The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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May 31, 2013

Joe Hadsall: 'Element4l' control change is great for gameplay

JOPLIN, Mo. — It's not every day that a video game kicks my hind quarters so completely and strongly that I change my strategies completely. But "Element4l" is doing exactly that.

When it comes to video games, I tend to be an explorer. I search every area pretty thoroughly for hidden bonuses, powerups and other secrets. My stepson Duncan goes crazy when he watches me play, because just when the destination and location of more action is clearly identified, I run away from it and into empty nooks and crannies, just in case I missed something.

That clash in personalities made playing the "Lego" video games pretty interesting.

But that's just me. I like to finish a level perfectly before going onto the next. Whether it's a first-person shooter, platformer or puzzler, I'm an overachiever. I want that perfect rating, because just in case there are multiple endings to a game, I want the best one possible.

Not so with "Element4l." This platformer by I-Illusions, released last weak through Steam, is one of those Othello games -- easy to learn, lifetime to master. It is brutally hard.

Yet it's so satisfying to play, that I'm not going to stop playing anytime soon.

The game is simple: You control a little smiley-faced character who represents four elements bound into one entity. At any time, you can change into fire, air, stone or ice, and each of those forms lets you traverse the environment in a different way.

It would be simple enough if the entity was controlled in a normal, W-A-S-D fashion (keyboard controls: W is up, A left, S down and D right). Instead, each of those keys trigger a change into one of the four elements.

That means going from left to right on a flat plane requires hitting the button for fire (which provides a little boost of momentum to the right) then changing to ice before hitting the ground, so that the element can skate along.

It requires some mental rewiring, because when the entity picks up speed, old habits kick in, which means you change into the wrong element at the worst time.

Though the mechanics are difficult, "Element4l" is packed with many rewards. Set in a "Limbo"-like land of shadows where the main, foreground platforms are all black, the game's world features a background of vibrant colors, detailed trees, waterfalls and more.

The game's obstacles are clever, with the right amount of familiarity and surprise. Things can get roller coaster-like quickly, and navigating those passages at high-speed is pretty satisfying.

"Element4l" is also filled with quotes, from supportive "Wheee!" to pop culture references that make me laugh out loud -- that doesn't happen very often. In one point in the game, the player controls the entity through a complicated series of jumps, then gets the message, "Just like the Goonies." A few seconds later, another message: "Some younger players may not get that reference. There's jumping in Harry Potter."

And the game's music is magical. I've never been this captivated by a video game soundtrack, and I've played "Little Big Planet." Composed by Mind Tree, the music is a mix of ambient electronica with dubstep elements. The glockenspiel and piano sounds provide an innocence, while electronic sounds and tempo changes jar the ear in one of the most interesting ways I've ever heard. (My purchase of the game came with a digital copy of the soundtrack, and I've been playing it like crazy.)

All in all, this is the best $10 I've ever spent on a video game. Even though it is making me angry and frustrated -- it's so hard that I can't overachieve like I always do! I'm passing every level with the bare minimum of achievement.

The game is a gorgeous environment that's ripe for exploration. There are bonus items to find and gold flags to earn, but I don't care. Maybe by the time I beat this game I'll finally be good enough to find some of those things.

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