It’s that age-old story: girl enters cave, girl stumbles across glowing orb, girl accidentally opens gateway which shatters her essence into dozens of pieces. We’ve all been there. In Fracter, you need to reunite those lost parts of your being — both light and dark — by exploring the cave, pressing buttons, and manipulating light. Why did this happen? How did this happen? I’m still not entirely sure. Opaqueness is high on the list of Fracter’s qualities. Whether that’s a positive or negative depends on how much metaphor you’re willing to stomach — but the puzzles underpinning the negligible story may win you around.
The first thing you’ll want to do is turn out the lights. Fracter isn’t a scary game, even if the skittering of the shadow creatures that make a beeline for you on all fours might initially set your nerves on edge. No, the biggest challenge you’ll face is working out where the hell you’re going. The monochrome landscape you navigate is a mix of Limbo, Monument Valley and M.C. Escher, which is all fine and dandy if you played the original game on a super bright mobile screen. But on this PC port, trying to find a staircase amidst the gloom when you’re being chased around similar looking corridors is another matter entirely. Whacking up the brightness might kill a smidgeon of the game’s atmosphere but it’ll make for a far less frustrating experience and is something that I would highly recommend doing.
The game starts simply enough, pointing you towards the spectres of light you need to absorb, or highlighting the buttons that need activating to open the next doorway or manipulate a nearby platform. Fracter approaches the puzzle genre in true modular fashion: you need to solve each individual level before moving onto the next, taking with you everything you’ve learned up to that point.
The collection of aspects of your “light” self is an optional goal on each level, with many tucked away down secluded corridors or in hard to reach areas. The main puzzles you need to solve to progress involve manipulating light through refraction — whether via mirrors, movable light beams or sliding platforms — or pushing blocks into chasms to trigger switches. Using either the mouse or a controller, you can remotely rotate or lift key elements around, and later on physically push them backwards and forwards to position them correctly.
Dark avatars stalk around each level and either need to be avoided or lured into the light to be destroyed. They march up and down basic AI paths so are rarely more than a minor nuisance, but what proves more troublesome is your field of vision. The glowing orb that accompanies you illuminates your path ahead and the light-generating machines required for puzzles offer further respite from the darkness, but otherwise you’ll be squinting to find the next path. As levels increase in size and the camera zooms out to give you an overview of a section or an entire map, the dizzying task ahead of you might feel daunting. You don’t need to collect all of your light essence to finish a level, but when you miss one and realise that it will require a monumental effort to backtrack to get it, your commitment for total completion may waver.
The puzzles are cleverly designed, with just the right level of complexity to keep you scratching your head until they’re solved. The satisfaction of hearing the grating of stone as a block slides into place or as another pathway grinds slowly open will likely be a joyous sound for the casual puzzle fan. But for all the short bursts of dopamine, there are equally, ahem, fractious moments, mostly caused by the pervading darkness. At times it’s near impossible to work out where you’re supposed to go. I took five minutes feeling my way around the periphery of a room I hadn’t realised I’d solved, only to stumble up a staircase which I hadn’t seen open.
These kinds of missteps rob the player of some of the satisfaction of cracking a particular tough challenge. The degree of difficulty doesn’t increase evenly either — some of the later rooms took me a few seconds to work out, while a few of the earlier ones had me pushing and pulling floors around for minutes on end. The puzzles where you have to guide a stone cube around a maze are the dullest, making you manipulate and rotate platforms as you go before forcing you back on yourself. Conversely, refracting beams of light off mirrors and into power cubes are the most satisfying to solve, not least because you can actually see what you’re doing and the degree of trial and error helps you learn as you go.
At times I wondered if the lack of clear navigation at times was deliberate. Was the game making a point about light and shadow, not finding your way, becoming lost? Were the moments where I was feeling my way around rooms created that way to make a specific point? I genuinely wasn’t sure, and the otherwise sparse environments and haunting music were effective enough to add to that confusion, as were the brooding rhyming couplets and epigrams accompanying your entry to each level. Fracter certainly wouldn’t be the first game to sacrifice a portion of clarity on the altar of metaphor, but doing it in a less clunky manner would have been preferable.
Push through the murk though, and you’ll find an engaging puzzler. The checkpoint system is sympathetic, the challenges generally satisfying and the aesthetic stylish. Just don’t spend too long trying to figure out the plot.