In the first level of Element4l, I died 28 times before making it to the end. It's not because the enemies are particularly tough (there aren't any), or the action is too fast paced (it's pretty relaxed), but because the game's unique control scheme is just so different. And death, it seems, is a great teacher. Unlike most games, Element4I doesn't give you direct control over your character; instead, you can only move the little guy by changing states. Turning into an air bubble will send you floating upward, for instance, while switching to a rock will have you plummeting back down to the ground. It takes awhile to get used to — and even once you do the game is incredibly challenging. But when everything goes right, it's immensely satisfying.
The goal is the same in each level, and it's very simple: You just need to get to the end. But since you don't really have direct control over the smiling main character, that's much easier said than done. Element4l only requires four buttons to play, and each one transforms your character into a different element, each of which has its own unique attributes. The trick is chaining these together in ways to helps you move forward. For instance, you might need to turn into air to get up high, then a fireball to create some forward momentum, before transforming into an ice block so that you can slide up a ramp when you hit the ground.
When everything goes right, it's immensely satisfying
Sometimes this requires relatively fast reflexes, as you'll need to change states rather quickly, but most of the time it's a matter of problem solving. There's a cliff, a lava pit, and a pool of water ahead of you: how do you get past them? That's where death comes in. Even without any enemies, there are plenty of ways to die in Element4l — an air bubble pops on the ground, or a flame gets extinguished in a puddle. There's even a menu option that simply asks, "Is this too hard for me?" Choosing yes makes things a bit more manageable — though still not easy — by making the game more forgiving with additional save checkpoints.
Surprisingly, though the game is making its debut on Windows and Mac, the control scheme was inspired by touchscreen mobile devices. When Dirk Van Welden, from developer I-Illusions, first started playing touchscreen platform games, he thought that there must be a better option than virtual buttons and joysticks. So he started experimenting with one-button setups. "After a while, I came up with the idea of changing your character instead of moving your character," he says. "The initial prototype of Element4l was more a puzzle game with a fixed screen where you had to change the state of your character in a certain sequence to solve those."
Element4l is a learning experience. And when you go back to replay earlier levels you'll realize just how much you've learned: those stages where you once died dozens of times can now be completed with a few quick and efficient taps on your keyboard. "You can play almost every level in a very smooth way with a limited number of button presses," Van Welden tells The Verge. "It's just something that you need to master." But even once you do, the game remains a challenge, and there's even a competitive race mode where you can truly show off your state-swapping skills.
"It's just something that you need to master."
While the challenge is rewarding, one of Element4l's biggest strengths is its atmosphere. Dark- and light-hearted at the same time, the contrast between pitch-black foregrounds and bright, colorful backdrops is striking, and in some cases it's even helpful gameplay-wise — being able to easily spot a batch of bright lava or toxic goo is very important. It's also a game you'll want to play with headphones on, thanks to the amazing soundtrack from Australian musician Mind Tree. You can pick up Element4l on Steam starting today, but given the game's origins, it may also be available on your tablet or smartphone in the future. "Chances are big since it was developed with mobile devices in mind," says Van Welden.