Author: Rory Young
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Sunday, September 16th, 2012
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Games/Reviews/fractured_soul/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.
Cracking open and starting up Fractured Soul, I expected frantic combat akin to old school side-scrolling shooters like Contra. Instead, Fractured Soul delivered an experience much more focused on platforming, but unlike any other title readily available.
See, the game innovates by using both Nintendo 3DS screens to create two parallel worlds which are swapped between freely with the click of a button. The resulting gameplay mixes swapping between these two worlds with a variety of interesting platforming mechanics involving underwater, frozen, extreme heat and anti-gravity environments. Oh, and lasers... freaking lasers everywhere. Add in some mild side-scrolling shooter action and this puzzle-platformer becomes as frantic a game as I initially expected, a blister building, button mashing title that the eShop so sorely needed. Fractured Soul is an ultimately flawed, but compelling downloadable title from Endgame Studios.
The entirety of Fractured Soul is based around this dual screen/parallel world concept, which sounds complicated but is actually quite simple, and in practice is hair-pullingly difficult to master. Basically, the character can only be on one screen at a time and with the press of a button will swap into the exact same position on the opposite screen. The worlds on each screen are asynchronous, dissimilar, featuring different obstacles, platforms and enemies. This is where Fractured Soul derives its puzzle and platforming nature, and combat takes a back seat but never at the expense of intensity.
This multi-screen gameplay, at least initially, will create a dissonance that gamers will be completely unfamiliar with. Sure, it's not like DS games haven't been utilizing both screens since the DS initially launched, but never have I experienced the need for such hand-eye coordination in a game. Luckily, Fractured Soul does a good job of tapering the difficulty upwards, from easy to difficult and then difficult again twice over. Early levels will focus on simply leaping from platform to platform, alternating between screens. Then the hand-holding disappears and the top screen goes through a number of significant mechanic changes, including an underwater environment which slows the protagonist but allows them to jump much higher, to an anti-gravity section that forces the player to hop between screens and change the direction of gravity at the same time. Fractured Soul is straight up insidious in its classically inspired difficulty curve, but it deserves much respect for experimenting with the 3DS tech and making a solid game out of it.
Unfortunately, Fractured Soul's innovation doesn't excuse the many, often egregious faults. Foremost, Fractured Soul doesn't do enough to help a player's eyes make the shift from screen to screen naturally. There are two graphics in particular can ruin a lot of of level playthroughs. The first is it creates a "clone" body, a translucent model on the screen the player isn't active on. In the thick of things, this close is simply not different enough to help direct the player during intense moments with lots of shifting. Second, the shifting animation itself creates a large blob-like blur, along with rays of light that are not related to which direction the player shifts. The result is that it's much more difficult to create precise movements when the exact places the player shifts to and from are in a cloud of white. Cleaner design with respect to the shifting would be worth its weight in gold.
Other "clean design" problems proliferate. Certain graphics, due to their pixelization, create imprecision in platforming and combat. The double jump's second jump is slower and less responsive than the first. Gun blasts going behind certain platforms, as opposed to in front of them, causes random damage. Simply put, either Fractured Soul didn't receive enough polish time, or these design issues were simply deprioritized when they shouldn't have been.
Still, perhaps the most frustrating moments in the game aren't due to design issues, but instead come from those age old headache-causers: checkpoints. There are two levels in particular, called "Pits," where the developers decided there would be no checkpoints -- that the levels had to be completed in their entirety in a single run. I don't know who thought this was a good decision, but I don't like them. It was during these levels that I almost set the game aside out of pure frustration, and I doubt that was the developer's intention.
An unspecific criticism I have for Fractured Soul's gameplay is its balance between platforming, puzzles and combat. Fractured Soul is at its best in high intensity platforming moments with plenty of shifting between screens. When it slows down and encourages players to search for hidden items, or sticks a few enemies in the way just to make the player have to deal with them before moving on, the game isn't fun. I attribute this to a lack of a focused direction, perhaps best shown by the unnecessary and unfun space flight levels and bosses, and the poorly done level evaluation system. Many portions of the game feel forced in, often in direct contradiction to the fundamentals of the game that make it enjoyable. For instance, I know you can do boss fights, Endgame, after all the final boss was great. So why make the other bosses part of the underdeveloped SHMUP levels? That's not what anyone is playing Fractured Soul for.
Oh, and before I forget, the game seems to have a really interesting story that has to do with a space station, parallel worlds and the main character's growing insanity. At least, I think it's interesting, because it's told through loading panels that disappear as quickly as they show up and it's difficult to tie everything together. These story prompts also involve a death counter (I finished the game as Entity #288), which ties into the above themes, but since Endgame didn't see fit to dedicate much attention to it, maybe I shouldn't either.
Despite its flaws Fractured Soul still stands as one of the best games available on the Nintendo eShop. The screen swapping, even with the graphics issues and my personal difficulties adjusting to the asynchronous gameplay, is a unique mechanic that is both challenging and fun. The game's strongest moments are during high-intensity platforming involving swapping between screens, and weakest when it adds combat to the mix -- or the game turns into a SHMUP. Luckily, most of the game is focused on these intense physics puzzles, as it should.
Overall, Fractured Soul shows a lot of potential. If Endgame Studios can clean up the gameplay so it complements the swapping mechanics rather than detracts, sharpen the edges so platforming isn't so punishing, and scrap and reinvent the game's level evaluation system to encourage and reward players as opposed to belittling them, then the Fractured Soul franchise could have a bright future. As for now, Fractured Soul is an exiting idea with an unclear direction on a platform where it can thrive. I'll recommend it for 3DS fans, but don't say I didn't warn you.
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