In the years before its popularity skyrocketed, minimalism would be scoffed at as basic and unappealing. But just look at it now: Many indie and triple-A developers make minimalism one of their core project guidelines, hoping gamers’ reactions will be as positive as the reception was for minimalistic games like thatgamecompany’s Journey and Flower. Phosfiend Systems is one developer that has attempted to do just that with FRACT OSC, a first-person puzzle game where the player manipulates the components of music itself: sounds.
FRACT begins with you landing on a platform in a semi-dark world filled with areas that have giant lock icons on them. I’ll admit, it’s not until I finished the first of several “puzzles within puzzles” that I figured out what these areas really were (more on that later). Once you interact with the main game portal (which took me awhile to find), you are transported to the actual game world of FRACT.
Once you arrive in the actual game world, figuring out what to do and where to go is totally up to the player. Other than learning how to interact with and solve the puzzles that advance you in the game, the developers left it to the players to set out on the basic premise of the game: explore, interact with, and rebuild the sound-based world around them.
What do I mean by sound-based? This is the truly beautiful part of the game that sets it apart from other puzzle games. Throughout the parts I managed to play, every puzzle involves producing sounds by either shifting sound blocks or by routing circuits to power giant synthesizers that are then used to allow the sound wave to propagate (pass).
An example of one of the puzzles is where there is a synthesizer that the player manipulates, which controls a set of gate doors that must be synced just right to allow you to pass under them when they rise. Otherwise, the player gets smashed and will respawn at the controls. Don’t worry, though, no need to restart from a save point if you get smashed or fall into the endless abyss, since respawning is “free” and inconsequential. The synthesizer controls are simple, just a set of columns, where you must select one row per column, but the catch is that you need to figure out which row controls which gate door. The order of the columns corresponds to the order and timing of when each gate door is activated and rises. Each row corresponds to a specific sound, and each gate door opens when the sound wave hits it from an row of stereos behind the synthesizer you use (in the picture below, the row of stereos is behind the camera itself).
Solving each of these puzzles builds up to getting access to a higher, what I assume to be the final, area. I write assume because at the time of writing this review, I was not able to finish all three areas in the game. However, each area, with its own color theme (blue/cyan, magenta, and green), is distinctly vibrant, enhanced by FRACT’s simple, but beautiful, graphics. FRACT, similar to the Tron franchises’ style, has a cyber punk feel to it, minus the graffiti of course, mostly because of the neon colors that permeate almost every area of the game.
Despite the occasional moments of not knowing where to go next or for that matter where to start in the first place, the controls of FRACT make figuring puzzles out fairly intuitive. The movement of your mouse (or touching the touch pad) serves as the game’s camera control, with the outline of a circle helpfully saying this is where you’re looking or going to move the camera to. The arrow keys (or the W, A, S, and D keys) control movement. Holding down the space bar allows you to run. Interacting with the sound puzzles is simple: click and/or drag. Of course, being a game about music, the music is the main attraction, accentuated by the gameplay that allows you to manipulate it. There’s an entire other control scheme for if you sync/connect an Xbox controller to your computer.
As mentioned earlier, you control and make sounds and music by interacting with the world. Do you remember when I mentioned the “outside of the main game” areas? Well, whenever you finish one of the circuit synthesizer puzzles I detailed earlier, there is an alert banner across the top of the screen that indicates that one of the studios in the outside of the main game area, called The Studio, is unlocked. As the areas’ name indicates, The Studio allows you to put together your own customizable music through in-game unlockable features and mixers.
Although I didn’t dabble in it myself, almost every aspect of the sounds you combine into music is manipulable through three sets of tools: first, three synths (instruments) each controlled by lead, bass, and pad controls respectively; second, a step sequencer, used to write the passages (A.K.A. patterns) that the synths play, and each pattern is made up of steps (notes); third, a pattern sequencer, used to arrange the patterns into compositions (songs) that the synths will play, and also can be used to choose which parts of your song are being played, looping, what plays next, and how the song plays. You can even export and upload your recordings and songs to YouTube.
A protip: If you want all unlockable Studio tools, go to Studio Settings and click Unlock Studio. Another protip: To get a leg-up in how to use which of the tools available in the Studio, be sure to open and read each tools’ description in the game manual through the properties page by right-clicking on the game in Steam and selecting “FRACT OSC Manual.”
Other than these Studio options that might extend it, had I been able to finish the game all the way through, I would approximate the total gameplay time to be around 4-5 hours in my case. In terms of replay value, unless you hate trying to redo a puzzle you’ve already beaten, FRACT ranks pretty high in my book, with each puzzle captivating me with its deceptive simplicity while simultaneously confusing and frustrating me, even when the same theme/motif is repeated throughout the circuit synthesizer puzzles.
In short, FRACT OSC embodies the motivation behind music-making itself: exploring and expressing yourself through sound while occasionally stumbling and getting lost along the way, but nevertheless making your work of art in the end. The world is creative, albeit a bit bland, but never boring. FRACT is an imaginative experience that we recommend you make an endeavor on.