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Fragmental: Smash Bros. Meets Smash T.V.

By Rich Stanton on at

Ruffian Games’ Fragmental marks a new way of working for a studio that, as described in our Britsoft Focus piece, had spent years working on concepts and nearly-finished projects that never saw the light of day. In August 2015 the studio’s key figures got together to plan the way forward.

“We sat down in a meeting room,” says Billy Thomson, creative director at Ruffian. “And I think over a good few days, it was like, ‘Right. Go away. Come in with ideas,’ and everyone around the table was just throwing ideas. I mean, some of them were awful…”

“A lot of them were awful,” laughs Martin Livingston, producer and designer at Ruffian. “I seem to remember it was myself who put the first idea of Fragmental forwards…”

Thomson finishes the sentence. “And we all just went, ‘Rubbish!’ His idea, right, was ‘Let’s go back and remake Power Stone,' which is a single-screen game with four players. And everybody was against it. And then it got kind of mangled in the design meeting, until a point where one of the guys said ‘What about, like, multiplayer Hotline Miami?’ That’s cool. Single-shot kills, kind of really fast rounds, that top-down view, twin-stick shooter controls. That’d be cool, let’s try that.’”

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Something clicked, because Fragmental is cool. Available now on Steam Early Access, the game is a local competitive shooter for up to four players - with two substantial updates scheduled before the game is ‘finished’, after which Ruffian says it’ll add an online mode. While that would be great, Fragmental is the kind of game you really want to play with someone in the same room. Most rounds last seconds. Entire matches take a few minutes, if that, yet within them contain grand arcs of triumph, epic comebacks, and endless pratfalls.

There’s something to the ‘multiplayer Hotline Miami’ elevator pitch, especially with the more traditional guns, because at the core of Fragmental is one-hit kills with any weapon, and super-responsive twinstick controls. It’s hard to communicate just how blisteringly fast the game is, and your first few rounds will probably not go well. But as soon as you’ve re-adjusted to this twitchy rhythm, and engaged the arcade shooter mindset, all bets are off.

But the comparison only goes so far because Fragmental starts to really soar when the weapons get weirder - and the constantly-switching rules keep you guessing. Fragmental’s rounds mix up the game’s weapons, with certain being especially well-suited to themed encounters: the disc gun bounces off walls, for example, so four players in a mazey bit of geometry with those are as likely to kill themselves as each other. ‘Suicides’ even turn out to be an important element of how scores tot up - the default way to play is first to 10 frags, but falling off the arena or blowing yourself up strips one away. So every so often there’s a sumo round, maybe a circular arena or a nest of thin platforms with a repulsor gun in the middle, and the last one standing will be the only one whose score doesn’t decrease.

Fragmental has guns, boy does it have guns. There are the pistols, the shotguns and machine-guns and assault rifle equivalents - then we get into more interesting stuff like spread guns, grenade launchers, power fists, repulsor beams, the spinner, snipers, heatseekers, the swarm (which fires a dozen proximity mines at once), the starburst (a slow bullet that explodes into sixteen bullets when it hits a surface), the redeemer (a rocket controlled with the right stick while you keep moving with the left), and the driller (which disappears into walls for a split-second before shooting out the other side). The cross beam lets you set up laser grids across the maps, while wildfire lets you just set parts of it on fire. There are many more and the whole point is you’re switching between these very different tools at a dizzying pace.

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In the same way that, regardless of what the pros say, Smash Bros. is a much better game because of all the silly weapons and stage effects, Fragmental’s quickfire mixing of its weapons, arenas and rulesets gives every match its novelties. Arenas can be large and open with sightlines and cover, tiny meat-grinders, round circles, configurations with moving platforms, maze-like deathwarrens and small strips of floor suspended in the sky. And the rules aren’t some dry bit of text at round start, but things like the level suddenly tilting in one direction, every player’s controls getting reversed, or super slo-mo mode - all of which can happen at any time mid-round and are announced dispassionately with a robotic voice.

The fact everything is underpinned by such solid fundamentals is what makes this exhilarating rather than frustrating, with your brain re-wiring itself to deal with new weapons and possibilities every five seconds. Yes, sometimes it’s all too much and you lose a round because you hadn’t worked out what to do fast enough. But far more often you get into the swing and start just charging out of the blocks, full kamikaze mode, knowing that faint heart never won fair frags - and what’s wonderful is that, when you start really going for it, Fragmental just keeps picking up the pace.

