Fractured Soul tried to auto-correct itself to soul-crushing in my word processor, something that can seem oddly appropriate at times when I’m playing it. It is unapologetically retro, demanding that its players not only play well, but play well for long periods of time without a break. Don’t get me wrong, the checkpoint system is more than fair, but this game does not tolerate your complaining or your limp-wristed play style. You knuckle down, learn the awesome dual screen system, and play like your life depends on it, or you go back to playing Disney’s Cars with your three year old nephew; wondering where your life went wrong.
It’s been a long journey for Endgame Studios, but the long development cycle for Fractured Soul has resulted in a cool game with a neat system. The most important part of the game is that it takes place on the top and bottom screen of the 3DS at the same time. Your active character is in one section while a ghost character occupies the same space in the other, and you can switch between them freely. The first couple of levels do what they can to get you used to this fact, as this simple-sounding mechanic results in some of the most devious platforming I’ve played in a long time.
I was warned (several times) by Endgames Studios’ own Grant Davies that the 3DS version of the game plays on the default hard difficulty unlike the PC version that’s in the works, but you don’t shy away from a little challenge, do you? You’re probably thinking the same thing that I was: that you’ve played hard games before and can handle whatever this game can throw at you. I thought I knew better than the developer after I was flipping back and forth over the different screens in the PAX East demo. I thought I was hardcore, and you probably will too.
The first couple of stages aren’t all that difficult, and are just built around getting you used to maneuvering your robot character. Controls are simple but tight, with moving, shooting, and jumping being all you’ll need or want to do besides switching your location. You can fire the gun really rapidly, something that was just fun to do, especially when firing six or seven shots into an enemy just as it was coming onto the screen. The jumps weren’t all that bad either at this point, only requiring me to periodically switch to the other screen because there wasn’t a platform on the screen I was on. That’s typically how a lot of these starting puzzles work, only requiring that you look to the other screen when your path on one screen comes to a halt. No platform in sight? It’s probably just a hop away on the other screen.
But then it’s not, though. It’s a gradual climb after the first few levels, but the difficulty soon begins to creep up with alarming speed. At first, some of the platforms only existed on one screen, but were far enough apart that I’d have to jump and switch screens in mid-air to land safely. After that, some electric barriers were thrown in at uncomfortable angles, forcing me to switch from one screen to another and then back again in order to make a safe landing. Soon, you’re timing a switch to happen in the middle of a jump, then using your double jump and another switch to bypass defenses just to land on the next platform in your path. It requires a lot more thought than I’m used to with my platformers, but it all looks so cool in motion that I wish the game had an instant replay so I could watch the crazy stuff I’m expected to do.
When you start to feel you’ve got a handle on that, the game starts throwing curve balls at you. This is where the game gets incredibly interesting and intricate, as some areas have one screen underwater, making your character able to move slower but jump higher in those spots. At another point, the stages are covered in snow and filled with wind that pushes you in one direction or another, forcing you to use the wind to your advantage or to think about how it might screw you over at the end of your next jump. Both of these areas had me stopping and thinking for several minutes on end as I examined each of my jumps. It’s the kind of game where it’s best to examine your approach and think about it a lot before you hit that jump button; something I learned the hard way quite a few times.
Soon, even planning your moves out in advance becomes a luxury. At one point the upper screen is filled with heat, enough so that you have a meter that counts down until you take damage. Best of luck taking some time out when that meter is running out. This game loves to change up its mechanics every few levels, forcing the player to adapt and change on the fly. It never feels like you get to settle into any one mindset while playing it, so I always had to be thinking and planning, staying fluid and rolling with what was to come.
Like I said, it’s fairly kind with its checkpoints. Well, mostly. If this game had been made with more modern sensibilities in mind then there would probably be twice as many checkpoints in it, as the game tends to expect you to complete at least two challenging areas before it grants you a checkpoint. It’s not going to tell you that it gave you one, either, something that left me scared to lose a life for fear of what I’d have to repeat. The game didn’t send me very far back except for a few extremely difficult areas, but it’s nothing that a little practice and memorization can’t get a dedicated player through.
It can get pretty hairy in places, though. I really like the two screen mechanic, but it’s something that takes some getting used to. I would often hop around on one screen, completely forgetting to verify where I was going to land on the other screen. There were other times when my brain had a hard time keeping up with all of my screen switches and I’d end up sending myself to a clumsy, useless death. It can be a lot to keep track of when things get really difficult, but I found it to be challenging instead of infuriating. The game never really feels unfair with what it asks of you, but its demands are unique to its interesting gameplay mechanic and it’ll take a lot of practice to get through some of the harder areas.
If the constantly changing gameplay tweaks weren’t enough to keep you interested, the game also has a few ship shooter levels in it. These stages play like some sort of laid-back Gradius, not often being terribly difficult to get through so long as you can keep up with the waves of enemies on both screens. Oh yes, the two screen mechanic is still in place, requiring that you jump from ship to ship to get through. As an added kicker, if you don’t shoot any enemies with one ship for too long it’ll run out of power and explode, so you have to make sure you’re bouncing between the ships and killing enemies. There were some huge bosses in these areas that required you to use some of the skills you may have picked up from playing bullet hell shmups, but never anything even approaching the difficulty of those kinds of games. These areas were still challenging, but to be honest I found them kind of relaxing compared to the frantic jumping.
Maybe you think I’m crap at this game, though. Maybe you’re thinking that you could do all of this stuff standing on your head. Well, the kind people at Endgame Studios have you covered, having placed secret items in all sorts of places where it would be absolute suicide to grab them. Again, those items come fast and easy at the start, but you’ll still find yourself laughing at them as you pass by the later ones, wondering who would be crazy enough to grab them. A lot of these areas are hard enough without managing a tricky jump to grab the collectible, but it’s still there for players who want to challenge themselves. There’s also a timer running during every level, pushing good players to get through the levels in record time. This game looks downright elegant when a good player is flying through its traps, so I can see a lot of appeal in it for speed runs.
It doesn’t look too bad, either. The various areas don’t have a lot going on in them, but this is more to keep from distracting the player when you’re already trying to watch two screens. Important items are often a bright color and stand out, allowing the player to know what they are with only the barest glance. Enemies are done up in similar colors, typically in the opposing color of whatever screen they’re contained in, so that they pop right out and can be dealt with. They’re pretty small on the screen, but during the few times I could take a longer look at them I found they were pretty neat. They seem to be covered in various metallic parts, all of them easily distinguishable for combat and looking like intricate machines.
I was brutalized in this game, just like Grant warned I would be, but it always felt fair. The game asked me to do some difficult things, but it was still generous enough with the checkpoints that I could get through with persistence. The game required practice and a steady hand, but in exchange you could do some truly crazy jumps that I’ve never seen in any other game before. It’s got a unique play style all of its own, and is something that really needs to be experienced by players who don’t feel challenged by platformers anymore.
Fractured Soul is available on the 3DS E-Shop, and currently needs your votes on Steam Greenlight for its PC release.