Fractured Soul was supposed to be a lot of things during its long development cycle. It was first supposed to be a retail game on the Nintendo DS. When Nintendo started to slowly shift its focus to the Nintendo 3DS, the game changed its target platform. When the original publisher wasn't financially able to support the project anymore, the developers took it upon themselves to publish the title on the Nintendo eShop. That's a good number of platform changes for a title that wasn't exactly on lots of people's radar. While so many changes should normally serve as warning signs, the end result is quite the opposite.
There is a story somewhere in the game, but it isn't very easy to comprehend. From what can be gleaned from the press release, you play the role of Entity, a robotic life form that has been forgotten in a seemingly abandoned space outpost. Without warning, the outpost is attacked by hostile forces, and while you could try to wipe them out with brute force, your most logical course of action is to escape.
Although the tale isn't exactly gripping, the title doesn't do itself any favors by presenting it a few sentences at a time on loading screens that only last a few seconds. For fans of old-school games, the lack of a lengthy narrative is a plus since it gets them into the action quickly, but those looking for a story will be disappointed. If there is one thing that the sentences are good for, it is to keep track of your death count throughout the game. It's cleverly done by giving you a number that constantly counts upward as Entity progresses and perishes.
At first glance, Fractured Soul is your typical run-and-gun platformer. Entity has a basic shot that can dispatch enemies, and he also possesses a jetpack to assist him in double-jumping. Though his weaponry isn't that diverse, he can climb ladders and traverse overhanging pipes. In a few of the stages, he even has the ability to transform into a ship, giving the platformer brief flirtations with being a classic side-scrolling shooter. As in most platformers, Entity has to travel through different environment types within the outpost, including underwater, wind and reverse gravity sections.
The difference is the use of dual dimensions via the system's dual screens. Entity's unique ability is to travel through two different dimensions, represented by the upper and lower screens, with the press of a shoulder button. More than a gimmick, travel between dimensions is necessary since some elements in one dimension are completely absent in another. For example, going over a pit presents a few of the floating platforms on one dimension and a few others in the other dimension, all conveniently placed so that switching dimensions is necessary to traverse the gap.
Dimension-switching is also necessary for avoiding enemies in one plane, and the same goes for other barriers, like force fields. One thing the developers toy around with is the idea that different conditions exist in the separate dimensions, and some puzzles take advantage of this. For example, switching to the water dimension to jump would mean making higher leaps in the regular world, and switching dimensions to take advantage of gravity shifts would mean leaping over impossible obstacles. It's inventive and very satisfying when you use that form of rule-bending to beat a level.
When taken as a run-and-gun title, Fractured Soul isn't that great. Entity only possesses one weapon with one power level, and its range is limited. The projectiles can travel across the screen, but you can only shoot horizontally and there's no way to aim vertically or diagonally. Entity is also limited in regard to projectile avoidance. He can double-jump fine, but it can be considered quite low when compared to similar heroes, and his ducking feels useless since enemies always aim for the middle. Some of these enemies also seem to have near-perfect accuracy with their weapons, and with no way to recover lost energy, you never feel like you have an advantage in combat. If this were the emphasis of the game, it would be a rousing disappointment.
The game really finds its footing, however, as a speed run platformer, and that is further emphasized by the online leaderboards. When you ignore the sometimes-unnecessary combat in favor of pure platforming and dimension-switching, the title really finds its rhythm, though there are still some difficult combat scenarios. It can still be hectic switching your vision between both screens, especially if you're playing on a 3DS XL, but trying to find your speed lines through each level to obtain a high ranking and open up the challenge levels makes the game play out better than expected since fighting is no longer the focus. The level sizes are also smaller than expected, making it perfect for quick gaming bursts. If you approach the game like a side-scrolling Mirror's Edge or a dimension-switching Canabalt without the automatic running, you'll see what makes this title appealing.
Aside from the mediocre shooting, the difficulty level is about the only complaint with Fractured Soul, but even then, it only pertains to people who aren't used to old-school-style challenges. To be fair, most of the levels have a good number of checkpoints sprinkled throughout, and the short nature of each level means that you won't be spending too much time going through a marathon of difficult sections before reaching sanctuary. There are, however, a few levels where checkpoints don't exist, and as tricky as some of the regular levels are, the unlockable challenge levels can be nightmarish. The difficulty is in the same vein as Super Meat Boy, though much trickier because of the dimension-switching, and those who dislike challenges won't enjoy this title very much.
Graphically, this is fairly good considering that it was originally developed for the Nintendo DS. Both the designs for the enemies and Entity are done well, even if they are a tad generic, the backgrounds and particle effects are quite nice, and the frame rate is very solid throughout. The texture work is nice but drowned out by the nearly monochromatic look of the levels (minus the energy barriers). Although Entity's corporeal form in an unoccupied dimension is helpful for gaining your bearings, it looks like a solid wire blob instead of anything ghostly. It's not representative of what one expects from a retail release, but for a downloadable eShop title, it's one of the more impressive graphical efforts to date. One interesting thing about the title is its lack of 3-D effects, another sign that this was essentially a port of an original DS title. The lack of 3-D is actually beneficial since it means you can switch screen focus without adjustment, but it is odd to see a game made for a 3-D-focused console without any actual 3-D support.
The sound is simply there. The effects are standard ones you'd expect in a sci-fi setting, and nothing special can be said about the explosions and laser blasts. The music is nice, but the tempo and vibe of each track is so similar that it almost sounds like a single repeated track for every level. As for voices, all you get are the death cries of Entity when you expire, and while it isn't ear-piercing in terms of volume, it's a sound you'll grow to hate because you'll hear it so often.
The concept may no longer be original, but Fractured Soul still boasts some great gameplay. The dual-screen mechanic is put to good use and handled well when you consider that not too many games have toyed with the hardware setup in this manner. While the shooting is decent — though uninspired in some levels — the platforming is pretty good, and the emphasis on speed-running with a dimensional twist makes this a welcome challenge for die-hard side-scrolling fans. Though it could have used some work on the presentation, the challenge is old-school and very satisfying once you pass a troublesome part, and the game is of a decent length that is further strengthened by the presence of online leaderboards and very difficult challenge levels. For gamers looking for unconventional platforming that's both tough and rewarding, Fractured Soul fits the bill nicely.
More articles about Fractured Soul