An RTS that gets straight to the point.
Element loves triangles. From the way it depicts the emptiness of space as black and grey scalenes latticed together, to how each building is constructed from the similar, three-pointed schematic. Everything in Element feels tailor-made for those who like condensed strategy and have an unhealthy obsession with the novelty of Dairylea cheese.
Fair play to Element, too. Developer Flightless has picked the strongest shape – triangles genuinely are – as the base for their whole aesthetic. It works. Element flaunts the artistic bendability of Pythagoras’ beloved shape as the geometric pieces interweave with each other, a mixture of soothing pastel colours, their varying shades trying to aid the players navigate what is often a messy experience.
With rockets flying everywhere, drones humming along, numerous satellites orbiting the planet and buildings flourishing from the ground like flowers in a ‘first day of spring’ video montage, it can all get a bit too much. There’s not much Element can do to avoid these moments of madness, though. In spite of its attempts to boil-down the real-time strategy genre, it still falls victim to the usual too-many-things-happening-on-screen-at-once issue, which plagues the genre.
Flightless has valiantly tried to simplify it, though.
Your space task is straightforward. Land on a planet, build up your base from essentially three options: Attack, defence or resource buildings – any strategy king or queen out there knows a handy balance of all three is needed – and mine. Constructing resource outlets is the name of the game as each one not only gives you more energy (the material you’ll need for basically everything) but when built on certain, limited mines you’ll be rewarded with boron, lithium or other elements ending in ‘ium’ or ‘on’. It’s then a race to get more than 50 percent of control of the limited resource before your AI opponent, swiftly following it up with that lovely power-trip feel of decimating an entire people and stripping the planet of its value. Awks. We’ll try not to think about that.
Element does slightly expand beyond the aforementioned building system, though, allowing you to spend energy to fire rockets (missiles, not Marvel-animated raccoons) as well as manufacture drones which can either heal buildings or be sent to collect lovely parcels of supplies – which is basically the space version of the last crisp in the packet, as both armies rush to snatch up that extra energy or bundle of drones.
Everything built in the game also has a star rating which will affect its quality and durability. A bit like Uber where the higher the rating the longer they’ll wait before moving on, except it’s a three-star system and almost certainly includes more explosions/death. Alongside the star rating, attack, defence and resource buildings are split into three units (this game’s obsessed with things being in threes): air, water and earth. Working like the traditional rock-paper-scissors tactic, earth beats water, water beats air and air beats earth. Combat is then seeing what your opponent dishes out and reacting with sometimes just firing a crap load of missiles into the opposition’s building.
Micro-managing your buildings and keeping track of what your opponent is doing is where Element starts to truly succumb to the faults of the RTS genre and to some extent makes it worse. Because each level takes place on a planet (about 14 levels in total) Element allows you to rotate the small sphere in whatever way you want, zooming in and out to get a good feel of the mayhem. Which is really fun, until you lose all sense of direction and can’t properly flick to where you wanted. As nice as the art style is, it’s in these moments where the reduced, geometrical shapes of units start becoming the exact thing the game wanted to tackle: making a more concise, unnecessarily complicated RTS where things happen too quickly to understand.
Flightless has tried to combat this with what is a Switch first. You can change the speed the game is played at, which you’ll almost certainly want to do. While Element compresses the genre into battles which take 10 to 15 minutes, it also jams in a hefty amount of stress, so the ability to slow the game down is a welcome one.
Element is an ambitious experience. Trying to distill the traditional RTS game into something people can dip into is undoubtedly difficult and Flightless succeed as much as they fail. Slightly too long load times test the patience, and it sometimes feels like someone has mashed together Mario Galaxy with a single-player campaign of Subterfuge. Element often nails the intense, strategic feeling it’s wanted to emulate but sometimes it does it too much, often dipping into unnecessary chaos. However, for those who want an RTS game on the go, Element is a good contender.