Frequently I spend these initial sentences talking about the genre into which a given game falls. I can’t really do that with Element4L, because for the life of me I can’t nail it down. It touts itself as an “Indie Platformer” but as you’ll see below, there’s something undeniably unique about it.
The word that leaps to mind when describing both the sound and graphics of Element4L is “mellow”. The graphics are simple but effective, rendering the landscape with solid black in a way that gives a silhouette effect reminiscent of Limbo. In contrast, the background is composed of multiple progressively more muted and blurred layers of similar landscapes. Each level tints this background a different warm or cool color. It is a striking effect that provides variety without adding distraction of complexity.
The more meaningful elements of the landscape are usually given either a distinctive silhouette—like the fractured and thin sections of wall or floor that can be broken—or an appropriate color—like the bright orange stretches of lava, cool blue pools of water, or glowing green radioactive hazards. Rather than just plopping a splotch of solid color for each, these hazards are colored with a gradient that adds a bit of visual variety. Other aspects of the level that effect the player are intuitively represented; air currents show as flowing glimmers of light (like dust in a bright light), waterfalls cascade, geysers or jets of water spurt. Everything is put together well, with a consistent style that plays well while still being extremely uncomplicated.
Here’s where things get tricky. When someone says platformer, I think of Super Mario. When someone says Indie Platformer, I thing of something closer to Braid or Limbo. Element4L is definitely none of the above. You play as a little glob of a given element with a simple face. Initially you are air, which has the ability “jump” with diminishing returns. It can also drift on warm air and wind currents, but touching anything other than water will cause it to burst. Later, you gain the ability to become Ice, which slides nicely along smooth ground. If it touches lava, it shifts to water, which can squeeze through small cracks. Stone comes next, which gives you a downward boost and weighs more than the other elements, useful for manipulating physics and breaking walls. Finally there is fire, which gives you a quick forward (that is to say right-ward) boost and bounces off most lava. If anything touches radioactive matter, you’re done.
The purpose of the game, in proper platformer fashion, is to go from point A to point B. Each level has two collectibles in out of the way places, and rates you based on speed and lives lost. (I failed to get anything but bronze, but by now you should have learned that for me liking games and being good at them don’t go hand in hand.) Actually traversing the level, though, is an exercise in building and maintaining momentum, particularly when required to go to the left, since none of your abilities can nudge you in that direction without interacting with the landscape. Shifting between elements and phases is reminiscent of Gish, except that unlike in Gish, every action except shifting to ice uses up part of a quickly recharging energy meter. You can collect fragments of energy to recharge faster, or occasionally find a big enough fragment to get five seconds of infinite energy, but for the majority of the game you’re keeping tabs on how many shifts you can afford to do at a given time.
The levels are clearly laid out in such a way that there is a single fastest solution, though I’ve found my way through some obstacles through some dumb luck and twitch reflexes. There is something maddeningly complex, and sometimes frustrating, about juggling the different strengths and weaknesses each element brings to the party. For one puzzle you might have to boost forward as fire until you ricochet off of an angled lava patch, then float upward with the momentum and immediately shift to ice to slide along the curve of the ceiling across some energy fragments, then back to boosting as fire and finally shifting to stone to burst through a wall. All the while you’re monitoring energy, because if you drop too low, you can’t shift to the right element, and are stuck losing your speed or striking a surface which can kill you, and then you’re back to the nearest checkpoint. It is like playing Tiny Wings, Gish, and Rock Paper Scissors at the same time. Fun, but tricky.
The game features no voice work (aside from some vocals in the soundtrack), but the score is (as I said) mellow and serene for the most part. There’s more variety than you’d find in many scores, too. Sometimes you’re listening to synth strings and chimes, other times it ventures into the realm of dubstep, and that’s just two of the inflections. The music is certainly suitable to the equally malleable gameplay, so thumbs up.
There is no explicit story, but the player character isn’t without personality. As you cruise through the level, the elemental will make comments about the level and the stunts required to travel through it. These can be humorous, particularly when it is revealed how pop culture savvy the little elemental is. At one point it compares a dangerous maneuver to Goonies, then muses that many players are too young to remember that, and tries to remember if Harry Potter had something similar. You get the sense that the elemental has no more information about itself and its behavior than you do, and is content to simply enjoy the ride.
Element4L is one of those games that is undeniably well made. Playing it gives you the definite feeling that the makers achieved what they set out to do, which was craft a fun, unique, and polished game. My own sluggish reflexes, as they so often do, led me to become fed up with the puzzles at times, but that just led to the eventual feeling of triumph when I finally passed a level. Overall, a really high quality game.
8.5 / 10: Element4L uses a unique combination of elements to create a challenging and engaging platformer in more ways than one.