When the DS was new, I was playing it somewhere in public and someone came over and started checking it out. He looked at it, watched me play a little bit, and then asked “Is it difficult to play two games at once like that?” I laughed and explained that the DS didn’t do anything like that, but I’ve got to give it to game developers- it wasn’t long before they started experimenting with the possibilities of that idea, and now I can say yes, it is difficult to play 2 games at the same time. In fact, it’s difficult to play one game on the system when it asks you to split your attention between the two screens at once. But such games are why the DS is such a great system- it’s an experience you can’t get anywhere else. Fractured Soul offers a uniquely difficult challenge as a platformer spanning the two screens, asking you to keep track of platforms, enemies and hazards while also trying to manage the physics of each dimension. It took the developers 8 years to take the game from concept to reality, but the end result is delightfully devious and highly polished- a great entry to anyone’s eShop purchases.
Despite being such a popular genre for indie games and licensed tie-ins, I feel like the platforming genre has been flourishing in terms of difficulty and quality. I’ve always been a fan of the genre- despite a relative simplicity to the presentation, it’s easy for them to introduce new systems and more impossible situations so that after a few levels, the game is the sort of thing only a hardcore gamer could get through. It’s in this proud tradition that Fractured Soul structures its gameplay.
The game doesn’t exactly set you up too easily, though. When you’re starting out, the game presents some simple-sounding rules: your character exists on one screen (which is one dimension), and an outline of him exists in the exact same position on the bottom. Using the shoulder buttons, you switch between the top and bottom dimensions/screens, which you’d want to do because they’re both slightly different. One dimension might have a platform that another doesn’t, or a laser shield, or a closed door, and you have to get through on the other screen. Despite being the first level, it’s pretty easy to start struggling around because it’s difficult to get a handle on the swapping. You’re watching both screens at once, and nothing about the human brain is set up for that. Just controlling the game is a learning experience, so you won’t be surprised when you finish the first 5 minutes above the par time.
It doesn’t take long for the developers to REALLY start screwing with you, though. While the game already gets pretty difficult even as a regular platformer, eventually the dimensions stop having the same properties. One dimension will be anti-gravity, resulting in levels with no floors. Or it will be an area that’s underwater, so your jumps are high there but your speed is super low. The properties switch as you go between dimensions, so in one dimension you’re slower and jump higher while underwater, but the other you move at the same speed, so you have to smartly swap between the two areas to land on the platforms or dodge mines and enemies.
If that’s not enough, the game also throws in some space levels that more or less play like the bonus levels of Galaga. Except that they also take place across dimensions. Most enemies only exist in one dimension, but where the platforming stages have shared health, the health in the space levels is independent by dimension, and it runs down no matter what, only refilling when you kill an enemy. You wind up in spots having to juggle between the two screens to catch a single enemy on one screen even though they’re swarming on the other. It requires a lot of attention, but when you get it done, it’s a pretty blissful moment, especially when it runs the final tally of enemies you killed.
There are the usual groupings of collectibles and unlockables, and it seems like the developers took devilish glee in putting them in places that really make you stop and have to think about how you’re supposed to manipulate the dimensions to collect it. Sometimes you just have to be smart and catch it before you fall to your death, but other times you really have to go out of your way and, probably, die. The end of every level runs down how many stars you get, which come from time completed, damage taken and secrets picked up (space levels, except bosses, rate based on enemies killed). The stars from this actually unlock new levels, and man, if the main game was hard, it doesn’t have ANYTHING on the extra levels. One of the secret levels even has the description “Nothing special. It’s just really hard.” Yeah, you know what you’re getting in to.
I was pretty surprised that this game didn’t do 3D, but it makes sense. If you’re swapping back and forth between the 3D screen and the non-3D one, it’s probably going to mess with your eyes a little bit, and if you’re already too human to ever play this game correctly, that visual adjustment is going to hurt you more.
Otherwise, the game looks fine. It’s not super interesting, but it definitely looks better the original iteration of this game. The sci-fi robot man aesthetic is nice and very clean, though it is a bit generic. The animation is pretty good, too, but the explosions are a little unrewarding. They’re not all fiery and awesome- they’re just weird laser lines. Laser explosions may be awesome in theory but the animation looks unfinished and wonky.
The dimensions have a good, obvious identity, too, so when you walk into a place it’s pretty clear what’s going on with it. It’s all orange and crazy? Of course it’s the lava area that damages you as you stay in. The only one that doesn’t is anti-grav because I have no idea what visual cue you’d give for that. The developers went with “purple.” I guess I can see that logic.
If I have one problem with this game, it’s that the combat is kind of bad in the platforming areas. The enemies take too long to kill and seem like needless obstacles that aren’t fun to get around. They’re just annoying, and it was a huge bummer to get to the end of a level and get killed by a cluster of them at the end, right in front of the door.
Putting that aside, though, this game is laser-precise in its challenge and constant introduction of new ways to deal with the areas. It clearly took a long time for the developers to get any of the areas right- the amount of playtesting it probably took for them to decide to put a platform a few millimeters over is unfathomable. It was completely worth it, though, because even when the game has poisoned my blood and destroyed my mind, it’s excellently crafted and super fun.
I was especially surprised by the new ways they came up with for keeping the flipping concept fresh. Just when you’re getting used to the simplicity of climbing ladders and platforming, there’s a new wrinkle thrown in, and it can make some tired platforming mechanics have some new life. It’s more than a double-jump when I have to do it perfectly timed across two dimension to manipulate my physics and land on something that would be out of reach of I didn’t combine them somehow- it makes even the smallest jumps into challenging puzzles. If the combat were just a little tighter, and if the music was any kind of interesting, it would be one of the best games I’d played from the eShop (right up there with the incomparable Pushmo). Even so, the game does offer a good variety and a lot of challenge. There are even online leaderboards, which is a rarity indeed.
If you can look past the generic space-robot visuals and lackluster combat, Fractured Soul is a fantastic idea for the multi-screened device. The dimensional swapping is a cool way to bring life to some old platforming concepts, and the controls and gameplay are so polished you can feel the dedication the team had to making the game challenging, yet still playable.