Being a human is hard enough just having to contend with life inside your flappy, baggy skin. It’s a life that is made even more difficult when having to manoeuvre around all the little challenges it can throw down your gullet. Sometimes even the simple things to tackle day to day turn out to be skin twistingly annoying. Regularly I’m left in a screaming puddle in the corner at the choice of whether to have bourbons or fruit shortcake with my beverage of preference.
So usually for most of us trundling through the mortal coil we like to avoid any obvious fluctuations to our rhythm. Life is a lot prettier when you shove choice out the window and wait around until someone tells you what to do. It is annoying though when something comes along that is so unavoidably the result of every trying, difficult and awkward moment that I have ever thrown through the window! Fractal it turns out is very much a delivery of all that dust and palaver but surprisingly it turns out that examining all these experiences couldn’t be more addictive.
Fractal is the latest release from indie games developer Cipher Prime. The team of two from Philadelphia already have the audacious sensory experience that is Auditorium on their roster and are now adding to that supreme experience with their new title Fractal, which, not surprisingly does borrow a few elements from Auditorium but is quite truly a unique occasion in its own right.
Now for the first annoying thing about Fractal; trying to describe the bloody thing. What is to you and me sections of Nectar is to the guys at Cipher Prime, Fractals. The aim is simply to make blooms out of the hexagons you have on screen. The Blooms you make then explode and scatter across the screen, pushing out nearby fractals to different areas of the playing map thus scoring points and progressing on through. It will remind you of Bejewelled and Tetris in how it plays – it’s simple but intuitive – however unlike those simple up down left right games of collection, Fractal is more complex in comparison to these relatively unimpressive puzzle games.
The main Campaign mode is 30 tumultuous levels of mind twisting areas. There is little to no tuition here other than what is scrawled pleasantly on the playing area and like a burnt in coffee ring the scribbles give you an idea of what it is you must do to get through and I half expected a skeleton to appear on one level, as I thought this game must have driven someone to death with its limited guidance. The lack of tuition though is not the most crushing thing about the game because all these touches make it a pleasantly refreshing title that is very easy to play but almost impossible to master; and in my mind made even more impossible by the lack of any ability to save most of your progress from level to level, meaning that you have to make it through the first ten levels of the title to even get to the first save point. This is not to say that you can even fail one level and begin it again refreshed and eager because when you fail there is no option but to go back to level one and start again. What makes this even more difficult to contend with is that if you could remember exactly what you did to get to latter levels in the first place you wouldn’t mind so much having to back track a little.
In Campaign you are not limited by time which gives a wonderful freedom to Fractal, meaning that you can really take your time to plot your moves. Whereas this freedom does make things a little less challenging, you are limited by the moves you can make. Pushing your Fractals in the right places to either create new blooms or be in a position to collide with fractals that are blown apart from one bloom is the key and this is where it all starts to get a little hectic. Fractals generate and disappear in a rate of seconds and trying to compose something on one side of the playing field more often than not accidentally sets off another bloom on the other ruining all your efforts, however many gamers will relish the strategy this game requires you to play with. A world away from the heady reactionist puzzles of old, Fractal has grace, demanding your time and ultimately your patience.
Things in Fractal are a lot more measured and detailed in the Puzzle mode, where the gaming mechanics are used to their full potential. Things here seem like a sauna and steam rather than the iron maiden of the campaign. Puzzles are devilish and so well designed that you’ll be grinning like a cheeky school girl when you set up chain reactions stretching the entirety of your monitor screen. This is where the game is also better explained so when you step again in to the Campaign you’ll most likely have better awareness of what on earth is actually going on with Fractal, after a few hours in Puzzle mode things in Campaign will seem a lot less like random boundless nectar navigation but more of a devious destruction conducted all by you.
What makes this game so addictive is a mixture of some very, very clever gaming mechanics and style and also its relationship to gaming elements around it. Utterly encouraging through text, bright on screen colour palettes and smooth textures, music also plays its part in delivering the experience. The gentle twinkles of keys begin the show then pick up to bound and beat along when you are charging along, to comparatively crawling tempos when you start to run out of steam and run out of moves. It’s a relationship between player and aesthetics that might just be worth playing the title to experience, but it fits in so well it’ll probably go mostly ignored.
It’s a wonderful ‘rapport’ that sums up how Cipher Prime creates their games to reflect different stages of emotions whilst playing. It’s a symbiotic title of gratification and downright discomfort that something this addictive and pleasurable shouldn’t be so awkward and trying. You won’t always be aware you’re having fun whilst playing Fractal, but trust me, just like sado-masochism, though you’ll be frustrated to tears at some of its painfully implemented elements, it’s so addicting that you’ll always come back for more.
MLG Rating: 8/10
Platform: Windows (Mac) Release Date: 26/05/2010
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a digital copy of Fractal for review purposes by the promoter. The title was reviewed over the course of five days on a Windows PC. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.