Element4l – a new indie puzzle game by Dirk Van Welden – takes a fresh approach to 2D puzzle games. It rewards trial and error and quick reflexes to allow your little elemental entity to cross the various landscapes which make up each level. The game is different in that it doesn’t adopt the normal approach of guiding you through it, instead favouring you as the player learning yourself with minimal support. Van Welden likens the challenge presented in Element4l to learning to ride a bike. At first we all struggle to get to grips with how it’s done, but through persistence and practice we get better at it, until we’re cycling with the best of them. But is this bike ride a smooth one, or is it a bumpy affair that leaves us with a flat tyre and a sore bum?
On the surface, Element4l seems similar to most puzzle games – take control of a particular entity and guide it towards an exit. Where it mixes it up is the fact that you’re in control of an entity that can change at your will. You control an entity that at any point is made of ice, earth, fire or air. Each of these elemental forms has different properties and a different role to play in traversing the various landscapes of the game. You can float upwards with the Air form, burst forward with the Fire form, slide with Ice form, and fall from the air sharply with the Earth form.
One of the things I wasn’t expecting from this game was humour. And whilst humour in this game is not as prevalent as in other puzzle games like Thomas Was Alone, its subtle presence is welcome in a game that at times can be very frustrating. Throughout different levels, text will appear on screen as though the game is talking to you. And whilst some of this will be pointing out various points on the landscape, some are filled with humorous references including Tony Hawks and even cult 1980s film The Goonies (if you haven’t seen that film, this reviewer encourages you to go now and watch it – it’s epic!) It’s a refreshing addition that helps give the game a bit more personality – something which some puzzle games can lack.
You use the various elemental forms and the shape of the landscape to generate momentum to traverse the environments and reach the goal. There are no move or jump functions in the game, nor can you control your element mid- air, the only way you can affect the trajectory of your entity is to change its form, and see how it reacts. So for example, you may become Ice to slide down an incline and gather some speed, at the bottom use Air to take to the skies, and then use Fire to cross a gap, and finally using Earth to land on the other side.
Now all of this sounds simple enough in principle. However the difficulty begins to ramp up when you realise that you can only touch the terrain around you in either Ice or Earth form, as the Air will pop and the Fire will just disperse upon touching anything. Such an error will take you back to the last checkpoint you cross (more on those later) for you to try again. Each element is mapped to a directional button (as these are not actually needed to move your entity in the game) so what you can easily find yourself doing is pressing the wrong direction by mistake, and your element turns into the wrong form, hits the wall or floor and is destroyed.
To traverse levels you will need to press the right buttons at exactly the right time to ensure your entity is able to reach the end of level goal, and any wrong button press will see you either destroy your entity on a nearby wall, or see you lose some required momentum which can render you in a helpless spot, leaving a self-destruct, and a return to the checkpoint as your only option. The checkpoints themselves are spaced a reasonable distance apart, but are usually placed after a significant puzzle section to avoid having to re-do particularly tough or fiddly sections over and over again if you get stuck. The checkpoints are most definitely a godsend, as without them, you would be retracing your steps across large portions of levels over and over again.
The other added dynamic is that each element change (apart from Ice) uses up Energy, which recharges over time. This prevents you from simply spamming elements to keep momentum up and means careful planning of how and when to change elements – again added to the precise nature of the challenge. There are certain collectibles in the level called Soul Sparks, which give you a recharge of this Energy back to full, but these are sparse and are normally there to facilitate a particular puzzle where you need more Energy than normal. Thankfully there is an option where you can make the game easier. Selecting this reduces recharge time, allowing for more changes of elements before you run out of Energy, meaning you don’t need to be as precise with your element changes as before.
Visually speaking, this game looks very nice. Whilst the elements themselves only have 4 basic forms and don’t have or require much visual detail, the landscapes they traverse are very pretty and solidly done. Vistas of pastel colours beautifully offset the solid black colour of the terrain within which you navigate your elements.
These striking scenes are accompanied perfectly by the atmospheric soundtrack delivered by Mind Tree. These smooth soft tones provide a great musical accompaniment to the sprawling pastel landscapes, and mean that whilst they never detract you from your puzzling, they feel just right in terms of setting the tone for the adventure. The full soundtrack is available free with purchase of the game so you can enjoy it separately at your leisure should you wish.
Bearing in mind that this game is all about precise button presses to clear the landscape through momentum; it’s a natural addition to have included a Race Mode into this game. This is where you can replay any of the levels you have completed to try and reach the goal in the quickest time possible. This will obviously mean not making any errors and using momentum to its full advantage. The game will take your current best time for that level and then pit you against a challenge ghost from another player online that has completed the level in a slightly quicker time for you to race against. This will greatly add to replayability as you try and beat your best time and that of others across the globe. Also expect to see speed runs on YouTube and other sites after the game is released with people showcasing some crazy moves.
Just because a game is inherently difficult shouldn’t necessarily count against it. I’m all for games like Dark Souls which succeed because they reward the player by challenging them. There’s then a sense of achievement to be had by overcoming these tough obstacles through perseverance. There’s also a lot to be said against the current theme in gaming of “hand-holding” which can cause us to lose sight of using our own initiative and common sense to solve problems. Some games of this current generation are guilty of too much “spoon-feeding”, and to those games, Element4l certainly is the perfect tonic.
So is this game worth your time? Well let’s go back to Van Welden’s bike analogy from earlier. For me, if Element4l was like riding a bike, you would do it with no training wheels, no help from your parents, and every time you fall off you have to go all the way back to the edge of your driveway and start again. The thought of racing your friends around the block may spur you on and the sights and sounds you experience as you try and cycle that little bit further are full of awe and wonder. The crux of it is though, for some this may not be enough to convince them that all this is worth the hassle, especially when they see the brand-new cut they have on their knee from their latest fall.
Reviewed by Guest Reviewer: ChrisHyde