4 Elements Review
Posted by Lee Meyer
Not a perfect storm
Engine Software's 4 Elements is a fun match-3 puzzler weighed down by unnecessary seek-and-find sequences and occasionally frustrating level design. Originally a PC game, 4 Elements' generic fantasy presentation hides an addictive game that will appeal to fans of Bejeweled and other "casual" puzzle titles. There's nothing wrong with story in a puzzle game, but with the relatively low resolution of the 3DS screens and the somewhat blurry art in the seek-and-find sequences, gamers will want the title to get out of its own way and let the real game breathe.
4 Elements tells a simple story of an ancient evil that was locked away by the power of the titular elements — earth, wind, fire and water — but has now been unleashed. It's up to the player to unlock four books to release the elements and save the realm. It's inoffensive and flat, but the story is bolstered by a fairy who accompanies the player and periodically provides tips and hints. Unlike some other games that have overused the "helper" character while not allowing the player to discover and explore, the fairy is here to explain the various rules and power-ups and won't get in your way.
The main gameplay of 4 Elements involves creating chains of three or more jewels of the same colour to clear a pathway for a liquid to reach the tree at the end of each level. The 64 (generously) timed levels are large and sprawling, with multiple pathways and strategies for the player to take. There are 16 levels per "element," and the colours and visuals change depending on which element you're playing, adding a bit of variety to the proceedings while playing; as you progress, the levels become harder, longer and with more obstacles. For example, you might stumble upon a stone that can only be destroyed via a bomb power-up, or a frozen tile that must be chained several times before breaking.
There are environmental tricks, as well, with arrows that help clear large sections of the level when the liquid reaches them. There are several power-ups, such as the aforementioned bomb, the ability to swap any two regular jewels, "dig" out a tile to make way for another, and a power-up that reshuffles all jewels in the level besides stones and frozen tiles. Some jewels sit on more than one layer and must be cleared several times, as well. The time limit is rarely going to make players nervous, but it does add a good bit of tension as players scramble to reach the tree after a long journey.
Supplementing the main gameplay are four hidden object sequences to find the key to each elemental book. The still paintings, while pretty, are a bit washed out on both the top screen and the touch screen, making it difficult to find each item. The fairy is available to point players in the right direction (there's a cool-down period to prevent cheating), but these sections feel like filler. There are also near-identical cards that require the player to spot the differences, which are short and relatively simple, but the small pictures on the card had us resort to pixel hunting and tapping the screen until we found something; these sequences aren't challenging so much as frustrating, and feel extraneous to the rest of the game.
Although the colours seem a little washed out, the visuals are lovely and soft, evoking a fairy tale fantasy realm. The music and sound effects are quite soothing and peaceful, and the pay-off to a large combo or clearing a huge section of a level with "whoosh" and "ringing" sounds is surprisingly effective. The top screen is used as a map, while the bottom screen is where the action takes place. There is not much 3D implementation here, but it's not missed.
Though 4 Elements is hampered by its filler hidden object/seek-and-find sequences, the puzzle gameplay is very fun and surprisingly involving. So while it's not the perfect puzzle game, players could certainly do worse. For a lengthy and well-crafted experience, 4 Elements is recommended; just be ready to do some pixel hunting in-between matching those jewels.