On a Monday, I will often sift through the Steam Weeklong Deals and see what games are available for a pittance. Generally, if a game costs less than a can of coke – and is not in one of the genres I don’t care for (mostly roguelikes) – then I’ll give it a try. Obviously this strategy is a bit hit and miss, because whilst I found Faerie Solitaire this way, this policy also laid Turba at my door. 4 Elements is one of these games, grabbed on sale for around £0.34 last year and it got my attention not only for the price but because I’m a sucker for match-3 style games (see Tales of the Orient: The Rising Sun). After it eventually decided to work (on which more later) I was finally able to give the game a shot and I found it pretty enjoyable.
The premise of the game is a simple fantasy story. The 4 Elements have fallen into disarray and it is your job, assisted by a small forest fairy, to bring peace back to the realm by restoring four magical books, one for each element.
The books contain images and descriptions of mythical creatures associated with the elements – Pegasus, the Phoenix and a dragon for each element to name a few – and each page has to be restored piece by piece. Each book requires a key before you can restore it, which requires solving a hidden object sequence where you are not finding whole objects, but pieces of objects. I think that this is one of the weakest areas of the game, because the resolution on the images is so low that it can be a nightmare to find everything you’re looking for. The book of Air in particular left some impressive gnaw marks on my desk whilst I was looking for pieces of a birds nest of all things. However, there are only four of these scenes and a hint button is available should you need it.
With the book opened, you then need to restore the pages one by one by completing five tasks. The first four involve solving match three puzzles, where you need to create a path for the energy of the element to flow from the start point to the altar at the end. Swapping pieces removes a layer of ground to allow the energy to flow and there are also stones, frozen pieces, stone slabs and multilayer ground to slow you down. Also in the game you will encounter arrows which can clear stones, frozen pieces and the otherwise immovable slabs often with quite a spectacular boom. There is also a time limit which can be quite tight at the later levels.
Interestingly, instead of swapping pieces as is typical in these games, you need to connect three or more adjacent pieces by drawing a line over them with your mouse. This is a nice twist on the usual formula and it encourages a different kind of strategy. If you match five or more pieces you get an explosion, which gets more and more boomy as you match more pieces. There is a Steam achievement for creating a match of 20 pieces which was a very satisfying boom indeed.
After each level, you see the page get a little bit closer to restoration, with more parts of the picture added and the letters being rearranged into something approaching English. Unfortunately, this also presents on of my frustrations with this game. After each of the first three match-3 levels on a page, a portion of the book is restored and you press continue, which closes the book after which you press start. I know that the book animation is pretty, but couldn’t the continue button just move to the next match-3 puzzle? After the fourth puzzle in the sequence “continue” moves straight on to the next task so I’m not sure why it doesn’t do that the rest of the time. Maybe I’m being pedantic but I find this quite annoying.
When you have completed the four match-3 levels and have the page almost restored, the final task is a spot the difference to restore the image in the book to its full splendour. Most of the time this isn’t too bad, but some of these puzzles require laser precision eyesight – I suspect that the resolution doesn’t help matters. This covers the basic flow of the game, there are 64 match-3 levels and 20 HO/spot-the-difference levels to work through, which was enough to keep me busy for just over 8 hours of gameplay.
Other than entering your name, 4 Elements controls by mouse only. For the most part, it is very responsive and works well. I only had slight issues when it came to the observation sequences because, due to the resolution, it was sometimes tricky to get the cursor in exactly the right place. On the match-3 levels, though, the controls work seamlessly.
Whilst there has been evident care in creating some beautiful pieces of artwork for 4 Elements, unfortunately if you’re playing on a monitor bigger than a postage stamp it all looks a bit fuzzy. I have a 1920×1080 24″ monitor and whilst the game tried to upscale to match the resolution, unfortunately it didn’t look as good as it could have which made the observation puzzles needlessly arduous. I’m going to cut 4 Elements some slack because it was released back in 2008, but if the devs ever return to this game then some resolution options would be much appreciated. That aside, the artwork conveys a pleasant fantasy setting and each elemental book feels unique, right down to subtly different tile sets which make for an immersive exprerience
The music and sound effects used in 4 Elements are, for the most part, pleasing. The music is cheery and sets a nice atmosphere for play and the sound effects (especially the booms) are fitting. There is one sound, though, that makes me want to puncture my eardurms. When time is almost up, the game emits a sound like one of those clocks with a gong – except it is out of tune. If the music wasn’t playing at the same time, then I suspect it wouldn’t sound so bad but the combination of the infernal racket and the jolly music makes me want to scream. Other than that, the sound gets the job done and fits in well with the genre.
Whilst 4 Elements performs perfectly fine, I’ve included this section because for some people, this game simply refuses to work. When I installed this game a couple of months ago, I hit the enticing blue Play button on my Steam library and promptly got a “4 Elements has stopped working” Windows error. In fact, it broke so hard that I had to reboot my computer. From what I can see, this is a recent phenomenon and some Steam users in the community hub have devised fixes. For others, the game spontaneously starts and stops working at random. As for me, I just tried it again after a month and it worked perfectly, although I don’t know how long it will last.
Conclusion – Is 4 Elements worth your money?
4 Elements gets a massive thumbs sideways. It’s a fun little puzzler which tries to do something a bit different. Although I got this game for very little money, I think that even at the full asking price of £2.79 the game provides great value for the content you get. If, that is, you can get it to work. Were it not for the combined effects of “who knows if it will work” and the resolution issues I would recommend 4 Elements as a really fun little game. However, I cannot in good conscience recommend a game that may refuse to work for you. This game is also available direct from developer Playrix Entertainment’s site and there is even a sequel (which unfortunately hasn’t made it onto Steam) and these versions may work better than this one, although I haven’t tried them. If you fancy trying the Steam version, then I recommend keeping an eye on the Weeklong sales/ larger Steam sales as at least that way the investment is minimal. If the developers fix the crash issue(s) then I will update my recommendation, but until then proceed at your own risk!
4 Elements is developed and published by Playrix Entertainment and is available on Steam for £2.79