Element4l is not for the faint of heart. It’s not violent and its mechanics are simple to understand, but it’s probably one of the most difficult games I’ve ever played. In the developer’s own words, it “takes a different, experimental approach to classic platform games and challenges you to rearrange your reflexes”. Adjusting to I-Illusion’s unique interpretation of the genre is challenging, and perhaps somewhat harrowing, but worth the trip.
You will use only four keys in Element4l: up, down, left and right. Each key will change your cute little character into a different element. Left is ice, your base element and the one you can always transform into as it doesn’t cost energy. Use it and you will slide around much like, well, ice.
Up will turn you into an air bubble and propel you upwards a little, right will turn you into a fireball and boost you towards the right, and finally down will turn you into a rock and push you downwards. Air, fire and rock cost energy to use, which is shown via a circle around you that depletes as you use it. It regenerates at a reasonable pace, but slowly enough to feel limiting.
These four elements will provide you with the means to navigate the game’s levels and collect the spark at the end. Some of the elements also have other properties – ice will melt when it touches lava, for example, whilst rock can be used to break through parts of the environment to progress. Neither air nor fire can touch the environment or you’ll burst, putting you back to the most recent checkpoint.
Therein lies the challenge of the game. You can’t move normally, you can only be propelled by the elements and that propulsion can only be maintained by momentum, making ice arguably the most used element in the game as it’s used to slide across surfaces, up looped walls and just generally to make your way through the winding paths of each level.
This difficulty is belied by the game’s aesthetics. Consisting of soft, dark colours and silhouettes, the levels are perhaps reminiscent of Limbo, and your character’s cute little smile doesn’t even begin to hint at the steep difficulty curve that awaits. Even the music is calm and serene throughout. As you work your way through each level messages will appear that toe the fine line between encouraging and poking fun, and often even serve as hints on how to progress.[drop]Key to its difficulty, however, is that it’s never unfair. You’re never unjustly punished or presented with something that is obscured in any way – the answer is always right in front of you, waiting for you to realise and pull it off. You quickly learn that Element4l isn’t about hitting the button until you get it right: it’s about gracefully hitting each element at the right moment to make your way through the levels. Like learning a complicated dance it’s not just perfecting the right steps, with timing and finesse playing just as big a part.
The right button at the right time is all you need, you’re simply tasked with figuring out which one and at what time. This is where the frustration lies: short of supernatural power, you’re destined to a game filled with trial and error, full of dying and trying again until you either figure it out or get lucky and progress by accident.
This isn’t necessarily the kind of game for everyone, so I can only definitively recommend it to those are of a certain masochistic persuasion. You know who I mean, the fans of Super Meat Boy and Dark Souls, the type of gamer who revels in overcoming rock hard difficulty.
It’s still possible that there is enough here for you even if you’re not of that persuasion. Pulling off even the smallest section of a level on your first attempt feels like an accomplishment. Even if you hit a brick wall immediately afterwards, the momentary grace of navigating a maze with three button presses using only instinctual reactions is almost exhilarating. Be warned however, you must be prepared for trial and error, inevitably leading to you putting down the game for a while and coming back when you’ve cooled off.
Element4l is available from its official site for $10 (about £6.60 at time of writing), which will get you a Steam key and the game’s soundtrack. Note that you will not get a Steam free version from the official site as the game uses Steamworks to provide a pseudo-racing mode using other players’ ghosts and leaderboards. You can also get the game from Steam for £6.99.