by Christopher Coke
reviewed on PC
A Shape-shifting Story
To say that Element4l is unique would only tell one piece of the story. The rest would consist of words like “atmospheric,” “whimsical,” and “wholly beautiful.” That's quite a feat for a platformer and it is rare that one comes along that not only provides a challenging, fulfilling experience but does so in such a way that it stands out from the crowd. In Element4l, you do not run or jump. You do not shoot fire or gain power ups. Instead, you seamlessly change forms between the elements of earth, air, fire, and water. The result is an experience that easily ranks among the best indie games of the year.
Story and narration take a backseat to core gameplay. There is the sense that mechanics preceded story in the game's development and that sentiment persists throughout. You do follow a loose narrative of the core elements taking physical form but missing it entirely would do little to impede the quality of the game. Interestingly, the game breaks the fourth wall by speaking directly to the player. It is not uncommon to travel through a level only to see a message appear and offer support or reflection (“You're smart enough for this...”). At first these feel a bit artsy with their careful white prose but later on they begin to reference old movies and pop media. This isn't overbearing, however. Like so much of the game, it feels well considered and deliberate, designed to make you smile. That said, the real joy of Element4l is in mastering the elements.
The mechanics of movement are different than a traditional platformer. You are tasked with moving left to right, but your particle is immobile in any single form. Instead, skillfully switching between each propels you forward. The water element, taking the form of an ice cube, allows you to slide. Air gives you a brief upward push. Fire thrusts you forward but quickly dips toward the ground. Earth, on the other hand, manifesting as a rock, drops you straight down or anchors you to the ground. Forward movement, then, is often a matter of quickly switching between fire, air, and ice to gain momentum and overcome obstacles. Puzzles often require floating into the air, dropping as a rock to gain speed, and switching to ice cube to launch from a ramp or race up an incline.
Making matters more difficult is each element having limitations. All of them, with the exception of ice, use a limited pool of power. Gauging how much is left can be difficult as the indicators fade quickly. Likewise, elements are limited by the surfaces they can touch. Fire and air, for example, explode on contact with the ground. Ice melts against thin layers of lava. Stone grinds against the ground immediately slowing any forward movement. Likewise, understanding their beneficial attributes is important for completing puzzles. Fire bounces against those same thin layers of lava. Melting ice allows you to navigate through narrow tunnels and caves. Air floats over lava pits and along air drafts and stone breaks through thin layers of ground.
Challenging Puzzles, Platforms
These qualities forge the path for some truly clever physics-based puzzles. Early in the game, puzzles come in the form of small jumps, launching through the air, and navigate through tunnels without touching the walls in order to progress. But then mechanics start to build on each other and soon require pitch perfect element-switches. This could easily become drab and repetitive but smart level design keeps things fresh. Minecarts, waterfalls, air flows, and spring-loaded platforms all come into play. Likewise, careful placement of power-restoring Soul Sparks (think fire flies) provides you with element chains that would otherwise be impossible. Later in the game, you are even tasked with moving your element to the left. It seems simple, but remember, fire, your main means of propulsion, is right-only.
The design of Element4l is inherently challenging. Learning to control via element is awkward at first and takes time to get used to. Even once the skill is mastered, thinking purely in physics is difficult and will likely buck how games have trained you to think. Puzzles are easy to fail and usually require multiple attempts. Some require many more. This is not helped by a lack of support from the game but I didn't much mind. A forgiving checkpoint system and quick respawn lessens the impact of failure but not completely. You can choose to make the game easier in the options menu but even so, Element4l is a difficult game. That said, succeeding is wonderfully rewarding and more than makes up for the many, many restarts.
A Sense of Style
For all of that, Element4l would suffer if not for its wonderful sense of style. Visually, the game is reminiscent of Limbo. Trees and pieces of landscape wave in the solid black foreground. Backgrounds, lava pits, and poison wells are stand apart in gorgeously bright contrast. The soundtrack is elegant and well-utilized. Piano and synthesizer weave together to form a richly atmospheric tapestry that is both whimsical and fitting for each level. It is not adaptive but filled with “clicks” where the music and motion collide to feel adaptive. Together, the art style and soundtrack create a game that feels elegant and artistic but also stimulating and approachable.
Element4l is a game unlike any other I've played. The four element conceit works well within the trappings of a platformer. What's more, smart level design and cleverly designed puzzles work together to propel this concept to the next level. It is disappointing that the story is so bare-bones but forgivable in a genre where narrative is often an afterthought. Element4l is founded on solid mechanics, fresh gameplay, and a undeniable sense of style.
Challenging yet satisfying puzzles, smart design, fresh take on classic concepts
Lack of support to overcome challenges, can be frustrating