The machinery is old and silent and the world looks dulll, with very little sound and not a lot of light. In the center of everything is a giant device with three paths radiating out from the center, color-coded pink, blue and green. With any luck the world isn’t dead, just sleeping. Maybe with a bit of exploration and some applied brainpower the machinery can be set right. The worst that can happen is you’ll take a lovely walk through the fantastic designs and untextured polygons that make up the world of Fract OSC.
Fract OSC is a puzzle game that plays a bit like the combination of Myst and Proteus. From the Myst side of things there’s puzzles to be found, some that require poking at things in a smaller area and others needing pen and paper to jot down clues so they’ll be available when you’ve wandered to the section of the game where you’ll need them. On the Proteus side you’ve been set into a world filled with lovely scenery and given no direction, so you might as well go exploring. There’s no plot to speak of, but rather a world that invites you to solve its mysteries, and while that world may be a bit sterile and impersonal it’s also filled with gorgeous geometries, sweeping views, and lights that dance through the caverns and sky.
The “sterile” thing is a bit of a problem, though. Pretty as the game is, the puzzles feel cold and the music isn’t particularly engaging. The three paths each have their own style of puzzle, iterated on several times and getting more complex as you go, and the final puzzle in each area is unique and requires information gathered on the path there. Lovely as the land is, and knowing Fract OSC is as much about the exploration as the puzzle solving, I was still left wanting the occasional pointer in the right direction, especially when backtracking to look for a piece of information I didn’t realize I should have written down. There’s an internal logic to where things are hidden, tied into the transporters that you can use to zip from place to place once you’ve unlocked them, but even after learning the game’s thought process some of the vital clues still feel like digging a needle out of a haystack. The walk through Fract‘s terrain is pretty but the feeling of wandering aimlessly until bumping into the next piece of information can take the fun out of exploring.
This isn’t helped any by needing to switch to puzzle-vision. Normal walking is nice, but the puzzles need a right-click in order to be both viewed and solved. Once in puzzlevision the controls change from standard FPS viewing to using a cursor, which is much nicer for hitting buttons, but the puzzles will be invisible until you look for them. It doesn’t take too long to know what to look for, but there’s always that nagging feeling that maybe there’s something else. “Is that something?” *click* “Nope” *un-click* It’s a system that almost, but not quite, works to simplify the different needs of the two control types, but instead ends up being slightly cumbersome.
The oddest thing about Fract OSC, though, is the difference in feeling towards the game when playing and not playing. It can be hard to start up when not in the game, looking more like a task to complete than a game to play, but once inside the beauty of its world works its magic and, even when you just want to find the next clue, makes you look around and soak in the details of the world. As the machines come to life energy beams race their glowing colors across the terrain, shooting up into the sky in amazing vistas of light and sharp geometry. Whether high up in the air on the pink path looking down into the depths, or deep in the green area’s caverns below a crack in the ceiling through which you can see pillars of light shooting into the sky, Fract OSC all but forces you to stop and soak in its art design. Once you’ve traversed its paths and gotten a better feel for the layout the single unified level isn’t quite so big as it first seemed, but instead is packed with paths, side-areas, giant drops and soaring heights, connecting caves and cliffside paths, and lights and sounds everywhere.
If you’re tired of exploring, though, back at the main menu is a sequencer that lets you play with the music to your heart’s content. Fract‘s music is nowhere near as memorable as its visual style, but the sound is still an important part of the game and many of the puzzles are trying to get the player more comfortable with the idea of “music as toy”. Half of the puzzles are sequencer-based, and by the time you’ve solved the last one the main menu’s more complicated machinery is far less imposing. It also helps that the whole thing is locked down at game’s start and each solved puzzle opens up a new part of it, so by the time the entire monster is revealed all its pieces are familiar.
It’s hard to wholeheartedly recommend Fract OSC, because while technically it does everything well, something in it doesn’t quite gel in the way one would hope. It’s a beautiful game with a unique art style, a nicely intricate world to explore, and some good puzzles to solve, but somehow it also ends up being a bit aimless and sterile. If you can approach the game with a forgiving nature, however, there’s sights to see that will stay with you long after the small piece of willpower necessary to push on has been forgotten.