If modern society has taught us anything it’s that when you start replacing letters with numbers bad things happen. Alarm bells were therefore blaring as I downloaded Element4l (note the “4” where the “e” should be) from developer I-lllusions. Thankfully, it was just a nod to the number of elements you control, and my concerns were unfounded.
All movement in the game is based on momentum, which you can help create by imbuing your character with the four elements. These elements have unique properties within the framework of the game, and switching between them is easily done as each one is assigned both to a specific face button as well as a direction on the analog stick/d-pad.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the setup, but Element4l frequently ran into technical issues when returning from a paused state where the buttons wouldn’t respond. At that point you’d need to use the directional inputs until you failed, and upon reloading the checkpoint all controls would start working again. Restarts are commonplace, so it’s an inconvenience more than anything.
I’ve always enjoyed that kind of grainy silhouette look that LIMBO perfected, and Elemnt4l offers a similar visual experience. It creates a very surreal, calming look that is frequently at odds with the precision needed to overcome obstacles. That vibe is further embedded via the excellent soundtrack, which creates a sensation that you’re simply along for a relaxing trip. I often turn down the speakers on my Vita — sometimes even off — but here music is an essential part of your enjoyment.
Marketed as an “experimental platform” game, Element4l ultimately challenges you to get from Point A to Point B. While that sounds like pretty much every platformer out there, the experimental designation is reasonably well earned. Instead of asking you to make timed leaps or dodge enemies, you’ll have to switch between elements to generate enough momentum to progress.
Each element has unique characteristics: as air you can ascend but will “pop” on contact with any surface, as fire you move forward and can bounce off any fire-based substance in the environment (such as lava) but again you detonate on contact with any other surface, as earth you drop, roll and can break through obstacles, and as ice you slide along and melt on contact with fire, which comes into play when you need to squeeze into tight spaces.
How ably you can combine these elements into a cohesive process will determine your success. For example, you may lurch forward as fire, turn into a rock to gain downward force, transition into ice to glide across the ground and launch skyward where you transform into air and clear an overhanging cliff, only to turn back into ice to continue gliding forward.
The twist is that changing forms expends energy, and if you’re too low you won’t be able to alter your element to anything but ice (which does not require energy). Managing that energy is an interesting hook, but it feels inconsistently implemented. Even after clearing the game I still don’t have a firm feel for how much energy each transformation expends. By which I mean identical button pressing on my end has varying results — and there’s nothing worse than watching your little blob peter out inches short of the platform you’re trying to reach.
As noted, it’s all about momentum in Element4l, and when you hit a sequence just right it can be immensely satisfying as you whoosh through the terrain. It’s damn hard to do, however, which means you’ll be spending a lot of time inelegantly grinding through levels and trying to re-establish momentum from the game’s often frustrating checkpoints. On the plus side, checkpoints are frequent, which limits the amount of lost progress. Conversely, you can get stuck in some less-than-ideal situations.
One way to combat this would’ve been to freely allow the player to cycle back through checkpoints manually; leaving it up to them how far back they want to go before taking a crack at the next challenge to overcome.
Element4l does offer help in the form of a “ghost” that shows you how to advance, but it’s always based on a continuous run — and as the option doesn’t even show up until you’ve failed several times, it’s not always that helpful (especially since a lot of times it’s moving so much faster than you that it’ll be off the screen before you reach the part you’re struggling with).
Once you do find your way to the end of a level you’re graded on how long it took and how many times you switched between elements (the lower the number the better in both cases), and you’ll plant a flag ranging from gold to bronze.
There are only 16 levels, and even taking into account the amount of struggling you’re likely to do on your first trip you should be able to clear it in less than five hours. Finishing a level unlocks it and a corresponding “race” track, but the only racing going on is you against online players’ best times.
Like many great platformers, Element4l can be alternately exhilarating and infuriating. Inconsistency in the game’s signature mechanic keeps it from ever reaching the heights of the genre standard bearers, however, and while I think it’s worth playing, it’s not something I see myself revisiting in the future.