Elli hops and dodges her way across the Nintendo Switch eshop. So, how does this cheery puzzle platformer perform compared to the rest of the ever growing Nindie offerings?
Genre: Puzzle Platformer
Release date: 10 Jan, 2019
Elli is one of those games that does many things right, but straddles the fence about deciding to do anything amazing. It is a shame because the game world is very stable and it looks like there has been a lot of love put behind the project in the art direction, design, and game balancing. The problem is, really, there are significantly more games for the Switch that outshine this title and because of that, Elli falls short against the tide of Nindies coming ashore. It ends up in that category of games that you might consider only when you have finished all the better ones and are waiting for the next big thing to come around.
While the game world is colorful and engaging, the story is not. It is along the lines of De Blob, using funny sounds for the dialogue with very short tidbits of information about the game world, but with substantially less charisma or novel gameplay to complement it. It almost seems like the studio felt the story wasn’t important to the game other than to explain our antagonist’s reason for being so mean and giving the small host of characters something to say in order to break up the gameplay a bit.
You are Elli, the Guardian of the Crystals of Time who is celebrating her 600th birthday. A troublesome bald girl named Ghasti has decided to steal them from your…glass tower of crystals that lies outside your house where pretty much anyone could steal them ( it seems 600 years has made Elli less cautious about keeping things safe). Elli takes off in her…space time continuum rowboat that has no oars or sail. Upon docking at some sort of glowy world area, you jump out and begin to puzzle-platform your way to get the crystals back from Ghasti. Ghasti pretty much acts mean to you, shoves obstacles in your way, and I swear almost thumbs her nose at Elli as she tries to outright kill her. You meet some characters along the way who barely have any lines other than trying to explain more of the game mechanics a bit or say things that seem somewhat random, but they seriously don’t have any substantial interaction beyond a basic oh-hai-guess-what sort of NPC mannerism. All I know if that Ghasti has to be caught before she breaks all time and space with the stolen crystals because that would destroy the UNIVERSE. Yep.
The story is not well fleshed out throughout the game and because of that, Elli suffers dearly from a lack of charisma and charm. There are almost no scenes where she becomes the center of attention past the intro, no events beyond level setups, no drama other than Ghasti occasionally popping up, no story affecting conflicts or happenstance, and nothing to draw the player into caring about Elli or anything going on. For a puzzle platformer in 2019, that’s just not going to cut it for many gamers.
Elli centers more on platforming in 3D than actual puzzles. The puzzles are generally very simple, often along the lines of the easiest puzzles from Wind Waker. The majority of the platforming is well done, yet I think hinges more on negotiating the depth or spacial alignment in 3D than anything else. It is not particularly easy to platform in Elli due to this and it could be off-putting for more puzzle oriented gamers. The controls lean on the floaty side but are fairly tight controls for Joy-Cons and mildly forgiving.
The level design is well thought out with some nice multi-section sub-levels, especially in the latter areas of the game with several stacked stories of platforming. There are, however, some things involved which I do not like and those are Timed Sub-Levels and Blind Platforming. Unfortunately, these Timed Sub-Levels occur frequently and if you cannot platform them well enough in the time allotted, you will not be able to progress. Some are easy, but many require precise movement and quick reflexes which is something I am not particularly good at 100% of the time. If you prefer games where the platforming is generally less involved and centers more around figuring out puzzles with only the occasional timed event or slightly difficult platforming area, then this is not for you. Elli features tightly knit timed events where you finish by the skin of your teeth and the frequent use of quick reflexes is key due to the nature of the precise platforming.
The Blind Platforming is my most disliked type of platforming and there is a full level with several sub-levels where you have to do this in the dark with only the light of your lamp to guide you. The good thing is that it is not terribly long, but I seriously do not like having to jump and hope that I land somewhere, let alone figure out the puzzle on the go while dodging traps and jumping around weapons being fired at me.
Additionally, there are some 2D platforming sections where you try to get a magic time crystal, although the crystal itself is unseen until you complete the level by walking through a portal. Here you have a double jump mechanic and an ability to warp a short distance after a jump. Mostly, players are navigating through platforms and obstacles while the left side of the screen comes at you like a wall of death. It is not too difficult until you get to the areas where you must reveal hidden platforms on the go, which is mostly frustrating, but at least the platforms stay revealed even if you die ( with two or more hearts that is ).
Puzzling often consists of putting rocks in holes, switches, boxes on switches, exploding boulders, and the like. I did like how there are different types of boxes, produced by asking wizards to make them of course, so that Elli can jump with wooden boxes to solve a puzzle or only walk or jump down using a heavy box. You’ll also find bomb plants, much like in Zelda games, where you use them to explode walls, boulders, or even as temporary weights on floor switches. While it was a good use of all these types of puzzle mechanisms, even multi-step puzzles involving some ordered thinking, it was never incredibly hard to ascertain the answer unless something was simply out of view, which did happen a few times per level due to a constrained camera angle. Oh yes, you can’t move the camera angle at all. I’ll talk about that in the Graphics section.
