If you’ve stumbled onto any footage of Clash of Elementalists, we wouldn’t be surprised if your first impression was a good one. At first glance, the game-play appears reminiscent of SEGA’s Virtual-On series or even the multiplayer aspect of Kid Icarus: Uprising. This is a third-person arena brawler where you’re bestowed with powers based on one of the four classic elements. We should all know that what lies on the surface isn’t necessarily reflective of what’s underneath, and Clash of Elementalists is certainly a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Upon reaching the main menu, you’ll have the option of choosing between four different modes: Arcade, Free Battle, Versus, and Training. Arcade Mode is your main mode but it’s uncommonly shallow due to the games small cast of characters and a single play-through generally took us about fifteen minutes to complete. In all honesty, there’s virtually no sense of progression or reward which will immediately turn off most gamers.
Free Battle and Training are self-explanatory and essentially the same mode with one or two different customization options between them, then you have Versus where you can play locally against a friend that has also purchased a copy of the game. It would’ve been nice to see download-play as an option considering it’s so often neglected, but even the addition of that functionality wouldn’t be enough to make up for the game’s crippling faults – but we’ll get to those soon.
There are four playable characters, all female, and all modelled after each of the classic four elements: fire, water, air, and earth. Like you may expect, the character’s attacks are all specific to the inherent traits of each element and each of the four arena’s environments follow suit cosmetically. Yes, there are only four characters and four arenas, which is unfortunate but possibly acceptable depending on how much you expect from a $5 game.
One of the first things you may notice upon starting a match is that the graphics are very competent for a DSiWare title. Characters have a nice cell-shaded look, and even though the environments are a bit bland and underwhelming, they’re surprisingly smooth and their sparse nature is virtually unnoticeable once the action commences. The frame-rate is solid, the colours are vibrant and even the hand-drawn character art in the menu screens looks good. It’s safe to say that the visuals, at the very least, get the job done; it’s just too bad the controls are a completely different story.
In a third-person brawler of this style, there will usually be a lock-on function that keeps the opponent in your sights at almost all times — like the aforementioned Virtual-On — or you’ll have an intuitive control scheme that lends to a satisfying level of precision — like Kid Icarus: Uprising. Neither scenario is applicable here. You’ll actually spend majority of a match just attempting to get a beat on your opponent, and while the directional pad allows movement in about eight directions, it doesn’t allow you to turn — which requires other clumsy commands.
First, you could press X which will launch your character into the air and temporarily lock-on to your opponent regardless of their location in the arena. But, unfortunately, by the time you turn around and are able to attack, you’ll often find that your opponent has already eluded your sights causing you to repeat this action yet again – and again. It’s frustrating, clunky, and seldom reliable.
Another way to turn is by holding A and moving the directional pad left or right. You’d think that you could hold either direction and turn that way but that’s not the case. Instead, your character will pivot about 15 degrees at a time making even a tight 90 degree turn nearly impossible without taking on a ton of damage in the process.
You have three basic distance-attacks that are all mapped to the L and R buttons. Hitting L will execute a wide attack that generally affects a substantial area of the map, while R triggers a regular attack that deals little damage but allows a quick rate-of-fire. Finally, pressing both buttons together triggers a more powerful blast.
However, when you and your opponent are in relative proximity, the L and R buttons will perform melee attacks instead of those previously mentioned. These seem to be more powerful than the other moves but getting up close isn’t as easy as it sounds and will often put you at risk of taking heavy damage yourself. It also doesn’t help that the melee moves are sluggish, and if you're not successful in landing a blow, they leave you exposed for a couple seconds.
To make matters even worse, there seems to be a delay between any and all commands. That — in conjunction with the inability to turn with any sense of urgency — leads to one of the most baffling control scheme implementations we’ve encountered in recent memory. Include the lack of a true lock-on system and these issues are downright detrimental to the quality of the game, leaving combat feeling broken, unresponsive and unfinished.
After playing for a while — and dealing with many seemingly unfair fights — we decided that maybe this was simply a “hardcore” game with a deep control system that required mastery. So we reset our brains to develop new strategies and took the time to thoroughly digest all control instructions listed in the manual. While our performance did improve a small bit over time, it wasn’t enough to make a major difference. It was the same gruelling endeavour and losing matches still felt largely unfair. In summary, it’s not a deep control scheme — it’s just poorly developed.
It’s really too bad that the developer didn’t implement a touch-screen control option like the one found in Kid Icarus: Uprising. While we're on that topic, it’s worth mentioning that the game has zero touch-screen functionality at all; none, not even in the menus. Also, the action takes place on the bottom screen instead of the top. Some of these decisions are perplexing given the capabilities of the DS but we stopped trying to understand the reasons behind these questionable choices when the gameplay failed to win us over.
Had a fluid, responsive, competent combat system been implemented, Clash of Elementalists could have been a solid way to kill some time here and there. However, the broken control scheme and lack of variety make this one best left alone. Don’t be fooled by the game’s attractive visuals or the appealing similarities to Virtual-On and Kid Icarus: Uprising — it isn’t even a fraction as good or rewarding as those titles.