As is the case with all game reviews on this blog, this review will assume that you’ve played the game, i.e. it will contain spoilers for Fract OSC.
In the world of video gaming, there is no shortage of digital spaces to explore and discover. In many of these spaces, the player is cast in the role of archaeologist, interpreting the environment and piecing together puzzles to achieve some unspecified aim. The danger with these types of games, though, is that they tend to emphasize the surprise of discovery over the mastery and understanding of systems; uncovering new mysteries is given precedence over their interpretation. Last year’s ambitious but flawed Kairo and abysmal Antichamber fell into that trap. Fract OSC, however, neatly sidesteps it by imposing rules and structure on its arcane world.
Fract’s developers, Phosfiend Systems, seem to have internalized an important lesson from previous entries in the first-person puzzler/exploration genre: surprise is ephemeral, but mastering systems is rewarding in the long term. Fract is cleverly set up to teach the player how to play it.
At first, the game’s neon-drenched retro-futuristic world seems alien and forbidding, with its imposing purple mountains, dark grey ruins, and eerie synthesizer music. But it quickly becomes apparent that world is quite organized: pink represents lead synthesizer lines; green represents the pad; and blue stands for the bass. Puzzles are split into two parts: the first involves manipulating the environment; the second involves manipulating lines on a synth machine. The first part is always the same type of puzzle. For synthesizers, they’re 3D sliding block puzzles; for pads, they involve rotating platforms; and for bass, they involve redirecting beams of light on a wall. Each of these puzzles follows clear, consistent rules that become apparent as one plays through them, and the overall structure ensures that the player understands what needs to be done to solve the puzzles.
Moreover, Fract gives the player visual and aural feedback when he or she is solving puzzles. “Correct” positionings of blocks and platforms are rewarded with crescendos in the background music. This is especially helpful during the synth machine sections; the closer the player gets to the solution, the more the environment lights up, and the louder the background music gets.
All of this serves to make Fract an enjoyable experience based on mastering how to solve puzzles rather than a frustrating, head-slapping ordeal based on stumping the player. It has enough enough repetition to teach the player what’s going on, but not so much that it becomes tiring. Fract is not designed to be accessible, and some of the puzzles are rather difficult, but everything about it makes sense, from the way the puzzles are organized to how they’re solved. Unfortunately, Fract’s belief in its players’ ability to learn its “language” is sometimes too optimistic; it’s possible to spend an hour wandering around the game’s open world, trying to figure out exactly what to do next. Not helping matters is the fact that the player moves around the world relatively slowly, which can make travelling around it, even via its nifty “fast travel” function, rather tiresome.
That being said, while travelling between already-discovered locations can get boring after a while, it’s always a joy to discover new locations in the game. There’s no other way of putting it: Fract looks friggin’ cool. It pulls off stunning art direction with a minimal colour palette: purples; pinks; greens; blues; and late in the game, yellows. It depicts towering temple-like structures, alien artifacts, craggy mountains, and deep crevasses, and blends them together seamlessly in the same world. All the while, synthesizers play in the background, adding a flavour that feels eerie at first but eventually starts to feel comforting and warm.
On the whole, Fract is an excellent entry in the first-person puzzler genre. It creates a unique world to discover and explore, but also, more importantly, to learn about and understand.