Created by I-Illusions, Element4l is a recently released “experimental” platformer with a heavy focus on flowing, fast and incredibly challenging gameplay. As I have mentioned before platformers are a fairly difficult genre to review because there are just so damned many of them that it seems ridiculously difficult to provide anything fresh or exciting to the scene. However, Element4l actually does bring a fairly unique mechanic to the genre and impressed me enough that I found myself quite hooked for a while on it, despite not normally enjoying platformers at all.
The name as a play on “Elemental” confuses me a little, enough so that I am actually mentioning the bloody thing in my review of the game. I genuinely don’t know why they felt they had to replace the “a” with a “4” especially considering that it isn’t the 4th instalment in a series. In fact I spent the majority of my time first playing the game calling it “Element-four-I” because I wasn’t even aware the last letter was an “L”. Basically, I just wanted to say straight away that the name is silly and doesn’t really seem to fit with the tone the rest of the game sets.
In Element9o you play as an elemental sprite type thing and you can (after playing through the tutorials) switch between four elemental states: rock, fire, air and ice. Yes I know technically it ought to be “water” but as we’re being technical ice IS water so I guess we can forgive them that. Each of these elements also corresponds with a direction on the d-pad/WASD controls. Up is air, down is rock, right is fire and left is ice. These are the only controls in the game as three of the four buttons also corresponds with a movement in that direction. So when you change into your rock form you also shoot downwards slightly, changing to fire causes a burst of momentum to the right and changing to air makes you hop upwards into the air. The major difference between this and any other platformer though is that you cannot make yourself go left. Changing to your ice form has the simple effect of changing to ice and not adding any extra force to the matter at all.
The gameplay is heavily based on motion and physics, a burst of momentum in one direction carries over between your forms so you might shoot up and to the right by quickly shifting between both air and fire. Also, your three “movement” forms require the use of energy, represented by a bar which appears around your sprite. Changing forms and thus causing the movement uses energy (which does recharge) for a maximum of approximately three changes in quick succession. Naturally there are also floating orbs scattered in strategic places which recharge or drain your energy as well, just to add another element into the gameplay (pun oh so intended).
Each form also has specific properties which affect it in different places, for example rock will sink in water, ice will float lazily on the surface while air while shoot straight up and out, with a burst of momentum (fire is naturally extinguished). There are other characteristics as well such as fire bouncing off cooling lava and air being able to float above it.
All of these different mechanics lead to an large variety of puzzles and challenges to complete in each level. Usually to the tune of: jump high into the sky using air, hurtle yourself downwards using rock and then use ice to slide at high speed through a series of tunnels. It is at it’s heart a very well put together platformer. The mechanics are great and the physics engine is pretty outstanding. Working through the various challenges is also clear and well thought-out. In every one the solution tends to be fairly obvious, not easy to do, but it’s obvious that you need to switch to this and that in different places.
It’s also a very reflexive game, once you get to the harder and further levels you will need to be working harder and thinking quicker as your sprite moves faster and faster through longer and more deadly corridors so that you must always be on the ball to be ready for whatever obstacle lies around the next bend.
As well as all this the game is a very good looking one. For all it’s simplistic and hand-drawn feel it also has a great depth and texture to it making it look just great. As well as that the fading and often nice and pleasant messages which appear at certain moments do add another layer on top of it. Even if it does smack a tiny bit of putting it’s head up it’s own butt. The game also prides itself on it’s soundtrack by MindTree, quite rightly so actually. Despite the promotion of the soundtrack it never once becomes overpowering in the game whilst simultaneously being noticeably good and enjoyable. It’s not exactly something you can hum along with but it does have a fairly strong feel to it which seems to fit in with the game. And again it doesn’t REALLY seem to be taking itself too seriously here.
Now, whenever I start a platformer I always have to remind people of the two following facts: I tend not to enjoy platformers unless they have something unique which stands out about them, which Element5x succeeds in doing and I’m not very good at them. And in no other platformer has it ever been so obvious as it was here. Most of the time, like whenever I try to play Super Mario Bros on my old gameboy, I will fail but will get the impression that if I actually decided to try I might end up being able to beat the game. Element7u didn’t feel like that. The other thing, along with it’s soundtrack, which it flaunts on the website is that “THIS IS NOT AN EASY GAME!” And I’ll be damned if they aren’t telling the truth. The challenges get complex, incredibly fast and just ridiculously difficult. Describing it as “challenging” is such a vast understatement.
Through several hours of trial and error I managed to batter my way through the first three acts of the game (called Heart, Mind and Willpower for whatever reason) slowing down with each successive level. In that time I must have died close to 1000 times and it just keeps on getting harder. Now normally if you can’t beat a game then you shouldn’t take it as a mark of a bad game, it just means you aren’t very good at it. It tends not to be the game’s fault. In Element1v though whenever you complete a challenge and reach the next checkpoint or straight section you don’t feel any of the accomplishment that usually accompanies beating something challenging. It doesn’t feel like you’ve made some advancement in skill or thinking or reflexes. No what it feels like is exactly what happened. I tried something 50 times in a row, trying desperately to get the timing right, only to mess up by fractions of a second on different parts. And then finally, through some quirk of nature, what I was attempting to do for a good 20 minutes FINALLY works with a sound released from me which goes something like “GRRUUUAAARRFINNNNALLY!!”
It specifically says “[it’s] more rewarding than mashing buttons” and I would like to say this right now… No… No it isn’t… There is no reward. It so damned difficult and frustrating and just downright horrible that there is no feeling of accomplishment when you finally push through the other side. It doesn’t feel like an increase in skill so that you can finally beat the level. It’s simply attrition, you slowly wearing down the defence of the enemy at the expense of hundreds of your lives.