Endgame Studios bounced back from setback after setback during Fractured Soul's development. Originally planned for retail release on the first generation of Nintendo DS hardware, Fractured Soul finally makes its debut on the 3DS eShop – a haven for bite-sized platformers. As the most costly and largest download in the store (next to New Super Mario Bros. 2), players would be wrong expecting the experience to match. Among the relentless difficulty and shoot-'em-up sequences, the inventive dual-screen swapping marks the only commendable feature of this ordinary platforming experiment.
Fractured Soul claims to be “old-school,” though a more appropriate term would be “bare.” The campaign drops players into a basic tutorial stage with no context beyond alternating dimensions (switching screens) and double jumping. I also had no idea the protagonist carries a firearm until I watched pre-release trailers. The story skimps on the details, but precursory mission logs reveal one fact: players control an Entity, whose model number increases with death. This cyborg-humanoid-soldier must escape multiple space stations succumbed to environmental dangers. The mission briefings posit so many questions that the developers never answer. What is the relationship between these elaborate space stations? Why two dimensions? Who is this Entity?! The main character is short one origin story, and that goes double for the enemies. No explanation can be given about the rival droids or why they want your body stuffed and mounted.
Those laser grids instantly kill your Entity.
Action occurs on both screens, which represent tears in time. What exists in one universe may not exist in the other, from hostiles to platforms to energy fields. When your character’s body is solid on one screen, a ghost takes his place on the other, but they move parallel to one another rather than independently. A tap of either shoulder button transfers the Entity’s solid state between realities, which players navigate to the end of each level.
Got that? The lower screen remains uneventful in comparison to the dangers on the top screen. The same space station that the Entity trudges through on the bottom display finds itself submerged in water, frozen in ice, or precariously floating in pools of magma on the upper screen. These factors comprise Fractured Soul's difficulty. You must switch screens to leap onto ledges and ladders that appear in a specific dimension while avoiding the pitfalls inherent to the surroundings. Although the Entity's ghost form can walk through barriers just fine, his physical body cannot. The first few stages play it safe with the challenge, never throwing players into a situation they cannot outwit.
That changes once the environmental hazards take over the space station. The bottom screen is static, with nothing except adversaries to flesh out the gray settings. Meanwhile, mother nature loves to trifle with the upper character’s movements. Icy winds give players that extra push for longer jumps, and water slows the rate at which the Entity falls. You cannot remain in the upper dimension long when lava’s about, lest the soldier’s suit reaches critical temperatures, so switch to the lower screen to let his armor cool. These perils would not be so difficult to manage if not for the dimension swapping often required mid-jump. During the snow levels, for example, you need to leap from a ledge on the bottom screen, switch displays so the freezing gusts give you the distance, then swap back immediately where the actual platform lies. You must complete this task in less than a second. Start training your mental reflexes.
Inverse gravity adds an extra layer of complexity for your brain to comprehend.
When platforming on one screen, the controls handle precision with care. And for the most part, swapping dimensions mid-jump works without fault. Yet I still ran into instances of falling through ledges because the game did not register the character’s solid form during hasty leaps. Initially, Fractured Soul checkpoints well, and you’ll respawn at the beginning of the current platforming section. However, those checkpoints space themselves out farther once the level count reaches double digits. One stage demands you ride a moving platform from one side of the area to the other as it ducks under ledges and you eliminate enemies on immovable walkways, all in one sitting. The journey lasts a mere 60 seconds, but falling to your death restarts the lesson in anger management. Every. Time. Less frustrating, though no less annoying, are the checkpoints that reset gamers within range of the droids’ targeting lasers. Distracted players will lose several bars of health this way.
At a certain point, the next ledge becomes unobtainable – reflexes not fast enough, the mind not sharp enough, concentration not focused enough. I hit the breaking point at level 16; Fractured Soul contains 30. I will never look upon the final boss outside of screenshots because I cannot meet the game’s demands. Just removing hostile automatons from stages would lift a load from my shoulders. I never reached the inverted gameplay sections either, where the upper screen’s gravity shifts the combat to the ceilings.
As creative as the stages sound, the developers label many levels with depressing names: Blame, Isolation, Despair, Remorse, etc. Is this a video game or an aspiring photographer’s photo gallery? As mainstream as the world names may be, the stations themselves are even more generic. The plan to release Fractured Soul on the original DS shows. This may look gorgeous for an N64 title, but the developers are at least a generation behind. Players traverse a gray space station underwater, a gray space station buried in snow, and a gray space station in a volcano.
The space combat breaks up the gratuitous platforming.
The most thrilling part of Fractured Soul has nothing to do with platforming. The Entity eventually takes to a spaceship for several shoot-’em-up sequences. Instead of dodging enemy lasers, you must also destroy their ships to keep your dwindling life bars alive in both dimensions. Think Ikaruga or R-Type, only with an extra screen and less hair-pulling frustration.
The reality swapping mechanic should be enough to recommend Fractured Soul – it isn’t. If precision platforming and comparing level completion times on global leaderboards can coax $12 from your eShop wallet, find a 3DS and start downloading. That said, there’s no internal drive to keep other gamers playing once the agitation becomes too much. The generic settings lack notable diversity, the lifeless story forgoes any character depth, and what enjoyment could be gained from the platforming is sucker-punched by the insensitive difficulty curves. Fractured Soul shows promise, though its many faults wait to stick a knife in your back.
Publisher: Endgame Studios
Developer: Endgame Studios
Release Date: September 13, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: Nintendo 3DS (Reviewed)