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Fractal

(Cipher Prime Studios; US: 29 Nov 2011)

At first glance, Fractal seems to be just another hexagon-shaped color matching puzzle game like Hexic or Bejeweled. And it is another color matching puzzle game when you get right down to it, but it’s a color matching puzzle game that changes the formula while remaining so player-friendly that you’ll never run out of hexes to click.


As you’d expect, the goal of each level in the Campaign mode is to combine seven little hex tiles into a larger hexagon shape to score points. When you do so, the tiles disappear, and you have to get rid of a certain number of tiles to beat the level. What’s interesting about Fractal is that you’re not moving tiles by having one switch places with another. Instead, you “push” the tiles by clicking on a blank space. This causes new tiles to appear around the blank hex you clicked, pushing everything else out one space. And rather than be timed, you have a limited number of pushes, which encourages you to take your time and think about your moves.


The multidirectional aspect that stems from the hex shape causes each push to stack on top of one another. Push some tiles into place to score, and you may accidentally push others out of place on the other side of the grid. You’ll also quickly realize that when you clear one group of hexes, that cleared group disappears with a kind of explosion that pushes out all of the tiles around it. Once you notice these intricacies (there’s no tutorial, just some easy levels in the beginning), Fractal becomes something akin to a strategy game, in which every move can have unintended consequences, and forward thinking is key to victory. This is the core risk/reward dilemma—the more complex chain reaction that you try to create, the more likely you are to accidentally move a piece out of place. So is it better to just focus on clearing one hex group at a time?


Of course, this makes the game sound far more complex than it really needs to. There’s a great amount to depth to its puzzles, but it’s also very inviting for a casual game or two. The difficulty ramps up nicely, properly preparing you for the more complex puzzles, and the introduction of power ups makes life a whole lot easier. However, along with power ups, you also get two tile colors, which makes matching more difficult. Every new twist is nicely balanced; the game never feels too hard or too easy. And when you do get stumped, there are other modes you can still play.


Arcade mode adds a timer, which turns Fractal into a very different game. You can choose from three types of difficulty: The lowest (which I prefer) gives you infinite pushes, one tile color, power ups, and a small grid; higher difficulties take away some of these handicaps while adding hex colors. Arcade mode offers a great change of pace from the campaign mode. If you get tired of staring at a screen searching for that one perfect move, the timer practically demands that you click like crazy.


On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Puzzle mode, in which each level requires that you achieve a very specific goal within a very limited number of pushes. It’s far from the frantic fun of Arcade, but unlike the Campaign, you always know that there’s a solution to the problem in front of you, which is reassuring. The puzzles are separated into tiers, and you have to solve a certain number before unlocking the next tier. Thankfully, you’re not forced to play each puzzle in order. You can play any puzzle within an unlocked tier at any time, so getting stumped won’t stop you from playing.


That’s a constant theme in Fractal, getting stumped doesn’t mean you have to stop. It’s a challenging enough puzzle game that it will stump you at times, but it’s friendly enough to give you plenty of other things to do. Clearly, the developers want you to keep playing. In the Campaign, one level leads right into the next, and you won’t ever see the main menu unless you choose to. In Arcade and Puzzle mode, resetting is as easy as clicking the dedicated restart button. The interface seems designed to keep you away from the main menu where you might be tempted to quit, resulting in a game that never suggests a “right time” to stop. Not that you’d want to anyways.

Rating:

Nick Dinicola made it through college with a degree in English, and now applies all his critical thinking skills to video games instead of literature. He reviews games and writes a weekly post for the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters, and can be heard on the weekly Moving Pixels podcast. More of his reviews, previews, and general thoughts on gaming can be found at www.gamehounds.net.


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