The game remains a doddle to control and understand despite this frenzied character. At a recent Kotaku UK meetup we had Fragmental set up for four players, and anyone who had a go was able to pick up the pad and get straight in - even if there were a few more suicides than usual. It speaks to how well Ruffian has nailed the basics.

“Even when it was just pistols, no machine guns or anything, it was fun kind of ducking and diving,” says Thomson. “Barry Cairns, our technical director at the time, just kept adding in new weapons. Every other day there’d be a new weapon and, each time it happened, the game just got a bit better. There were new tactics, new ways to play, and the thing we were really conscious of as we were developing, because it was really rapid prototypes, was always, ‘Just make sure you’re improving it every time you add something. Don’t add something for the sake of adding it,’ because that’s bullshit. That’s just random variation. We always want everything we add to give you another angle on how you play. So that was the approach. And to be fair, we never threw much away.”

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Another outcome of this process is the visual style and its slight Tron vibes, which gives all the information required but also positively pops off the screen. It’s a striking game - even if at first the idea was a little more high-concept. “The one thing we struggled with with Fragmental was the setting,” says Thomson. “At the beginning it was all, like, real-world settings, I had this idea where it was gonna be based in hell, right? [laughs] So you were in hell, and all the levels were crime scenes. So it would be, like, a bank job that went really badly, and you’d be playing in this, like, real-world environment where the edges of the world are all flicking off and breaking and stuff, and there’s all dead bodies lying everywhere.”

“It was always like that at the start, a murder scene or something like that. It was way too fucking heavy and dark. The main issue that we were having was we couldn’t make characters and weapons read well on a busy environment. So if it was real-world, in order to make it real-world you would just look around, everything’s different, and when you make everything different you can’t make your characters pop so that they’re recognisable. The only thing that was important was, ‘Who am I running away from or I’m trying to track, and what way are they facing and what way am I facing?’ They were the most important things. And it was all getting lost in real-world environments.”

I’ve referenced the speed of development with Fragmental a few times, and the best way to illustrate this is that after that August 2015 meeting, the game was released on Steam Early Access in February 2016.

“One reason [for that] was just to get the game out, because it was a funny thing for me,” says Thomson. Another of Ruffian’s cancelled projects, which had gone quite far along, was called Tribal Towers - which was later part of the Square Enix collective initiative under the name Game of Glens.

”Towers went so far and then because we couldn’t get a publisher we lost faith. So I was really keen on getting this out there, because once it was out there it would look bad for Ruffian to stop development. So for me it was like a safe way for the game to go out and for us to, like, we’ve put our name on it. We’ve got to finish it. And that was one of my reasons for getting it out there. The second one was to get it out to hopefully get some feedback, get some people playing it and kind of, like, get a better, kind of, back and forth. And another thing as well is it means that once you’ve got it out, it’s a solid playable prototype, if you do want to get a publisher involved you can just give them the game.”

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Fragmental is available now on Steam for the trifling sum of £10.99, and Ruffian is currently working on the two updates that will finish it. “They’ll take us through to Version 1, and then the update after that, what I would like to do is get the game to the point where we’re happy with everything that’s in it, and then get an online version of it as well. So it’s update 5 coming next, brand-new game mode and 25 new maps as well.”

And update 6 is the polish? “It is,” says Thomson. “For us it’s the final pass of saying, ‘Here’s Version 1. It’s done. We’ve done all the stuff that you would expect a professional studio to have done.’ I mean, we are an indie team, we’re small, but we’ve got to make sure that we’ve ticked all the boxes and done everything right, and then after that we’ll make sure that we’ve got online play, because we’ve always promised we’re gonna do online play.”

Everyone wants online play, it’s certainly not a bad thing, but as with Nidhogg you wonder if Fragmental will shine so brightly when you can’t see your opponents. This game is perfect for couch contests between friends because, for all the twisting rules and funny weapons, it really gets the pace of competition right. There’s no time to feel bad about dying - because you’re right back in. No time to glory in victory, because the next round’s started. Fragmental is non-stop boom boom boom and, when you can nudge a pal to emphasise what a beauty that shot was, it has explosive impact.
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Check out our Bristoft Focus on Ruffian Games here - it's a cracker.