Lists. Who needs 'em? Whether it's a shopping list or a year-end "Best Of" list, you just know when you're writing it that you'll end up forgetting something important. When the year ends, Battle of the Elements probably won't be on our Best Of list. If you're the kind of person that makes lists of games to buy, there's approximately a 0% chance that this one's on it. And yet Battle of the Elements is easily one of the best little puzzle games we've played on the eShop this year, and if you're a fan of the genre looking for a strategic and challenging puzzler to really sink your teeth into, you'd be hard pressed to do much better. That Battle happens to be on an online store known for over-pricing its games is unfortunate, because this game has an audience; there's just a dishearteningly high chance that it simply won't find it.
Battle of the Elements looks rather curious sitting on your 3DS dashboard; its icon is a picture of a cute little cartoon lion, and you're pretty sure this is a strategy-based falling block puzzle game. It begins rather curiously, too, with a tutorial full of confusing grammatical mistakes and lacking in helpfulness. And it continues to be rather curious if you make the unfortunate choice of tapping Story Mode next (it is the first option, after all), where cartoon animals spurting Google-Translator-quality dialogue nearly distract you from the fact that this is actually an incredibly competent puzzle game.
But the lack of a genuinely helpful tutorial does end up adding a certain wonder to the experience when you finally throw up your arms in confusion and move onto Marathon Mode. The learning curve with Battle of the Elements is a steep one, but it's a satisfying one as well, giving the game a sense of discovery, whereas most falling block puzzlers settle for merely memorising sets of rules and functions.
And thankfully the rules and functions that you do memorise are pretty fun, if initially muddled. At its core, it's a pull-down, push-up kind of puzzler. Your goal is essentially to use the touch screen to grab one of each kind of elements (water, fire, wind and earth) from an ever-growing stack, drag it down to a queue, combine it with other elements in your queue to make a compound and then use that compound to destroy sections of the growing stack; if that stack hits the bottom of the screen, it's Game Over. It's like Tetris flipped upside-down. And if that description sounded kind of confusing, it's because Elements is kind of a confusing game to describe (as you'll recall, not even the developers could come up with a decent tutorial) and frankly, more than kind of confusing to play for the first half hour or so, give or take ten minutes depending on how quick a learner you are.
But soon enough it all makes sense, strategies start to emerge, and because the game doesn't explicitly describe them to you, they really feel like your strategies. The compound you make ends up turning one of four colors (which is determined by the color of the last element you pick up) and you throw these compounds back at the stack to destroy elements of like color. A green compound will destroy a stack of green elements and so on. So a key to success is carefully sifting through the stack to get to the elements you need, sorting them in your queue correctly, and throwing back the ones you don't need before a compound is formed and you're stuck with a color you don't want. And you'll have to do this all very quickly, because that stack is constantly moving to the bottom of the screen, and just like upside-down Tetris, you don't want that stack to hit the bottom of the screen.
What we're saying is, there's depth. There's strategy. A lot of it. And players looking for a thought-provoking, if not aesthetically impressive, puzzler that they can really sink their teeth into won't be disappointed. Yet once again, it's a shame that the game's audience should be so limited, because at a more reasonable price Battle of the Elements could really be a runaway hit.
With an autumn and winter busting at the seams with great games, chances are Battle of the Elements wasn't anywhere near your list of games to get. But you know what? Lists aren't all that great. You know who makes lists? People that make lists. And nobody likes those people; be better than them. Battle of the Elements isn't for everyone, but if you're up for a challenge, you won't be disappointed. Well, except maybe by the talking donkeys.