One area that I thought was a bit weird was that Elli has to throw items to blow them up or simply move them across an area of obstacles like electrified plates or lakes of lava quite frequently. You get stuck trying to throw and can’t change the angle very well. Instead of rotating a joystick, you rotate by pressing L or R buttons and the movement is very slow. This wouldn’t be so bad except that if you are throwing a bomb, you have just a few seconds before it explodes and takes away a health heart. I did die several times doing just that with the slow angle pan and even had to restart a whole sub-level because of it too. I found it all very stiff and hard to use in a time crunch, which is much of the game.
Health is very liberal, as you have three hearts and if you lose one heart all you need to do is die somewhere and you respawn at the last checkpoint, and there are plenty of those throughout the levels. Be careful if you die with one heart, though, as you will need to restart the entire sub-level over again. I died a ton, but I only restarted a sub-level three times, so it is not terribly hard to get through the game as long as you know this. The trouble is, it is not well explained and I only found out on my own after I restarted a level the first time and had no idea why.
There are also costumes, lantern-sticks, and hats, but I have no clue what they are for. You collect crystals and discs to get them, but after a while it is not even worth collecting those because you can buy the most expensive items a bit too quickly and, as I said, I have no idea what they do because this is never explained.
Do Kids like the Game?
Looking at whether kids would like this game, I decided to test it out on two of my own. First, I handed this game to my 10-year-old who has completed Breath of the Wild on her own and even plays Salt and Sanctuary with me regularly. She played for a bit, but found the platforming rather difficult and gave up in 10 minutes. I then gave it to my 11-year-old son,who has recently replayed Sonic Mania, Mario Odyssey, and Kirby Star Allies several times to completion. He tried Elli for a bit and also died several times, then gave up as he didn’t find the game very compelling because the puzzles weren’t very tough and the platforming was frustrating with the camera. I personally found the platforming a bit frustrating but not overly so, and keep in mind I am more puzzle oriented than platforming oriented. Maybe I am more patient lol.
I may as well get down to it, throughout the game you will more often than not be fighting the camera angle. Most of the time it is okay, but then at least a few times in every area, you will be forced to work with the angle you are given and all it does is make it harder to gauge where to jump for no reason at all. Sometimes it prevents you from seeing an area in its entirety, other times it prevents you from being able to look dead on at a platform so that you might just jump to your death from the lack of seeing the jumping angle better. I hated not being able to change the angle at all in a 3D platformer. If it was 2D, I wouldn’t care in the slightest, but a fixed camera angle in a 3D platformer is not welcome by a good number of folks as they move their right joystick to no avail and then have the eventual realization…”Ooohh. The camera angle is fixed. Ah. Sigh.” This can inflate the difficulty for of the game, and that just makes it less fun from the get-go.
As for the game graphics, they look great in handheld mode, though less so on a 55″ TV. On my TV, the edges looked blurry and there were very few graphical effects in play from what I could see. Artistically, this is done with a nice subdued almost Wind Waker aesthetic, but it feels like it was a bit toned down to run smoothly at 30FPS on the Switch more than anything. I never had any frame drops that I could notice, but I did get stuck on geometry twice, though eventually I wiggled out of it. The biggest problem I had was that the timed globe switches would get stuck on me now and then, but if I jumped to my death several times and left an area to come back, it tended to right itself.
The characters are cute-ish but are very simply animated creatures that have globe-shaped heads with smiley faces. The game is kid-friendly looking and there are no terribly spooky areas, not even in the dark. I don’t see kids being too scared of this game unless they are under the age of 6.
For the soundtrack, it is fairly well done with some nice compositions that never get too grating. The song at the beginning, though, seriously sounded like the theme from a Wii game I used to play called Chick Chick Boom. I wonder if the same song was re-used or not.
Overall, Elli is a well thought out puzzle platformer and from a design standpoint it does its job fine. However, there are some major areas that have been neglected. The story is barely held together and I think it is almost superfluous even having it. The main character, Elli, has absolutely no charisma and you never get a sense caring about her or the game world she is protecting. This is a shame because the game world is nicely rendered and it would help with a nice story to make the gameplay more enjoyable.
The camera angle is fixed, so you can’t adjust your angle to platform better. This is going to disappoint a good number of players, including myself, when a platform could use a better line of sight to jump to, but that option has been taken away. It also prevents you from seeing a solution at times because unless you find the proper angle, the answer may be elusive. The puzzles tend to be very easy, though, even if spread across several rooms. Don’t expect any brain draining gameplay.
There are also timed sections that occur regularly and some blind platforming here and there. This might not go over well with a number of puzzle platformer gamers and it was a rather frustrating experience for me personally in those areas. As expected, the platforming difficulty does ramp up after the Cauldron area near the end of the game, so there is that. I don’t think I ever felt overwhelmed by the game at all, which is a good thing in my book, even though my kids found the constant falling off of platforming to be too exhausting to continue playing for more than 10 minutes.
The big issue is that there are a ton of better games, especially ones being ported to the Switch from PC, that are more fun, more challenging, and more interesting to play. I can’t really recommend buying this game at $20 unless you have finished everything in your library and just need a filler game until the next good release. It is not a bad game. The problem is Elli does not do anything great. Amid the sea of Nindies releasing all the time, it is going to need a lifeboat to stay afloat.