words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by I-Illusions for PC and Mac, originally released in 2013.
Element4l is a physics-based platformer that tosses aside traditional controls like it tosses aside the letter “A”. Rather than moving to the left and right or running and jumping, the player is not given direct control over the character’s movement. Instead, the player controls a being that can transform between each of the 4 elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Clever use of these transformations allows the player to press forward through a series of very challenging environments.

The game begins with an optional tutorial, although it’s quite necessary for new players. In the tutorial, you begin in the form of air, and you have not yet gained the ability to transform. This gives you a moment to play with the mechanics, which – in this case – involve keeping yourself airborne, as touching any surface will cause your air bubble to pop, sending you back to the most recent checkpoint.

Manipulation of the air form is done by pressing UP, and each press of UP bumps the bubble upward slightly. Tapping UP multiple times lets you make long ascents for as much energy as you have remaining, as represented by a translucent meter around your body. Tap the button too many times and you’ll run out of energy, potentially falling to your death before the meter refills. The tutorial allows you to experiment with the proper timing of the ability to prevent the meter from running out at an inopportune time.

The tutorial becomes progressively more challenging, moving from open areas where you ride air currents along, to bodies of water where the bubble bobs up and down, and caves where you must manipulate your ability carefully to move through narrow passages.

At the end of this challenge, you unlock the ice form, which is activated by pressing LEFT. This is your primary form of locomotion throughout the game, as it allows you to slide along the ground as long as you have sufficient forward momentum or you are on a sloped surface. Also, transforming into ice does not consume any energy, unlike the other forms.

The challenges that follow are built around Tony Hawk-style slopes, ramps, and half-pipes, and you must often position yourself to build up speed, then quickly transform into your air form to cross a gap, and then turn back to ice to make a good landing that preserves your momentum. Touching lava will melt the ice block, turning it into water and allowing it to slide through tiny openings, but you can turn back into your ice form at will.

Eventually, you unlock the ability to turn to stone, accessed by pressing DOWN. The stone doesn’t roll smoothly like the ice block, but it does allow you to force yourself downward quickly and build up speed. The stone form can also act as an anchor if you’re trying to nail a platform landing, and it can break through certain walls.

Lastly, you are introduced to the fire form, accessed by pressing RIGHT. Transforming into fire sends you to the right in an arc, requiring that you transform again before you strike the ground and explode. Since this is your only direct horizontal movement control, you will often use this to get moving from a stopped position. You can also use it to build up speed along a straightaway or across a gap by transforming into air to move up, then fire to move right, and then ice to slide along the ground. This sort of rapid form switching is a necessity in some of the later challenges. The fire form also lets you bounce off of lava, opening up some challenges where you need to reverse direction.

While the control is very nontraditional, assignment of directional keys to each of the different forms is fairly logical. Pressing UP bumps you upward in the air form, DOWN sends you quickly downward in stone, and RIGHT pushes you in that direction in the fire form. Ice is perhaps the only one that doesn’t have a direct logic, being assigned to LEFT, but it is the only remaining directional key. Once you get used to the basic controls, switching rapidly between forms becomes more natural.

With the tutorial completed, it’s on to the main game where you are required to make use of all of the forms and determine when it is best to use each. In general, the levels are extremely challenging, and offer very little room for error. Often you will find that if a series of transformations is not executed perfectly, there is no way to recover your mistake outside of returning to the previous checkpoint. This is the case in even the early stages, with later stages introducing new complexities that require longer sequences of successful transformations between checkpoints.

Often, there is no way to predict what is required of you until you encounter a challenge and fail to execute it properly, resulting in a quick return to the last checkpoint to try again (you can also manually return to the last checkpoint), this time armed with the knowledge you need to succeed. This trial-and-error approach works well enough in the earlier stages but can lead to frustration later when the space between checkpoints increases along with the level of challenge and the number of precision movements required, which can lead to a lot of repeated gameplay. An easy mode is available to players as well, which increases the frequency of checkpoints and increases the rate at which the energy meter refills, allowing for some additional wiggle room when executing complex maneuvers.

Some challenges include floating Soulsparks that refill your energy when you grab them. These allow you to cross large gaps that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise without running out of energy. Of course, you must also line yourself up properly to grab the pickups lest you run out of energy and fall.

For those who have mastered the controls, there are objects called “lost sparks”, which appear as dark clouds tucked away in the outer reaches of the environment. These act as additional challenges, requiring the player to go out of his way or perform a challenging set of maneuvers to reach. Players are graded at the end of each level based on the number of lost sparks collected, number of deaths, and completion time.

There is some variety to the environments, with each act set in a different themed area, including snowy mountains and a desert filled with mine shafts. New areas bring new environmental challenges, including waterfalls that push you downward and pop air bubbles, deep pools that you can burst out of in your air form, geysers that you can plug in your stone form and send yourself flying into the air, and flame spouts that can only be crossed in your fire form. Each form reacts differently to the various environmental effects, and knowing the impact of each is required to overcome these challenges.

Stick with the challenges and you’ll eventually find yourself riding your ice block up slopes, grabbing some air, and even sliding off the ceiling to preserve your momentum for a big jump, while the game offers little text quips – and more than a few pop culture references – along the way. Momentum is key for nearly every challenge, and getting the “flow” right is core to the gameplay. Once you have built your transformation skills, and become accustomed to the stage layouts, you’ll find that previously completed stages become considerably easier. However, the narrow margin for error often means the difference between dashing through the world like a magical madman and crashing uselessly against the same wall over and over until you eventually concede.

Element4l was developed by Belgium-based studio I-Illusions, with designer/programmer/artist Dirk Van Welden and artist Michélé De Feudis, along with Australian musician Mitchell Nordine (Mind Tree). Dirk is credited with the game’s concept, and has previously worked on a number of iOS titles, including GravBall and LaserBug.