Review: Fractured Soul

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The tag line of Fractured Soul sums up exactly why this game is noteworthy. It is a classic side-scrolling game that uses both screens at once. In a way, given that the Nintendo DS came out in 2004, it is surprising that the unique hook in this game has not already been done numerous times. What started as a retail title has now become one of the more playable titles on Nintendo’s 3DS downloadable service. The initial plan to put this out on a cart explains why there is a such hefty chunk of platforming and shooting to be done here and how it could possibly take up almost 3,000 memory blocks on your SD card (by comparison, New Super Mario Bros. 2 takes about 2,700). When judged against the other eShop contenders, Fractured Soul is hands down one of the best exclusive downloadables, but when that myopic lens is pulled back just a tad some real problems appear.

Fractured Soul’s hook is that the robot you play exists in two parallel dimensions at once and can shift between these states at will. One manifestation of being is displayed on each of the two screens but the robot can only interact with one at a time. To keep the confusion down, the robot exists at the same point in each reality and his shadow, where he would appear if he were to shift, is reflected on the other screen. The color selection is fairly bland and the enemies are ugly polygonal messes, but the dual dimensions do look different. They have the same basic structure in both the foreground and background, but have distinct individual themes.  One screen might show a space station with stars in the background and the other could show a complex, with the same blueprint but entirely submerged in water with swimming fish instead of stars. It’s a nice touch that helps to distinguish the dimensions and adds a little flair to an otherwise basic presentation. If this had been a better-looking game, it might be easier to ignore some of the problems that arise with the gameplay.

The goal of any level is to get to the door at the end. As with most titles with their level design rooted in the 1980s, your robot runs to the right, jumping over instant death pits and blasting away at the bad guy robots. The different, parallel planes of existence throw a monkey wrench into the standard fare as only certain enemies or platforms will exist in one dimension or the other. If you’re about to get shot, then just shift to the other screen and have it harmlessly pass through your shadow’s chest and then either shift back to fill him full of laser or even just walk right through the enemy. Or, it’s possible that a pit will be impassible unless you shift mid-jump to hit the platform that only exists on the other screen. Things progress along these lines until players are challenged to their utmost to plan ahead and fully account for all of the different portions of the game that only exist on another screen, mere inches away.  To add to the challenge, there are optional secrets to collect that will require problem solving and perfect precision to jump to.

What starts out as an intuitive change-up on traditional platforming eventually devolves into memorization and execution problems. When the game starts and the base mechanic is fresh it is a lot of fun to not see a way forward and then remember “Oh, that’s right, different business is happening on the other screen.” But as the levels increase in their numerical designation, the amount of enemies increases and the same exacting requirements for jumping remain, with more and more ways to die whenever you make a mistake. Eventually, players – if my experience with the game means anything – will not be able to read two level layouts, on two separate screens, integrate them into the only correct sequence of jumps, shots and shifts necessary to proceed, and then actually be able to execute those steps perfectly. Or at least the first time the level is attempted. Thankfully most of the levels do have a few checkpoints, but when it becomes a regular thing to replay the same section multiple times because a shift wasn’t hit at the right time and the robot dude falls to his death, but would have been safe on the other screen, it can get very frustrating. The only factor in how much of the game will be fun is how long it takes for each individual player to start to feel the problems inherent in the dual-screen shifting system.

An online leaderboard shows how your particular run stacks up to the herd. Even those who are completely offline with their 3DSin’ can unlock hardcore challenges that are separate from the main game with the stars accumulated in the main game. Stars are awarded based upon how the game thinks you did at a level. So there is a reason for replay, for both score chasers and people that want to tackle all that this game has to offer. It will be a rare member of club humanity that manages to get all of the stars in every level or go even near the performance of the people at the top of these boards. It would have been nice if the scoring was clearly communicated what factors were impacting a run’s score. I would guess it is whether players get all of the secrets, don’t take any damage and manage to do it quickly, but I could not say for sure.

To be fair, after an initial slew of levels, a fun side-scrolling bullet hell shooter mode appears. This mode is similar to classic Gradius games where a ship the robot enters constantly travels to the right, avoiding all enemies and missiles that swarm in. The space shooter levels start out fairly simple. A horde of enemies appears on the top screen and then after their death the same horde appears on the bottom, requiring a shift in between. As the level progresses, it will become increasingly difficult to stay just on one screen due to the sprays of deadly energy pellets and enemies clogging rapidly diminishing zones of safety, with the only way to escape being to shift onto the somewhat less chaotic screen. The whole thing culminates in a gigantic boss that exists in both dimensions and has to be destroyed in each. This aspect of the game is fun and easy to use across both screens, but it is a shame that this same joy and ease does not continue in the next level when it switches back to the run and gun mode.

It is possible that some people who download this game will have whatever brain physiology that is required to read the different screens, know what is always going on and completely love it. Perhaps it is best played by those who can move their eyeballs independently from one another and create a cohesive sense of the world. This is absolutely going to be game of the year on any website dedicated to reviews for video games for chameleons. Human players will probably eventually get frustrated when the gameplay hook starts to get old. It is very easy to compare this game to classic Mega Man titles, minus the charm and great chiptunes, but even still that is not accurate. In the quest to defeat the Robot Masters reprogrammed by Dr. Wily, it is always immediately apparent how to get from point A to B. Execution was the challenge, but all of the great levels in that series were very clear on how to do it (some of the not so great levels had dead ends, at least Fractured Soul doesn’t have those).

In a well-meaning attempt to be different, Fractured Soul makes the platforming disjointed and difficult to understand. If the presentation was not so dull, it would be easy to recommend. But with the boring and tired look, it is really only worth checking out if you happen to love classic Capcom games and want an additional hurdle thrown in for extra challenge.

TryIt

Pros:
+ Shifting mechanic makes a classic genre a little fresher
+ Controls and character are responsive
+ Lots of levels

Cons:
– Boring look
– Everything eventually becomes a memorization challenge and not a fun game, Simon fans unite

Game Info:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS (eShop)
Publisher: Endgame Studios
Developer: Endgame Studios
Release Date: 9/13/2012
Genre: Side-Scrolling Platformer
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.