Review by Victar
A beautiful, original puzzle game crippled by the small 3DS touchscreen. Play the PC version if you can.
4 Elements is an original, addictive variant on match-3 puzzle games. Previously released on Steam for the PC, 4 Elements is now available as a download on the 3DS eShop for $5.99. A beautifully illustrated (albeit very sparse) fantasy story, punctuated by a handful of hidden-object/spot-the-difference puzzles, enriches the game experience. However, using the stylus to match tiny little gems on the 3DS touchscreen can get more than a little frustrating, and there is no way to double back and replay favorite stages, other than starting a new game from scratch.
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, this one of the most beautiful games on the 3DS eShop, especially for its modest price. The short "hidden object" and "spot the difference" gameplay sequences have the gamer pore over extraordinary artwork of fantasy creatures and scenes. The puzzle sequences thoughtfully give each type of gem a unique shape as well as color, making 4 Elements accessible to colorblind gamers.
One nice touch is that, for most of the gameplay, the player can go back and look at the "cards" (fantasy pictures) they've unlocked. Unfortunately, finishing the game and watching the ending appears to have the side effect of deleting the player's save, which takes away this ability.
The music is relatively ambient, and changes depending on the element of the current stage. It's pleasant to experience, and does not intrude on the gameplay. There is only a little voice acting, in the narrated introduction. Sound effects are smoothly integrated into the gameplay, although the hiss of repeated fire arrows in a few stages can get annoying.
It's hard for me give this a proper score. The match-3 puzzle gameplay is far more than just a Bejeweled clone; it's an original variant I've never seen before, and incredibly addictive in its own right. However, the game's visuals and controls suffer egregiously from the small touchscreen of the 3DS. The PC version presumably does not have this issue, and would be worth a 9/10.
When the gamer first starts 4 Elements, they'll see a hidden-object picture puzzle, with beautifully detailed fantasy artwork. There are four of these puzzles total, and tiny 3DS screen does not do them justice. Fortunately, there is a way to push past these puzzles quickly. The gamer can randomly tap all over the entire screen, easily stumbling upon most of the necessary widgets, and a helpful fairy will give assistance when asked. There is a brief, time-based cooldown on the fairy's aid, but that's the only limitation, making it impossible for the gamer to be permanently stuck on these puzzles. The spot-the-difference picture puzzles that appear every several stages can be brute-forced in a similar manner.
An easy-to-follow tutorial will guide the gamer through the core puzzle game, a match-3 variant. 4 elements is a distant cousin to games like Bejeweled or Jewel Quest. The player does match gems on a grid, causing the gems to vanish (or explode in the case of long chains!) and new gems to fall from the top. But gems matches are not limited to a straight line; any chain is possible as long as there are no diagonals. Chains can and will wind like a snake.
Matching gems - especially long gem chains that trigger explosions (a chain must consist of 5 or more gems to do this) - clears a path for elemental energy to flow. The player's objective is to extend the energy's flow in an unbroken channel from a designated starting point to a goal at the end of the stage.
Complicating this are a number of obstacles - deeply buried areas that require multiple matches to carve through, frozen gems that much be matched twice (the first match shatters the ice), or rocks that cannot be matched with anything. Powerups aid the player; they must first be "charged" with energy from matching the correct gems, after which they can be used at any time. The Spade powerup clears a single square; the Bomb breaks ice and destroys gems; Swap allows the player to switch any two visible gems; and Reshuffle rearranges all non-frozen gems. Late-game stages often have long narrow sections or other difficult areas where the judicious use of powerups is the only way to progress.
A strict time limit makes the 4 elements especially challenging. There is no way to extend the timer, and failure forces the player to restart the stage from the beginning. A menu option does allow the player to restart the current stage at any time. If the player runs out of possible matches, the board is automatically reshuffled (basically, a free reshuffle powerup), and the game will point out a possible match if the player doesn't make any for a certain period of time.
Some of the stages are quite clever in design, through the use of "fire arrows" that have to be activated - or that trigger traps! - as well as stages that form pictures or elaborate patterns. A couple of the final stages kick up the "race against time" to a frantic pace, and may require a dozen or more restarts to clear.
It's captivating, fun, and incredibly addictive. However, 4 Elements is moderately difficult to play on the 3DS. The small screen size just makes it far too easy to tap on the wrong gem. This is irksome when the player is trying to start a chain and can't quite get started in the right place. It becomes absolutely infuriating when the player tries to use the Swap powerup (which is mandatory to clear some stages!) and switches the wrong two gems by accident. It is possible to back out of activating Swap (or Bomb, or Spade) by touching the powerup square a second time rather than touching a square on the game field, at least.
Furthermore, holding the stylus for an extended period of time will leave the player's wrist or fingers quite sore. Fatigue from holding the stylus forced me to limit my gaming sessions to a couple hours maximum. Individual stages are reasonably short (5-10 minute timer?) so this isn't a severe problem, just something to be aware of.
4 Elements automatically saves after every stage. It's impossible to make one's game unwinnable, although some stages can be tough to pass. Perhaps the most inexcusable design decision is the inability to go back and replay completed stages. Once a stage is finished, the only way to play it again is to start a new game, and once the player wins the game and sees the ending, their entire game save appears to be automatically deleted. There is a scoring system, but I couldn't figure out how to read or work it.
4 Elements deserves props for having a story at all, unlike many other puzzle games, but there's not much to it. The elements are out of balance and ravaging the world; it's up to the player to put things right and restore peace. The only in-game characters are the tutorial fairy, who talks to the player from time to time, and a wizard who makes very brief appearances.
Completing every few stages unlocks a virtual "card", consisting of a portrait of a fantastic creature on one side, and a paragraph of descriptive text on the other. These are more for atmosphere than anything else, and none of the "card" creatures directly influence the plastic-film-thin story.
There is a simple ending to reward players for finishing the game. Savor it while you can, because afterward your game save is gone and you'll have to play from the beginning to see it again.
Is 4 Elements worth your money?
Yes, but probably not on the 3DS eShop. If you have a PC, then I must recommend the PC version (easiest to get through Steam). A decent PC monitor plus mouse/keyboard controls will make the game much easier to see, play, and enjoy. The Steam version also has achievements; the 3DS version does not.
If you don't have a computer, or don't like computer gaming, the 3DS version is still worth getting, especially for its beauty and uniqueness. Just be prepared for squinting and hand cramps, too.
Product Release: 4 Elements (US, 11/07/13)
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