to, rather than basically spoiling the plot for yourself.

Understand how the "Cold" meter works.

Based on how you act in dialogue and how you choose to solve certain quests, you'll see "Cold increased" or "Cold decreased" messages appear on screen. "Coldness" represents Jax's stunted emotions as the result of his heavy use of elex as an Alb commander. Your coldness level begins at "neutral," after most of the elex has waned from Jax's system following the failed execution at the start of the game, and decreases as you choose more emotional responses, or increases as you choose more cold-hearted, machine-like responses. It's not a morality system, and it's neither good nor bad. Getting mad at someone and yelling at them is an emotional response that will decrease your cold level, but obviously may not be the best course of action in a situation; while cold responses may be dispassionate to the human condition of others around you, they tend to be guided by reason and logic, and therefore could make a lot of sense. It's mainly a tool that allows you to role-play as Jax, but it also affects your relationships with companions, and is the primary factor in deciding which ending you get, based on what your net coldness level is at the end of the game.

You have a jetpack; use it.

Elex has an extremely varied topography with a lot of hills, mountains, ravines, canyons, and so on, meaning a lot of areas are hidden out of view by being on a completely different plane from the one you're standing on. The jetpack, which you gain in the starting area and remains with you for the entire game, gives you a ton of freedom to explore vertically. You can find a lot of useful items, cool hidden areas, and fun easter eggs by descending into obscure low points or flying on top of things that you would never be able to reach in other games. You can even use it in combat; with ranged weapons, you can hover in mid-air and fire down on opponents, and with the jetpack attack skill you can do a devastating plunging attack on enemies with your melee weapon. It can also be useful for evading attacks and getting out of a tough spot when you run out of stamina, but be careful because many enemies have ranged attacks and will try to shoot you down if you spend too much time in the air or get too far away from them.

Consider exploring at night.

Nighttime is not nearly as dark as it used to be in the early Gothic games, and it actually comes with a few benefits. A lot of beasts and monsters will go to sleep at night, which can make it easier to sneak past them or avoid them if you're trying to complete quests in dangerous territory, and the rare plants like golden whisper glow very brightly at night, making them much easier to spot at a distance. 

Plan to learn (and use) crafting skills.

Modify weapons, chemistry, and each faction's unique weapon enhancement skill, all give a huge benefit and should be learned by every character build. Chemistry lets you brew your own potions from the plethora of plants that you find out in the wild, but more importantly, it gives you access to permanent stat upgrade potions, which can give you a ton of free boosts for a minor skill investment. Modify weapons lets you upgrade your weaponry, which is by far the most reliable way to improve your damage output; it's faster and easier to improve a weapon you're already using than to hope you can find something better, and weapons that you upgrade to max often perform as good or better than legendaries that you can find in exploration. Each faction also gets an ability to add extra damage types to their weapons (fire, energy, radiation, etc), which act as damage-over-time in addition to the weapon's base damage, further enhancing your weapon's total damage output, which can only be done with that skill unless you luck out and find something good that already has a damage effect on it. Goldsmith is a little less important, but lets you craft jewelry that will often be stronger than what you can find normally. Gem socketing is even less important because not all weapons will have gem sockets on them and you generally don't find enough gems to get a big enough boost, but it can still be a nice benefit if you've got nothing else to spend skill points on.

Pick up everything you find.

This might seem like obvious advice, but I feel like it's worth pointing out: you have no inventory restrictions, so you can (and should) pick up everything you find, because everything in the game has some sort of value. Most items can be sold to merchants for extra money, and since money is hard to come by and a lot of things are really expensive, you'll need all the money you can get. Plus, you never know when a particular item might come in handy.

Junk items have no use; sell them.

Mugs, forks, cigarettes, toilet paper -- basically everything that appears in your "other" tab of the items screen is completely useless except to sell to vendors, with one exception: old coins can be used to buy food and drinks in vending machines at the clerics' headquarters. There's not a single NPC who will ask for a few packs of cigarettes, or a dozen rolls of toilet paper, to complete a quest. These things only exist to populate the world with "stuff" and to give you things to sell to vendors for extra cash. This also applies to items in the "other" tab marked "valuables" like chalices and caskets. Hold on to any old coins you find, because you may actually want to use them at some point, but sell literally everything else in this tab. 

Learn the "animal trophies" skill as soon as possible.

As previously mentioned, you'll be needing a lot of money in this game, and it's often in short supply because you have to spend so much of it learning new abilities, buying armor, and upgrading your weapons. The "animal trophies" skill is one of the best ways to earn money, because it grants you extra rewards like claws, teeth, pelts, and so on, which can be sold to merchants for money and/or used in crafting, for every animal, monster, and mutant that you kill. The earlier you get this skill, the more animal trophies you can accrue over the course of the game, meaning more money in your pockets. You can go for the second level of this ability right away, if you desire, since it'll grant you even more trophies over the course of the game, but you should definitely get at least the first skill level. Hold on to a small supply of each trophy type (say, 20-30), because you'll want to have some available for crafting, and then sell the excess. 

Personality skills aren't really worth it.

Most of the skills in the "personality" tab are about boosting skill checks in dialogue and giving you other such social rewards for how you interact with the world. Most of these skills are, generally, not worth it. You'll see a lot of skill checks in dialogue early on, when they're either low enough for you to meet without needing the extra boosts, or so high that you'll never meet in time, in which case the personality skills don't really help. Worse yet, these opportunities become pretty rare in the second half of the game. The skills that grant extra attributes are kind of nice, but you can achieve the same effect through standard elex potions. The skills that grant extra experience points also seem nice, but this amounts to a meager 5% -- against most enemies that means an extra one or five points. The skills that reward you for your coldness level are kind of nice, but are situational depending on your build and playstyle, and sort of force you to meta-game your role-playing so that you stay within a specific range. A few of the skills in this tab can be useful, of course, but you should be prioritizing other skills first.


  1. (Before Reading) Holy fuck! Never stop blogging please! This is literally one of the things that I wanted you to write! Can't wait to read! (Obligatory 'Please make a - Your top 10 favourite games list' request)

  2. This game hadn't even been on my radar. After reading this post (and the brief one before this) it now very much is, just as soon as I can afford it. Sounds like a grand old time, and this post will no doubt be super helpful for avoiding frustration, thanks!

  3. Alright, first enemy in the game and it fucking destroys me... That's the best sign I could hope. Also, timing in combat. Fantastic.
    Ultra difficulty I guess.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this. It’s nice to see that the old-school RPGs aren’t dead yet. Keep writing like this, Mr Rambler!