Confusion, fear, intentional graphical glitches, rogue memories and sky-ccelerating whales? Where to begin…
Well, let’s begin with what this is. Elea is an episodic early-access title promising a puzzling adventure through a rich story inspired by science fiction classics. With a (possibly optimistic) total estimate of only two to three months to spend in Steam Early Access, how does it hold up to first impressions?
Note: The Elea developers were working hard while we played and have since released a patch that renders some of our criticism invalid. Specifically, they have added more checkpoints, improved hints, added new voiceovers for some characters, improved interaction icons and increased sprint duration.
We say ‘possibly optimistic’ because patches are (or were) very frequent, so the game’s good on that front, but there’s a lot for the developers to cover. Their Steam page states that ‘[they] need to know what still can be improved in terms of the story, flow and overall gameplay elements, as well as bugs or lack of tutorial’, which is pretty much everything — and unfortunately everything on that list needs a tweak.
Let’s go through the first episode as it happened, keeping things vague-ish to avoid spoilers.
The first scene Elea presents you with is possibly the most retroactively confusing of all the first episode’s experiences, perhaps the second most confusing at face value. Strapped to a medical gurney in the face of some unknown but complicit procedure, you — that is, Elea — are promptly jettisoned into a pseudo-world of dancing colours and pulsing lights. Unless we missed something, this process isn’t addressed or explained anywhere in the length of the first episode so far — an unanswered mystery, but perhaps not much of an introduction.
Where you land next, completely unrelated, is your marital home. When you adjust to the new setting, you find yourself pregnant with a second child. Meanwhile, your first — your son — is locked in his bedroom. What follows is a waddle around the house to try to gain security access to your son’s bedroom. This process is made even slower when in conversations or pre-planned events because pregnant women apparently move slower than a roomba when multitasking.
The fact that a nasty storm puts out the electric, coupled with some ominous hints about a new virus in the galaxy (less mysterious if you’ve read the blurb), makes this level quite a scary experience. It puts it quite at odds with the rest of the episode. Getting lost in the dark, though, with a storm beyond the windows — and an unpredictable teenager locked in a room — is a tense experience. But maybe that’s the point.
Still, you’re stuck in there a while. You get lost. You wonder where the hell the objectives want you to go… Considering you live there, you’d expect there to be a bit more natural direction, a bit more detail in the hints.
We say you’re stuck there a while — for a level that gives you only a handful of objectives, it takes ages to find them. Stuck at an infuriating crawl, every wrong turn becomes a curse. We understand the need for immersion, but if they stick with this walking pace, it would probably be wise to ditch the slow-down for conversations. I’ve seen real-life, heavily pregnant women walk far faster than Elea does in that state.
The next, seemingly unrelated section comes at the end of an inevitable cliffhanger, booting you from your home into the viewing deck of… well, something. It’s a small room looking out onto an ocean.
One of the things about Elea, perhaps the cornerstone that makes its pace seem so slow, is that you can spend a lot of time wandering around with absolutely no direction. Objectives tell you what you need to do but, unfamiliar with your surroundings, you have no idea where to go or what to look for.
In cases like this room with a view, there isn’t an objective at all. All you can do is walk around in your box until the next event triggers or comes into view. At this point, your husband’s head floats by in a basket before sinking into the waves, which at least gives a nod to the theme of later endeavours.
Fortunately, the craziest happenings end here. A gravity defying whale soon dispels the illusion of reality by crashing the simulation — or mindscape — you’ve been in for… well, who knows how long?
In any case, barring mysterious floating lights, it’s back to normal and to the ship Elea currently resides upon. Your coworker Alice sits opposite you in her own mindscape and Kaz, the ship’s AI, wants to check up on you in the med bay.
This prompts a string of events which seal your eventual escape of the ship to go in search of your husband. During this section, there was time for Elea’s areas of weakness to come into total clarity.
The walking speed, at the moment, exacerbates all flaws. The more you try to work a puzzle out, the more you get confused about an objective, the more time you spend walking, the less time you want to risk exploring. Running is a hit-and-miss affair and further desire to explore is minimised by how difficult it can be to interact with items. Everything works on a two-click system, but which click does what can often be unclear, there isn’t enough feedback when an interaction succeeds and sometimes you have to duck and weave around an object to get things to register and interact at all.
Things that ought to be obvious — like the fact you’re not wearing a jetpack — aren’t. At one point the game tells you to descend some distance using a jetpack. I fell to my death three times before reporting it as a bug and being told I had to pick up the jetpack first. Since a piece of tutorial text had appeared telling me how to use the jetpack when I approached the gap, I’d assumed I already had it. The objectives and voiced instruction hadn’t made this clear.
This leads to the enemy of those with little free time: Elea operates on an autosave system. An incredibly infrequent autosave system. I imagine a significant portion of the three hours I spent in this episode are due to my three or four attempts at using that jetpack because the last autosave point was a long waddle previous. I almost gave up. Almost.
By far the main gripe is a lack of coherence. Elea just doesn’t pull together as a narrative experience at the moment. Its environment is stunning, with stark, gleaming corridors and distant darkness brought together to create Elea’s experiences. (But some of the models come across as doughy and a few textures are clumsily tiled, to a subconsciously noticeable degree.)
Narrative direction doesn’t work well. There isn’t much of it at the moment and in unfamiliar surroundings, clear instructions become consternating. How this could be solved without obvious expository dialogue, it’s difficult to say. The dialogue itself doesn’t help — Elea is too quiet, other humans’ voices too stilted and Wiseau-esque to fully remember or concentrate on.
Finally, we couldn’t complete the game at all. It appeared to be a genuine bug, but there is a possibility we’d reached the end of the currently available eighty percent. We were meant to activate an escape pod, but nothing we tried could find something to remedy our situation — even throwing a fire extinguisher at the window.
Overall, what we’ve said may seem quite pessimistic and sure, there is a lot of work to do from our perspective. But thanks to that bug, we couldn’t reach the end of the story — and the first episode is only eighty percent complete. There are no gameplay videos covering that section, no hints on the discussion page. For all we know, everything unknown or unclear could be cleared up or at least brought to a point later down the line.
But it needs a lot of polish.
If you’re intrigued enough to look past the bugs for now and are really, really into classic science fiction, Elea is available on Steam Early Access for PC. If not, we recommend waiting until it’s a bit more polished. With some more work, its classic science-fiction story and detailed, bigger-than-you world are likely to be a great immersive experience.