Element – Strategy for the Time Poor
Element, the Flightless-developed game from our New Zealand friends, is a sci-fi RTS where you have to escape a decaying solar system. In doing so, the main goal is to travel across planets, mining element and destroying enemy bases. Victory on each planet is achieved by reaching two goals. Firstly, you must mine more than half the planet’s element, which can only be excavated via a small handful of mines on each planet. Following this, you secure success by destroying the enemy base with your accumulated militaristic might.
Following a brief introductory sequence explaining Element’s premise, you’re tasked with a couple of early planets that serve as a primer of the game’s core concepts. Each planet will ideally begin with you placing resource units to generate energy which is used as a currency of sorts to generate different types of units. These units include the previously mentioned resource units, which in addition to generating energy are required to mine each planet’s element; defence units, used for defending your home base and vulnerable resource units; attack units, capable of destroying all who stand in your way; drones, automated units that pick up randomly-generated supply drops for a tactical edge; and missiles, handy for dealing damage to specific targets.
Crucially, each of the three main units (resource, defence and attack) can be manufactured as either a land, air or sea variant. Element employs the popular strategy triangle seen in many other games. In this instance, land beats sea, sea beats air, and air beats land. However, the strategy doesn’t end there! By spending more energy, you can also choose the strength level of your unit of choice. Cheaping out yields the minimum level one-strength unit, but spending more will allow you to build up to the maximum level three units. Cleverly, Element is designed to ensure you can’t spam high-strength units to victory, placing a maximum unit cap on each planet. Although the highest strength units can withstand the most punishment, they also take up three unit spaces, meaning you have to delicately balance the positioning and volume of your units – even facing the agonising late-game decisions of choosing to destroy some units to make way for a tactical change.
Specialising in fast-paced strategy, Element allows you to place units on any uninhabited space on each planet. This encourages you to branch out from your starting position quickly and establish aggressive strategic locations. Following the easy, introductory opening planets, I was quickly overwhelmed by the difficulty increase, where it felt like I was swamped by a panic-inducing Zerg Rush-like wave of enemy units. However, after being dominated several times, I realised Element is a game where rapid expansion is vital to victory. Its challenge lies within the balance you need to strike between defending your home base and quickly taking control of the all-important planetary element mines. And the claim that Element is aimed at strategy fans with limited time to play strategy games is 100% true – most planets see either defeat or victory reached within 10-minutes.
Element oozes style; the sort of style typified by the work of a sleek graphic designer. Featuring a cool geometric art design, Element forms a core part of the gameplay experience beyond simply being aesthetically pleasing. Each clearly defined polygonal shape represents a location you can build your element-mining conglomerate on. Each visual choice adds to Element’s strong sense of identity, which includes nice use of colours and a slick user interface, taking some inspiration from the periodic table of elements.
Thematically, Element released at an interesting time, very near to the discovery of water on Mars. Drawing parallels to how we as a real-life society are consuming Earth’s resources at an alarming rate, Element’s focus on escaping a ruined home planet, only to guzzle resources from other planets for our own survival, can be viewed as a cautionary tale of looking after our own backyard before it’s too late. Either that, or Element is a training-simulator preparing us for the inevitable heat sink of the universe, and to escape while we still can. Either way, it feels like a poignant concept in an age where politicians endlessly debate about the impacts of climate change on the planet.
I spent all of my time with Element on the Nintendo Switch, which fits nicely for playing in short bursts with its bite-sized strategy action. I imagine the Steam version would be equal to its Nintendo counterpart, so it really comes down to your personal preference.
Element is elegant in its simplicity; both its visual design and quick strategy concept are engaging hooks, and it provides a healthy challenge for those seeking it.