Once upon a time there was an ancient kingdom where its people lived in peace and harmony. The various magical creatures that inhabited the land kept the evil at bay along with the power of the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. But one fateful day, an evil blight came across the land and destroyed the four temples of the elements. As their protective power was taken from the land, it slowly turned from a green and verdant paradise to a cold and lifeless land full of ice and snow. It's up to you to unlock the power of the four books of elemental magic and restore power to the 4 Elements.
Gameplay in 4 Elements starts off as you attempt to find the key to unlock your first book. This is accomplished in a hidden object game where you must find the parts of four different objects. Each of these objects will in turn interact with something in the scene. There is a definite sequence to the events, as you will only be able to complete one of the objects. You must then use it to interact with something in the scene, which will then reveal the last part of another object. You continue until you've completed the fourth object, which will then interact with the scene to reveal the key to the book.
Your fairy guide will use the key to unlock the magic book and reveal the first entry inside. On the left page will be a rather blank-looking picture, and on the right will be a bunch of garbled text. The core of the game is played with the purpose of completing the picture and unscrambling the text.
The bulk of the gameplay is a match-3 variant made popular by the game Cradle of Rome. Starting at one end of a chain of matching runes, drag the mouse to connect them together and release to make them disappear. The goal here is not to clear the board, as it usually is in games of this sort. Your goal is to create a path for magical energy to flow from the starting location to the elemental altar at the end of the level. Clearing chains will clear the tiles below, allowing the energy to flow through. If you start a chain of five or more runes, the end of the chain will result in an explosion that will take out a number of tiles around the final tile. The longer the chain, the larger the explosion. Particularly long chains can create devastating blasts that will take out 20 or more tiles at once.
Of course, it's never quite as simple as that. You will have to guide the energy through the twists and turns of the maze-like game boards. You will run up against frozen pieces that have to be matched to thaw them out, boulders that cannot be matched, and iron blocks that cannot be moved. Luckily there are four different power-ups that can be charged by matching runes of a particular color. The first is a spade that will destroy a single tile. Very useful when you just can't seem to match that one last rune. The second is a bomb that will destroy the runes in the area of the blast. The bomb will also destroy frozen pieces and boulders, but will not destroy iron blocks or the tiles below the runes. The swap power-up allows you to swap two adjacent runes, allowing you to potentially make larger chains. You cannot use the swap power-up to swap boulders, iron blocks, or frozen runes. The final power-up allows you to shuffle every rune on the screen, giving you the chance to create more matches from a field of runes that may have grown stale. You'll also have to keep an eye out for flaming arrow launchers and other machinations that can be used to create massive chain reactions.
Once you complete four rounds, thereby unscrambling the text and completing the picture, you are entered into another hidden object variant where you need to find the differences between two versions of the picture that you just completed. Once you locate the four differences, the section is complete, and you are on to the next entry in the book. Complete all four entries in the book and you will go on to the next element.
Analysis: This is by and far one of the best match-3 games I have played in quite some time. The gameplay is truly unique in that you are not simply trying to clear the board, trying to make a number of matches, or collect a number of particular pieces. The idea of creating paths through the game board for a flow of energy is something that I haven't come across before, and it really helps 4 Elements stand out from the crowd. The game boards are generally larger than a single screen and in later levels can become absolutely massive, making it progressively harder to complete the board before your timer runs out. The use of the flaming arrow devices turn many of the boards into puzzles where the key is flowing the energy to the next device, and not necessarily directly to the end of the board. This, too, gives the game a feeling of being much more than a simple match-3 game.
The hidden object sections of the game are well done and could easily stand on their own as a smaller game. Finding the parts of the objects in the opening sections can be quite difficult, since often the parts are small and oddly shaped. You also are never completely sure what you are looking for, so you end up searching for something that looks out of place, or that vaguely resembles a section of one of the objects you are completing. You can use a hint to locate particularly sneaky bits, but there doesn't seem to be any sort of penalty for random clicking on the screen, so sometimes the best bet is to click on anything anywhere. Locating the difference in the two pictures is a bit easier since you are only looking for four things, but I did run into a couple of differences that were pretty subtle.
The graphics in 4 Elements are quite well done. The play fields are colorful and vibrant, and the effects animation for things like explosions are spectacular. The hidden object scenes are well illustrated and hide objects well. I never got the feeling that I was pixel-hunting, but some of the items are quite difficult to locate. The fantasy theme is well executed, with nicely drawn fantasy creatures and landscapes. The sound is also quite impressive, especially the music, consisting of instrumental tracks that definitely evoke the fantasy scene that is unfolding in front of you. I never felt the need to turn the music down or off, and felt it all worked quite well, especially the opening theme and the background music during the game.
In a crowded genre, 4 Elements has the qualities to stand out from the crowd and make it not only worth your time to download, but worth your hard earned gold coins to purchase. Take up the challenge and restore the power of the four elements to an ancient land. You won't regret it.