Reaction based platformers are like kryptonite to me. Initially I revel in the challenge, figuring out how the mechanics work with each other and eventually getting good enough at them that I feel like I could master anything thrown at me. Then, inevitably, the difficulty of the game increases and I find myself floundering, my newfound prowess laid to waste at the developer’s hands. This usually then leads onto a rather self destructive spiral where I’ll continue playing until I get past the point that’s blocking me but of course I usually can’t leave it there and the descent into madness continues. You’d think then that I’d avoid this genre altogether but when something like Element4l crosses my path I was too intrigued to say no.
Element4l puts you in control of a curious little creature, one that’s made up of the 4 different elements that drive its world. Your quest is simple: you are on a mission to create sentient life and in order to do so you have to seek out soulparts that have been scattered around your world. You start off by being a small bubble of air, floating on the breeze, but as you seek out more soulparts you’ll be able to transform yourself into ice, rock and fire, enabling you to soar to ever increasing heights. To succeed you’ll need to use all of your abilities in concert as you will not progress without mastering them all.
The artwork of Element4l is simplistic but very beautiful, reminding me of other games like Journey. There’s really not a lot to it but the combination of different effects and lighting makes Element4l quite a nice visual experience. This is then elevated even higher by the amazing soundtrack that accompanies it which seems to swell and fade at just the right times. Sure it didn’t always line up, especially if I had been struggling on a particular section for some time, but let’s just say I’m glad the developer left the soundtrack in MP3 format in the game folder, it’s just that good.
Mechanically Element4l is a momentum based platformer where keeping your speed up as much as you can is the main aim of the game. Initially it starts out as just a helicopter based game where you have to keep yourself from touching the sides but as you unlock more elemental powers you eventually find yourself spending most of you time sliding around, looking for dips/rises in order to ramp up your speed again. There’s also a few other mechanics thrown into the works to spice up the latter half of the game, adding in a good level of frustration even when you’d expect such a power to make the game easier.
Each of the different elements has a specific property associated with them that’s advantageous in a certain way. Air allows you to float and pulse yourself upwards. Rock allows you to drop and stop really fast, something which you’ll need to use often in order to build momentum. Ice allows you to slide on nearly any surface and has the peculiar attribute of not using any energy, allowing you to transform into it at any point. The last one is fire which is the only ability that can directly contribute to your momentum in the X-Y plane, giving you a small boost to the right hand side of the screen. They all sound simple enough and indeed the reason I was attracted to Element4l in the first place was the apparent simplicity but the way the mechanics interact with each other is anything but simple.
Initially you’ll be able to fumble your way through most sections as the amount of momentum required to make it past certain obstacles is usually pretty low. However there are quite a few tricks you can use in order to boost your momentum up and whilst some puzzles don’t necessarily require you to use them you’re usually far better off doing so in order to give yourself a little more leeway.
For the most part it’s about timing your transformations and abilities to capitalize on the momentum you’ve already created. So for instance say you’re heading up and you need to go higher, usually you’d wait until you got to the peak before using an ability in order to get the maximum effect. In Element4l the forces are additive and so you’re much better off using your puff ability (in air form) on the way up in order to generate more upwards force. The same goes for rock as that lets you drop incredibly quickly, very handy for when you’re going down a ramp. Fire is tricky as whilst it gives you a little boost of speed if you don’t transform out of it quickly you’ll end up losing it (or dying). Thus I found transforming into ice immediately after fire was usually the best way to keep my speed up, unless I needed to be in fire form for one reason or another.
The latter additions add an interesting twist to the base game play, usually forcing you to think of novel solutions to the problems presented. Probably the most interesting one was the sparks that gave you 5 seconds of unlimited energy, something which you’d think would trivialize any puzzle, but in fact it makes them quite a lot more difficult as you can get yourself into a whole mess of trouble in no short order. The same can be said for the little sparks that refill your energy bar as, sometimes, you’ll be able to complete a section without using them but others will require you to use every single one to progress.
Thankfully the experience is pretty much bug free although there are couple mechanics that have some emergent behaviour that I don’t think was intended. For instance when you get turned into water (although it kinda looks like bubbly steam) turning into air directly afterwards shoots you up with a lot of force, far more than it does with any other transformation. Additionally should you respawn whilst you were in steam form any momentum you had at that point will be transferred to you upon respawning. This sounds like a great way to break things, and indeed you probably could, but the times when I happened to me would send me shooting back into a lava pit behind me. Apart from that though the game is glass.
Element4l is one of those games where it’s simple understand yet incredibly hard to master. Much like Super Meat Boy before it I spent the vast majority of my time stuck on puzzles towards the end, running them time and time again until I managed to get my timing perfect. Therein lies the challenge, frustration and ultimate satisfaction that comes from these types of games and whilst I might dread them initially it’s hard to deny that awesome feeling you get upon completion. If you’re a lover of this type of game or love highly polished indie experiences then Element4l is for you.
Element4l is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total game time was 4 hours with 60% of the achievements unlocked.