4 Elements didn't cost several million dollars to develop. It won't blow you away with its cutting-edge innovation or push your graphics card so hard that it melts, and it won't be a staple on your hard drive this time next year. Nevertheless, whether you're a fan of puzzle games or not, you likely shouldn't ignore what might be one of the surprise "casual games" finds of the year--particularly if you have children. Compelling, sophisticated, and sweetly innocent, 4 Elements proves that big budgets and flash are mere icing. Ultimately, it's what's inside that counts.
Born in Vologda, Russia, 4 Elements is, at its heart, a Match 3 puzzle game. Highly popular with the casual gaming crowd, Match 3 games feature a grid-shaped playing field, each cell of which is occupied by a colored block or shape. The basic idea is to connect three or more identical colors or shapes either vertically, horizontally, or a mixture of both. At which point the matching cells empty and refill with more colored shapes that fall from above.
The trouble with Match 3 games is that they've pretty much been done to death. Indeed, the Internet is full of Match 3 affairs that seem like carbon copies of one another. Fortunately, 4 Elements is no carbon copy--the style of its Match 3 process will captivate those who play it. Nor does it concern itself with Match 3 puzzles only. It also features guest appearances by "spot the difference" and "hidden object" puzzles. That the whole thing is wrapped up so prettily and presented so impressively only adds to its appeal.
As the game opens, you're plunged into an introduction that seems beyond that of a typical casual title. You hear the tale of a distant, ancient world where a once-wondrous kingdom now lies victim of a mysterious plague. Trees have withered and died, rivers and streams that teemed with life are frozen in place, and the skies and fields are empty. The kicker is that all of this is conveyed so beautifully. The voice acting is excellent, the interfaces lack true animation but are stunning nonetheless, and the musical score, as is the case throughout the game, washes over you with its blend of haunting world and orchestral strains. Anyone old enough to remember 1991's award-winning puzzler Lemmings, where the ethereal nature of the music meant so much, will have a pretty good grasp of what to expect.
As luck would have it, you and you alone are the person who can aid all that ails this dying kingdom. You seek the advice of an elderly mage, who tells you in no uncertain terms that the powers of "the four elements" (earth, air, water, and fire) have somehow been corrupted. To restore life, you must unlock four magical books, each of which corresponds to one of the corrupted elements. It is then that the game begins in earnest.
Each of the four books is dealt with in identical fashion. You're first taken to a hidden object puzzle where a scene is presented in the main window and several items are positioned across the base of the screen. Each of these items has been broken into pieces and scattered throughout the scene. It's your job to find these pieces, reassemble the items, and activate certain mechanisms. If you do your job properly --and it certainly isn't difficult--you are then awarded a key that's used to unlock that book.
Once the book is unlocked, you'll begin your first of four successive Match 3 puzzles. Following each foursome of Match 3 games, you're given a single-spot-the-difference puzzle. This process is repeated four times, for a total of one hidden object puzzle, 16 Match 3s, and four spot-the-difference puzzles per book. Multiply that by four books, and you have a grand total of four hidden object, 64 Match 3, and 16 spot-the-difference puzzles. Not a bad total.
In 4 Elements, Match 3 is a beautiful thing. When you first see a new level, you'll note that several of the cells are filled with liquid. This liquid represents energy. It's your responsibility to clear a path by eliminating blocks so the energy can flow through to its final destination, a holy alter, where it performs a nifty little trick such as growing a tree or lighting a fire.
The vast majority of the time, the playing field is so much larger than the screen that the camera must scroll along with you as you free up more blocks. And not all the blocks are filled with colored shapes that can easily be moved. Some are frozen in place. Others are roadblocks of sorts. Luckily, by stringing five or more blocks together, you create an explosion that takes out much of the nearby vicinity. Additionally, developer Playrix Entertainment has included a variety of power-ups to help you through situations that seem well nigh impossible. You can use a shovel, for example, to dig up certain cells. Or a bomb to blow up others. The caveat is that each power-up needs to recharge between uses. But you can help expedite that process by clearing specific colors.
The levels seem rather easy at first, but grow progressively tougher and much more imaginative as the game moves on. Ultimately, as more concepts are introduced (including way cool arrowheads that obliterate all the blocks around them) and the levels become truly expansive, the game clock seems to hit zero quite a bit faster than it did in the beginning. Accordingly, you'll need to repeat each level several times in order to successfully complete it. But that's okay, because each time through a level brings new ideas and new paths you may not have tried earlier. Still, 4 Elements may feel a might repetitious to those who don't enjoy stylized Match 3 puzzles. After all, the vast majority of the game is just that. Yet it's hard to think of the Match 3 routine being presented in a more enjoyable way.
We'd be remiss if we didn't mention how smartly the 4 Elements help system works. It appears in the form of a fairy (a la Tinkerbelle), who zips on-screen throughout to guide you through the most difficult sections. Though a flitting fairy may sound a bit annoying, the truth is that she's timed to show up only when you need her. She never, ever feels obtrusive, and, although you can switch her off, she always addresses you by name and with so much enthusiasm that you really grow to like her. More to the point, she's just one more reason the game is highly recommended for children of all ages. You see, in 4 Elements, the player is cognizant throughout that he or she is doing beneficial thing--helping a people recover, restoring life, rebuilding an ecosystem, and so much more. You can't say that about a lot of games these days.
©2008-09-19, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved