Element4l, this excellent new offering from i-Illusions, is, and look, I know how much this sounds like total horse hockey, but it actually really truly is a well-designed high quality game that does things completely differently. It’s baffling, and I respect it, and I enjoyed it too, mostly, but it doesn’t give me anything I’m used to, and gosh darn it, I’m just, well, I’m confused, guys.
The fact is, it takes away a lot of things you’re used to right off the bat. Forget about a story, even in the most basic Super Meat Boy sense, forget about whatever you think good game design means, and even just like, forget about what you think the proper “editorial” tone a game should have is. What Element4l actually is is the ability to explore the limits of a very specific physics engine while simultaneously having an intellectual conversation with the developers about philosophy and discovery that’s also peppered with tidbits of pop culture, encouragement, and cynicism.
“But guess what, kids? Your preconceptions aren’t right. Sorry.”
Pretty much all you get is the four arrow keys, which immediately sounds like the most normal thing ever, but guess what, kids? Your preconceptions aren’t right. Sorry. They don’t correspond to directions so much as they do completely different physical states of matter. You literally play as a smiley-faced amalgamation of four earthly elements who can transform from rock to ice to air bubble to fireball, and rather than moving you forward, or up, or down, or whatever, these transformations more just alter your weight and inertial tendencies. You must learn to rely on the relationship between the laws of physics and your surroundings in order to progress. Because there’s not one single comprehensive command in the game that allows you to, Element4l literally takes its time building up to teaching you how to maybe move to the left, and even then, you can only really do it if the level wants you to.
And if all that makes it sound like the levels are alive, cool job, you’re getting it. Earlier, I mentioned that the game feels like a conversation, and it’s usually a chat about the levels, which are surprisingly complex, despite the utter lack of direction given to you by the game. The disembodied voice lurks in the corners, fading into the background without showing you what’s next, instead surfacing only to make a witty pop-culture reference, or to confirm that you’re doing exactly what it thought you would and hey, wasn’t that fun?
Each section is about as linear as a classic Sonic the Hedgehog level, with various paths to take and a few secrets to grab, but only one exit. Because the controls are so unconventional, these slight forking paths and the completely new ways you’re constantly discovering to get yourself around often create the illusion that you’re using the game’s engine against itself to make bubblegum and scotch tape solutions, but then out peeks the narrator, who politely and sometimes even knowingly lets you know you’re not crazy and to keep at it, cause you’re playing the game exactly right.
Tying the experience together are the four different chapters, each with its own theme. Each one has four levels that captures that theme perfectly, especially during the “Willpower” chapter, during which I literally had to resist the urge to swing a hammer through my monitor due to the frustrating yet fair difficulty. The creeping voice that whispers its clues to you throughout is also very aware of the theme as you go, and amazingly, with a few silent sentences of text, adds enough of a personality to each chapter that they feel sewn together in logical and obvious ways.
Mind Tree’s soundtrack to Element4l is absolutely fantastic. It perfectly captures the brutal feeling of trial-and-error-based discovery, and imbues it with a great sense of wonder. It’s heart-wrenching at parts. It made me feel high. It’s awesome, though I would’ve liked a few more songs. Also, the delightful little pops and crackles the elements constantly emit as they change form give the game an almost tangible texture, which oftentimes has the added benefit of helping with the rhythm of switching during more difficult levels when the maneuvers you’re required to pull off are truly insane.
Graphically, too, Element4l is very impressive. The silhouetted terrain, bright lights, and glowing magma set a very distinct tone when combined with the music, and the light film grain effect over everything gives the game an etherial quality. Each of the different chapters has a different color scheme as well, and it only ever looks great, and doesn’t ever make seeing your character or interacting with the game harder in any way. Really solid stuff.
The only possible letdown I can identify is the short length of the game, but really, the game feels perfect at about four hours, and for the speedrunners and value fiends prowling around, there’s a race mode, which records your ghost data and posts it to online leaderboards. So, yeah. Damn. Element4l is a quality experience if a bit challenging, and I have a large amount of respect for it because it’s a well-made game that normal people are meant to buy that’s still committed to trying something very different. It makes me feel a little weird because it challenges me to critique the game without having much to compare it to, but it certainly feels much more like a great success than a horrible failure, and if you’re willing, it can really show you a totally new way to have fun with platformers. Cool, cool, cool. It’s cool.