Platforming games are a thing of incremental progress in how they are built. Players will be dropped into a relatively familiar experience, and be given the basic principles of how the world operates. From that point it is the games responsibility to build upon those foundations and craft a game that continuously teaches you more and more about itself. This is usually in the form of gameplay mechanics or level design but it’s a technique that works, and has stood the test of time. Element4l is something that is trying to accomplish progress in both of those directions at the same time in ways that previous platforming games haven’t touched upon, all set to an affecting and beautiful soundtrack.
Let’s start with the basics. You are a bubble. You will not remain a bubble, but you will begin as one. As this bubble, you will soon learn to become an ice cube. This is the transitive path to enlightenment, becoming an ice cube and all. Next you will learn to be as a stone; which is to say you will be a boulder. This will make you heavy as you may imagine, but heaviness is not enlightenment. So you will become a spark from a stone, and be as a flaming comet in the sky. This might be the path to enlightenment, who knows? Really the thing to take stock of here is that you will be four elements throughout this game, and you will have to traverse paths. Are they paths to enlightenment? No, not really, in fact they’re more likely paths to you having a minor heart attack…in a good way. If that sort of thing is possible.
Element4l places you in the role of these four elements, and tasks you with moving from the left to the right. There are no enemies to speak of as you move from the left to the right, but the environment can and will kill you. You move from one end of the level to the other using nothing but the momentum that you are able to generate by switching the various elements on the fly, each possessing their own unique properties. As a bubble of air, you are obviously able to float, but you can also “bubble up” and give yourself an upward boost. As a block of ice, you can slide around on surfaces and gain ludicrous amounts of speed that would make a hedgehog jealous, provided you’ve got enough forward momentum going. Turning to a stone will give you some immediate downward force, and turning to a spark will fling you to the right for a brief moment.
Each of these elements is controlled by a radial dial of energy that surrounds you at all times. Changing from one element to the other drains a certain amount of energy unless you are changing to an ice cube. In a subtle move of gameplay genius the developers wisely omitted an energy requirement to change to a block of ice, making sure you’ve always got something to fall back on. With all these things in place the game starts simply enough. Spark to the right, turn to a stone over a sloped piece of the level, and then quickly turn to ice. The resulting “wheeeeeeeeeee!” that escapes your mouth is elation. For a time that sense of discovery remains in place as the game continues to peel back layer upon layer of gameplay. Which is to say it gets deep pretty soon, and starts challenging your perception of movement in a general way. It’s a great gameplay device while it’s all about learning these new things. So the first time that you bounce off a lava surface to quickly reverse your direction and fling upside down as an ice cube, your mouth will upturn into a grin.
However nothing lasts forever. Once the game is done showing you the operating principles behind the myriad of ways that you can move it takes the kid gloves off. Around the second chapter of the game, Element4l shows you that only through brutal painstaking trial and error will you ever achieve enlightenment. Solutions to movement puzzles become much less obvious and much more esoteric, and the explanations are few and far between. Is this an issue? It depends on how you look at it. On the one hand this game is the very core of what platforming is about. You take a basic mechanic like moving from the left of the level to the right of the level, and then you procedurally add to it. By the end of the experience, you should have challenged the player’s perception of that simple act of moving from one side of the screen to the other. Here’s where that’s going to be disarming for those interested in Element4l; the game is adorable. While you wouldn’t think this an obvious detriment right away, I think it might be. The cutesy graphics and art style suggest a much more casual experience than what really lies in wait here. So while the average player might be expecting something in line with Braid or Limbo, they’ll be surprised or dismayed to find that this game is basically Super Meat Boy with ice cubes.