Addictive Blooms: ‘Fractal’ Review

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Like any watershed work of art, 1984’s Tetris sired lots of offspring, some more bastardly than others. And it’s been fascinating to see the way the falling block puzzle genre has transformed that since the Russian-born game made the Game Boy a must-have device. Time limits, RPG elements, multiple colors and a plethora of shapes have made titles like Bejeweled and Puzzle Quest blockbuster triumphs in their own right.

It’s too soon to say if Fractal–the new iPad game created by indie development studio Cipher Prime–will join those ultra-successful block puzzlers but it does bring some interesting elements that make it feel fresher than any similar game in recent memory.

The first change is in the shape that players are tasked to make. You’ll need to nudge seven hexagonal tiles into a bloom–a shape that sort of looks like a flower–to clear them off the board. It’s not the easy horizontal lines of Tetris or friendly squares of Lumines, and you’ll need to train your eye to spot the opportunities. The bigger tweak that Fractal introduces is a limited pool of resources. You only get a certain number of moves to fulfill each level’s quota and this creates a radical shift in how you play.

Other games in this genre keep delivering an endless supply of chances to break out of gridlock and you’re strung along waiting for the “right” piece or a magic tile that clears huge swaths of screen real estate. Fractal does away with that, adding an element of resource management that makes it feel leaner and meaner than other Tetris-style games.

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Fractal does other things, too–like having two-color levels but only giving moves for one of those hues–that make it feel inventive and challenging. But some of its tricks make for a tough learning curve. I’ve played Fractal for more than a week in Campaign Mode and have consistently hit bottlenecks where I repeatedly failed to advance. I thought it was just me, until I handed it over to a friend who works in game development. It wasn’t until I wandered over to the Puzzle mode that I realized that’s where the real eye-training necessary to succeed happens. It’s there so that you learn how to create shapes and spaces and how to ration pushes.

The odd thing about Fractal is how it manages to be addictive despite its frustrating opacity. In the Arcade Mode, it’s easy to lose hours blowing down level after level because you have no push restriction and can earn more seconds to the one-minute time limit as you do better. The aforementioned Puzzle mode comes in three different flavors which tweak colors and resource settings according to how masterful you feel.

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The bloom shape that you’re supposed to make can be hard to see in the mosaic of colors on the screen. Not hard to see in a poorly designed way, but hard to see in a re-orienting your vision way. It’s also hard to predict where pieces will float to when you make a bloom using the Explode or Electrify power-ups. You feel lucky but not strategic while playing. And, while that creates an interesting tension, you’ll still need actual strategy to move forward and it’s hard to formulate one with as much randomization as Fractal has baked into it.

Despite all of that, Cipher Prime’s latest title does feel, well, fractal. You feel caught up in a loop of naturally occurring patterns that feel mysteriously organic. Devilishly designed to tweak the standard match-three, color-combo puzzle game template, Fractal walks the line between minimalism and mystery. You keep playing because of the sensation that some part of your brain will figure the mechanics out eventually. The fact that things only click occasionally may make it a little aggravating to play, but no less rewarding.

Official Techland Score: 8.5 out of 10.

Evan Narcisse is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @EvNarc or on Facebook at Facebook/Evan.Narcisse. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.