Out of I-illusions studios, Element4l is the kind of moody, experimental indie game that is a diamond in the rough. Amongst hundreds of platformers of all shapes and sizes, this one hits the nail on the head in all the right ways and sets itself apart via a distinct graphical style, unique gameplay and a soundtrack that fits the bill in every aspect, and does it well.
It's a unique, meditative experience unlike anything I've come across.
So... what's it about?
I started out staring at a bubble of air with a crisp white ring around it – I'd later learn that this was my energy bar – and a tiny smile on its face, drifting lazily toward a crisp black slope where it immediately touched the ground and, well, popped.
Element4l puts you in command of four elements – fire, air, ice, and earth – as you progress through 16 dynamic, physics-based platforming levels. Take control of the power of air, and you become a bubble, floating upward and popping at contact with walls or floors; call upon the power of fire to shoot forward, a trail of smoke and sparks blazing behind you. Become ice to slide, and stone to fall quickly and sink to the bottom of ponds and rivers, to stop geysers and shoot upward into the sky as they erupt beneath you.
Simplistic without being basic, Element4l was designed to be experimental and immersive, and without a doubt, it succeeds at its goal. The soundtrack backing the game was created by Mind Tree, and it only serves to add an additional atmospheric touch to the game. The soundtrack loops but manages, stunningly, to be consistently pleasant and not irritating to listen to, which is not an easy feat when you have looping background music. It changes, also, with each level to match the feel of the game – which means not only are you not stuck listening to the same doodling tune throughout your play experience, but the immersion is complete.
What's the gameplay like?
Players use the arrow keys to switch elements: up for air, the right arrow key for fire, the left for ice, and down for stone. That's it. Seriously. The difficulty comes not from the controls but from environmental challenges, and players really need to get the hang of fighting against curves, bumps, steep hills, and even things like geysers, lakes, and lava.
Don't let its simple, gentle learning curve catch you off guard, though – the controls and gameplay may be easy to pick up on, but this game is not to be taken lightly. It's hard, in all honesty, with a difficulty curve that ramps up as you progress through the levels and chapters, although I didn't find myself aggravated even once while playing. Checkpoints scattered throughout each level, which users can unlock more of by selecting easy mode in the game's options, make it just enough of a challenge to make the payoff exciting, but aren't so frustrating that players will be less inclined to finish the game.
The graphics are excellent. The stylistic ideasthat i-illusions chose to utilize this time around were brilliant, a striking black silhouette against vibrant backgrounds. Reminiscent almost of Limbo in the sharp lines coupled with smooth, smoky touches, it's a unique style that sticks with you – it's easy to recall such a distinct look, and, admittedly, it's also very, very pretty. There's no question about that – it's a beautiful game, which is helped rather than harmed by its simplicity.
Element4l's strongest suit is its ability to stay simple and uncomplicated, yet dynamic and entertaining; the minimalist approach to controls and story leave plenty of time to focus on level design and gameplay, and that was a fantastic decision on the part of i-illusions. It's a crisp, clean game with lots of replay value, and is seriously enjoyable the first or seventeenth time around. Nine out of ten, and definitely recommended.