So, check it: indie dev Cipher Prime has moved their employees to a new office, their website to a new…website, and their games to the bargain bin. For two weeks, at least.
Now through the end of the month, you can nab their ambient puzzlers Auditorium and Fractal for a meager $4.99 apiece. On top of that, both games come with a free MP3 of their respective theme songs, “Autumn” and “Iterate!”.
You already know Auditorium for five bucks is a crazy deal, but what about Fractal? Well, lucky you: we figured this sale would be as good a time as any to post our fashionably late Fractal review. Is it worth your hard-earned dollars? (Spoiler: YES. YES IT IS.)
Fractal is not just Cipher Prime’s second game. It’s also their second foray into the ambient musical puzzle genre. Their last last attempt, Auditorium, won them a publishing contract, numerous awards, massive critical acclaim, and huge hopes for whatever they put out next. So how does Fractal live up to these expectations?
Right off the bat, things are a lot more straightforward this time around. Although it’s far from artless, Fractal undeniably has much more in common with traditional casual puzzle games than its predecessor. The game is played by spawning hexagons to push other hexagons around on a hexagonal field. Your goal is to push these like-colored hexagons into seven-piece hexagonal groups, causing them to explode and you to score points. If you don’t see a pattern to this game yet, you should consult a doctor.
To be clear, “straightforward” isn’t an oversimplication, nor is it a criticism; the game is seriously more intuitive in action than in description, but there’s a lot of depth to it, too. Fractal is one of those puzzle games where you can only initially get away with “faking it”. You might be able to cheese your way through the initial set of levels by just randomly clicking around, but that technique will stop working fast. The old phrase “easy to learn, hard to master” describes Fractal well; this is a smartly-designed game that is more rewarding the better you get at it.
The Campaign is clearly the star of the show here, and is probably the best thing about Fractal. It’s a string of “get X number of clears to pass” stages, but no two are exactly the same. Cipher Prime did an excellent job of changing up the gameplay on each stage; whether it’s a new power-up, unique board shape, or an unusual color-to-color ratio, every level of Fractal‘s 30-stage campaign is distinct and unique. Cipher Prime is not afraid to change up some of the core mechanics of the game, and it’s one of Fractal‘s greatest strengths. Sure, some of the campaign stages can feel a little longer than they need to be, but that’s part of that mode: the campaign feels designed to reward thoughtful, consistent play (see the Last Push Clear anecdote from back in May), and it does exactly that.
“Last Push Clear” is just one of many moments where Fractal proved itself to be incredibly responsive. Virtually every cool move you could ever pull off is individually named. Example: a chain leading into an Electrify power-up is called an Aftershock. A huge one would be called a Massive Aftershock. A huge one that nets you enough blooms to clear the stage is called a Massive Aftershock Finish. This game acknowledges when crazy stuff happens, and proceeds to get just as excited as you are. (Seriously, the screen-spanning call-outs that appear after a good combo are great and surprisingly funny, especially considering that Auditorium was a relatively self-serious affair.)
Speaking of the power-ups, they range in quality from pretty standard to OH MAN. Sure, there are your typical “explosion” and “bonus points” type pieces that show up on the board, but Electrify (an adjacent-color-sweeper reminiscent of the jewel blocks in Lumines) is one of the most satisfying power-ups to use in any game ever. The quantity of power-ups isn’t incredibly high, but the quality is definitely where it needs to be.
Like any good puzzle game, there are a variety of modes to sink your teeth into, and, like any great puzzle game, they all tie into each other quite well. In addition to campaign, the game also includes totally competent Arcade (AKA Nonstop) and Puzzle modes, which encourage completely different types of gameplay than the Campaign. Arcade mode gives you infinite pushes with a time limit, turning Fractal into a twitchy action puzzle game. On the other hand, Puzzle mode gives you a specific situation, a limited number of pushes, and (usually) only one way of solving it, and it’s your job to find the solution. All three modes play radically differently from each other, but the skills you cultivate each will help you out in the other.
Everything about Fractal‘s presentation is top-notch. Graphically, it’s kind of mindblowing Cipher Prime was able to get this much beauty out of what is, at its core, a Flash game. Of course, that beauty comes at a price, and when cranked up to something like 1366 x 768, you might encounter quite a bit of slowdown. However, with a good variety of screen resolutions at your disposal, you’ll be able to find at least one low enough to run the game smoothly. Excellent play mechanics aside, everything about Fractal looks and feels great, and overall it’s one of the most attractive puzzle games I’ve ever played.
The musical side of the game is a little more hit or miss. How much mileage you’ll get out of the soundtrack depends on how much you like ambient-trance-type stuff. As advertised, the music is all highly reactive thanks to the MusicBox audio engine. What you hear does feel intrinsically tied to your progress and performance, and adds yet another layer of responsiveness to a game that is already highly aware of your actions. That said, while the music certainly dynamic, it’s also undeniably a bit repetitive. Admittedly, I did somewhat blasphemously turn off the in-game soundtrack to listen to my own tunes on more than one occasion, but that only speaks to how solid the core gameplay is – it absolutely held up fine. The music is there if you want it and is very impressive, but it’s also not used here as a crutch to prop up a mediocre game (I’m looking at you, Beat Hazard). It’s also worth noting that The sound effects are great, too – lots of tactile slides and clicks that sound completely “right” and never distract or annoy you.
Ultimately, Fractal is a game that is incredibly easy to recommend to fans of single-player puzzle games. Responsive, intuitive, and deep, it’s worth checking out if you’re the type of person who likes your puzzle games both pretty and pretty thoughtful.
Play the Fractal demo here: http://www.playfractal.com/