Element – The Switch Island Review
“Home no longer provides a means to survive. A fight for resources to escape our system has begun. The future lies beyond…” The opening text is displayed with a glowing, burning sun behind it and the silhouette of a vulnerable space craft bringing its long voyage into the outer reaches of space and a new future. As a lover of space, and of space strategy games (Sins of a Solar Empire on PC) I can’t help but be excited as I launch into this game. It promises to be a game for lovers of space strategy games, without the time to play them. Let’s see if it has the depth and thrills to back up that promise.
With high hopes I launch to the planet nearest the sun, Boron (named after the element that you mine there.) The planet is a relatively small sphere which is navigated via the left stick. You keep the planet always in the centre of your view looking down and place buildings and units on the face of the planet. The objective is to dominate the planet by building up your base and gathering more energy from the planet than the “Enemy.” At no point was I told why there is an enemy, who they are, but I’ll assume they are bad and worthy of death as I place mines and produce units that will bombard them from the air. Just to be sure, I am advised to launch missiles from my base to destroy theirs. This I diligently do, condemning their smouldering ashes into the vastness of space, just like they deserved….I hope. With that done, the screen pans back to space, which is a series of isometric triangles, as everything is in this game. It feels minimalist, empty and lonely. This is clearly a design direction that fits in with the theme, but still has something lacking. Just like the explanation was lacking for the enemy force, there is something missing here as well.
Mission selection is done via the solar system. The planets lay out in front of you in a neat row with the glowing sun filling the left side of the screen. This gives the pleasing effect of making all the planets that you are about to occupy, seem suitably precarious, isolated and lifeless. This is until you enter the planet yourself. The gameplay has you placing defensive structures and attacking units both on the ground and in the air around the planet you are on. At the same time the AI enemy is populating the sphere in the same way. When you place an attacking unit in an area that you do not presently control on the planet, it becomes a structure that fires small projectiles at enemy structures and units independently. The same applies if you place a defensive unit in an unoccupied space. A defensive structure is placed on the planet that will shoot down enemy missiles and protect your mines and base. The strategy comes in the placement of these units in relation to your base, and the enemies. Where it changes up is when you have occupied the areas on the planet and place either an attacking or a defending unit. When you do this, a mobile ship is created then circulates along a fixed path around the planet, by adjusting the cameras rotation, you can direct these units to harass the enemy base and mines. Off your units go in an orbit towards victory, or oblivion. What you see before long is a sphere teeming with orbiting stations and routed bases firing missiles. Drones are scurrying out to get supply drops and enemy attacks are depriving you of your resources. It is chaotic, disorientating and confusing. But by the 4th Planet Silicon I was getting the hang of it, and crucially enjoying it.
The difficulty ramps up sharply after several hand holding planets, to an AI that employs the same base rush tactic that seemed to overpower other enemies. The pressure to mine enough materials and spend the energy required to defend your base is stressful but emulates a little bit of the intensity that is a hallmark of much deeper space themed strategy games. The majority of your efforts will be spent on harvesting enough energy to out produce the enemy on each sphere and then be able to steam roll them. This one size fits all approach feels like the only way you can win and limits the potential for Element to become a deep strategic experience which is a shame.
Overall the design direction of the game is solid. The use of minimalist isometric shapes to create the universe is attractive, and the presentation itself is in the vein of space 1999 or 2001 a space odyssey. Sadly, coupled with the lack of musical soundtrack throughout, the game does have a bit of a soulless feeling. That being said, I enjoy the lonely atmosphere and the frantic battle which captures a slice of what I like from more fleshed out space themed RTS games.