Puzzle fans may already know that Playtrix's 4 Elements hit the PC back in 2008 to rave critical reviews, but now their innovative puzzler is back in portable form. This is extremely bad news, folks, because what little free time you might have away from your rig is about be entirely consumed once again.
First things first. The box art and blurb may suggest that 4 Elements is an RPG, but the rich fantasy world simply provides the context for an enormous range of addictive puzzles based around the beloved match-3 mechanic. Four elements need to be brought into line by completing books of magic, and each completed puzzle deciphers and adds pages to the grimoire in question. Like most match-three puzzlers, players still need to make chains of three or more gems to clear them from the board... but in a novel twist, doing so creates a channel through which holy water can flow.
The objective isn't to make a certain number of matches or completely empty the screen; rather, your goal is to funnel the precious fluid through the stages in order to unite it with a withered tree or similar magical item. Making chains of five or more gems creates a massive explosion (and a much larger channel), meaning that intelligently making the right moves is paramount to success. It's classic match three action through and through- but the refreshing fluid mechanics and increasingly tight time limits make for a more interesting and cerebral experience than you might imagine.
4 Elements is built around a beguilingly simple concept, but the levels soon become incredibly complex. Icy blocks, exploding arrow tiles and pre-made channels all provide different challenges to circumvent, but luckily a selection of constantly-charging abilities give players a way out of otherwise impossible situations. Need to clear a particular tile? Use the spade. Having trouble making matches? Swap a couple of gems around. These skills take a fair while to charge after use, meaning that they never dominate the gameplay whilst ensuring that players always have a few options at their disposal.
Put simply, the core experience is absolutely fantastic. The time-stealing 'just one more level' addiction factor is back in full force, and a perfect difficulty curve will prepare you for stiffer and stiffer challenges. 64 puzzles is also a hefty amount of value.
A few generic minigames also help to break up the action. Every once in a while, you'll need to engage in a hidden object puzzle or a quick game of spot the difference to unlock a new page. This might initially sound dubious, but surprisingly, these little diversions are a breath of fresh air. Your fairy companion is always on hand to gingerly point you in the right direction, meaning that the experience doesn't never becomes stale or aggravating.
Unfortunately Mastertronix have missed a trick when it comes to replayability. Players aren't awarded a letter grade or ranking once a level is completed, meaning that there's little incentive to strive for the best scores possible on each given stage. This also makes replaying the game an exercise in repetition rather than self-improvement. Still, the huge number of levels will keep even hardened gamers involved for the long haul.
In terms of presentation, 4 Elements is breathtakingly charming. The voice acting and sharp visuals have taken a severe hit during the transition from PC to DS, but the art design is still pleasingly whimsical and fits the fantasy setting to a tee. Naturally the emphasis is on substance over style- so whilst the sprites are detailed, they never get in the way of the gameplay. The musical score is similarly impressive and provides a soothing accompaniment to the action.
- Gameplay hits the sweet spot between casual and challenging
- Genuinely charming
- Ruthlessly addictive
- No score ranking
- RPG fans may find the blurb misleading
- Voice acting has been removed
The Short Version: 4 Elements is a soothing, addictive and utterly charming puzzler that will delight casual fans and hardcore gamers alike. Don't let this little gem slide under your radar.