“Artistic platformer” seems to be a genre of games that is becoming a lot more prevalent lately. Games such as Limbo and Thomas Was Alone managed to add a unique and memorable art style to a relatively simple game mechanic, creating something special. Now joining the fray is Element4l from I-Illusions. It manages to bring the charming beauty of Thomas Was Alone and mix it with the platforming challenges of Guacamelee. The result is a wonderfully endearing game that is both beautiful to look at and frustrating to play.
It’s a perfect combination of pleasure and pain that makes me love to hate it. Or is it hate to love it? Whatever. In the end, Element4l is a game that I want to love but just can’t.
In Element4l, the player controls four different elements. Each has a different ability to help the player make it through the level and only by switching between each element on the fly will you be able to succeed. First there is Air with the ability to jump. Then there is Ice which can slide along flat surfaces (and melt into water when it touches something hot). Rock can plummet downward to either build momentum or smash through barriers. And finally Fire has the power to propel you forward.
The key is to constantly switch between the elements to give you the result you need. So for example you can burst forward with Fire and then quickly switch to Ice to glide along the ground. Repeat the combination a couple of times and you really start to build up speed. Then when an obstacle confronts you, switch to Air to leap up high before you pound down with Rock and build up some speed on a hill. Mastering which element to use at any given time takes some getting used to, but once you figure it out, it works really well.
Changing between the elements is very easy and the controls work pretty well. Using either the face buttons or the D-pad to change shape at any time. The layout is also well thought out since pushing up will switch you to Air (and let you go up). Down turns you to Rock (shooting you down). Right propels you forward with Fire and pushing left will turn you into Ice. It’s an easy thing to overlook, but the thoughtful layout of the controls aids the player enormously.
But it would be too easy if there wasn’t a catch. In Element4l you’re presented with the limitation that using the elements’ power depletes energy (except for Ice). This means you can’t just infinitely leap higher with Air or constantly shoot yourself forward with Fire. You need to conserve the number of changes you make so as to not wear out your power.
If you can master all this, the result is a beautiful platformer that tells a simple story of progression and the journey in life. In much the same way that Thomas Was Alone injected personality into simple shapes through narration, Element4l uses on-screen dialogue to make the elements feel more personable. There was one reference to The Goonies that had me doubled over laughing. For the most part these bits of dialogue work to make you feel an emotional connection with what would otherwise be a basic platforming game.
On paper, this all sounds perfect. It sounds like I should love it. So what went wrong that makes me so hesitant?
One of my main issues comes with the energy that each element uses. It never felt consistent to me. Sometimes it felt like I could leap to enormous heights while at other times it seemed to peter out after I barely left the ground. Try as I might, the level of energy I had access to always seemed to be a mystery. This meant that I’d have to relearn how to play each section of the game as I came to it. What worked in one level suddenly wasn’t possible in the next.
My other major concern was around the game’s ability to autosave and being able to continue with the progression I made. It seemed like every time I would quit the game, my progression would be lost. This meant that every time I came back to play, I’d have to replay several levels again just to get back to where I was. It’s an unnecessary frustration that would test my patience.
Aside from those gripes, the game is stunning. It’s absolutely beautiful to look at and has a simplistic art style that seems to be a blend between Limbo and Thomas was Alone. There are a lot of dark silhouettes that are accented with bright, bold shapes.
Likewise the music is both somber and gorgeous. The audio elevates the level of the visuals to create a complete experience that is both compelling and satisfying. I can fault the game for many things, but its presentation is not one of them.
That leaves me feeling very mixed about Element4l. When it works, it really works. It has a great premise and a charm to it that is hard not to love. The problem is that when it falls apart, it really gets frustrating. I don’t like having a game that I’m afraid to quit for fear that I’ll lose 15 minutes of progress. Nor do I enjoy the unpredictability of the way my character moves.
Element4l represents both the best and the worst of the indie game genre. The beautiful art and interesting game mechanics are something only seen in these smaller, independently made games. However, there is also a certain level of polish that seems to be missing.
In the end, I felt a little let down. The game has a really interesting premise and occasionally lives up to its potential. However there were also a number of flaws that made it a chore to play. Thankfully the game isn’t very long (I guess keeping in with the tradition of this genre), but it does try to entice you to replay levels by introducing a race mode. This however feels a bit hollow since the main draw of the game is the beauty of the environment it puts you in, so rushing through it as fast as possible seems to bely the point.
Element4l is an ambitious and artistic platformer that tries to shoot for the moon but unfortunately falls short. There are moments of pure delight presented alongside areas of enormous frustration. This left me feeling ultimately unsatisfied. I loved the look, the premise, and the vision of Element4l, but the end result left me feeling burned.