The soft spot I’ve had for indie exploration games has developed into a fully fledged love affair as I continually find myself drawn to games that are light on game mechanics, heavy on atmosphere and use your innate sense of game play to guide you through the experience. I think I’ve come to understand just what it is that attracts me to these kinds of games, they’re essentially the most basic form of what we can call a game. Whilst there’s been examples of this genre which have rubbed me the wrong way it doesn’t take much to convince me a new entry is worth a look in and FRACT OSC from Phosfiend Systems caught my eye with a simple premise: revive a world through music.
You are dropped into a seemingly dead world, devoid of nearly all colour and sound. In the distance you see 3 giant pillars pointing skyward, strange curiosities in this startlingly desolate place. When you approach them however it becomes clear that these pillars have a purpose, and that you have the capability to unlock that. Shortly afterwards the pillars come to life, surging with colour and sound, and you ascend from the depths of a wasteland to another place, a relic of another time. With your help this relic can be revived, bringing back colour and sound to a world that has been long devoid of them.
Like most games of this genre FRACT takes a highly minimalistic approach with much of the scenery being very boxy and jagged, a trademark of extremely low poly work. Typically this is done for a couple reasons, usually time and resource constraints, however I think it’s partially because the whole scene is also run through a sort of scan line filter. It’s not immediately apparent from the screenshots (although if you look at the larger versions and zoom in you can see it) but things like that have a tendency to be very expensive, render time wise. At the same time though the environment is highly reactive to your presence with objects changing shape or illuminating themselves based on your presence. Whilst it’s reminiscent of other simplistic titles like Kairo it does feel distinctly different from them.
Like other exploration games there’s no real tutorial or introduction to speak of (although you could say that the first 3 pillars function as that) and so FRACT relies on your inbuilt game sense to get you going. For the most part you’ll be solving puzzles that are based around a few different kinds of mechanics, all of which have their basis in music and electronic sound generation. Some of them have you moving blocks around, others funneling light through different points in a Pipe Dream style minigame. All of them end up with you constructing a small riff in order to finish them off, with each section having a final sequence that proves to be quite challenging. So whilst a little knowledge of how synthesizers work will be an advantage you’d still be able to figure out most of it by trial and error, albeit taking a lot longer to figure everything out.
For the most part the puzzles are fairly logical in the way they work and whenever you’re stuck it’s usually because you haven’t noticed a particular mechanic that you could make use of. FRACT relies heavily on sound cues for those puzzles which involve fuzzy elements which can be a bit misleading at times, confusing you into thinking a particular sound is meaningful. Still usually it’s obvious enough that you know you’re heading in the right direction although there are a few notable exceptions. Mostly this is to do with the final puzzles that present you with a track selection and 4 dials. Without any indication as to what’s meaningful and what’s not (hint: only one set of inputs is) it leads to a rather frustrating experience, especially since you don’t get any feedback until you’ve almost completed it.
Whilst the puzzles are laid out in a logical order, one that you’ll likely notice if you’re not completely daft like myself, you can actually do them out of order if you know where to look. Now I’m not sure if this was an intended part of the game (and I’m leaning towards no since the only way I could get out after finish it was through the fast travel things) but I managed to do some of the red puzzles out of order by using some of the old “wall walking” tricks and finding a conveniently placed elevator. Indeed whilst this game might come under the exploration genre going off the beaten track isn’t likely to net you any benefit, apart from an achievement or two. It’s a little annoying as the game seems to want you to go down there but rarely does it reward you with anything.
You could say that there was a kind of narrative behind FRACT OSC as the way you interact with the game seems to indicate that you’re reviving a long dormant machine for your own purposes but unlike other exploration games I couldn’t find out how to make FRACT OSC end. Once you’ve unlocked everything, well I assume I got everything due to all the lights being on, there doesn’t seem to be anything else to do. You can go into your studio but that just seems to be a nice little add on to play around with the pads/sequencers/basslines you unlocked. So whilst FRACT OSC is fun to play the lack of a conclusion, at least one that I could find, does mean it feels a little unsatisfying.
FRACT OSC is an intriguing game, combining a minimalist aesthetic with some challenging game mechanics to provide a solid exploration experience. The brutal minimalism does have its drawbacks however as some of the puzzles, whilst on the surface seem intuitive, don’t provide adequate response to your input. The lack of a solid ending as well also makes all the work you’ve done feel somewhat hollow, especially if you don’t have a lot of interest in creating music in the studio afterwards. Still overall it was a pleasant experience, although one I’d probably only recommend to other exploration game fans.
FRACT OSC is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total game time was approximately 4 hours with 21% of the achievements unlocked.