Review by SneakTheSnake

"Split bodies, split worlds, split opinions."

I want to support smaller developers. I really, really do; these days, I'm more likely to buy a game from a small developer than I am from a bigger developer. Perhaps it's just the way my gaming winds are blowing, or perhaps it's the desire to fuel smaller companies whose influence, finances and resources are typically much lower than those of the big boys. Fractured Soul is one of the more recent 3DS download-only titles, and it's action-platformer that may be worth a look.

It's another one of those titles whose development I've followed ardently. Like other “unsung hero” titles whose troubled development I've followed - Flip's Twisted World, The Kore Gang and now Fractured Soul - this platform / action hybrid is a labor of love. It's also a title that, perhaps because of its “fractured” development cycle, has its own share of issues. I almost gave up on the game because of a ridiculous difficulty spike, but it may just be worth it for the action / platforming junkies clamoring for a game that's “Mega Man hard”.

The set-up is that you play as a character trapped in a space station (at least as far as I can tell), and the game is a chronicle of your escape through its forty levels. The gimmick to this platforming title is that your character exists in two planes of existence at once and has the ability to switch between them at will. You'll have to switch constantly between one plane and the next, as there will be hazards and obstacles on each different screen. In later stages, one plane of existence will apply a special set of physics or other such conditions (icy platforms, high temperatures which could lead to overheating, or the entire place could be submerged underwater).

You run, jump and blast your way through several dozen levels, collecting secrets along the way. The occasional shoot-'em-up level breaks up the action, and the game ends with a rather interesting final boss (which, based on its difficulty, should have qualified as a mid-game boss).

I don't mean to mislead you if you feel the game comes off as bland based on my description. Fractured Soul truly is an action-packed title with an offbeat gameplay mechanic, the occasional puzzle and challenge aplenty. It's not that the game isn't exciting, but there are issues with the game that I feel are worth mentioning.

Chronos Twins, Divergent Shift and now Fractured Soul: three games which use this “world-flipping” mechanic on the very same system for the same effect. Fractured Soul then, although being in development longer than the other two (I can only imagine), is the third game of its kind to supply this kind of gameplay. Don't let that deter you, but the concept is not as original as some may believe. That's not entirely where I feel the game is faulty; the difficulty and physics are really what made me almost put the game down.

Your character's physics feel off. He falls like a rock for some reason, which makes jumping, an already difficult task because of a lack of momentum, a real chore. It's hard for the character to maintain a quick running speed or to get a good, clean jump off a cliff. He'll fall quickly, which leaves you little time to find a platform below you. This is especially bothersome during vertical platforming. The platforms in some sections seem to be placed as far enough apart so that you can still reach them with no wiggle room left over.

That, coupled with the inherently difficult stage designs in the latter third of the game, make Fractured Soul a chore to play at times. There are stages where you'll be forced to move at a breakneck pace, others where you have limited time to react without getting harmed or killed, some parts swarming with enemies (in a game where health packs only appear at random), and others still where the physics will be a little off, thus forcing you to rethink your strategy every few stages.

The stage names are fitting at times: in one of the stages (called “Suffering”, or “Torture”, or “Despair” or something like that), there's a platforming gauntlet which has you jumping upward, from platform to platform, in an area whose upper screen is so overheated that your character can only stand about fifteen seconds there without taking damage. This annoying situation occurs while platforming upward in an area where, on one screen, there's lava flowing downward You can't get hit by this column of lava, of course, so you must stand at the edge of each ledge, jump perfectly, switch planes of existence in mid-air then land on increasingly higher ledges. The margin of error is nearly non-existent, and this whole thing is going on while the high temperature is sucking away your life force if you stay there too long.

When the game gives you time to think through a situation and strategize, Fractured Soul can be fun. The shooting stages, while kind of bland, act as nice act breaks and provide some rather average shoot-'em-up boilerplate. However, in instances such as the above example, Fractured Soul feels extremely unfair. Forcing a character through a platforming gauntlet under a constantly-beeping timer (because you're slowly dying) in a game with weird physics is not a rewarding challenge to complete; you likely won't feel a sense of accomplishment of being offered a just challenge. You'll win despite the challenge, as if the game were cheating against you, and you slinked away somehow.

It feels that way with the bonus challenges too. Each stage can be completed as a speedrun, or at least the developers intend it to be that way. Beating the level's par time requires playing through the level pretty much without dying, because the game tallies up your time each time you die. Collecting secret icons can be fun and rewarding, but their placement is also highly suspect of being cleverly devilish or unfair to the point of near-unobtainability. As such, you may want to forget playing through the tougher bonus levels which pop up after the campaign, because they require getting near-perfect times on each stage and collecting all the secret icons as well.

I somehow made it to the end of the single-player campaign, but I feel my odds were against me. Fractured Soul is indeed difficult, but I had a heck of a time trying to tell if the game was completely fair. Be warned that, as you approach levels 25 and over, you may want to throw your 3DS against the wall. However, despite all that, I indeed like Fractured Soul; I find that there's a certain gritty charm to it and that the game has some flashes of inspiration and fun to be had.

The graphics may be enough to convince you that the game is worth a purchase. Fractured Soul indeed looks good; I've heard it takes up more space than Nintendo's own New Super Mario Bros. 2 and will therefore have to be downloaded onto an SD card (the game's a little over 300 MB, according to the developers). That said, it's indeed the prettiest title on the 3DS downloadable service and, while that's not entirely saying much, I would still compare it to 3DS retail releases. The 3D models are impressive, and the stage designs are truly detailed and beautiful. Take a look at the snowcapped pillars of the ice world, or the ripples in the water of a space station entirely submerged, or the red and orange hues of the firey inferno your character must traverse. Take a look at the menacing aliens who are out to get you, the thrusters which emit from your character as you jump from platform to platform. Fractured Soul is abuzz with greys and navy blues, but the game's intentionally gritty atmosphere complements the bleak and dreary doldrums of our protagonist's situation: being hopelessly trapped in a space station drifting indiscriminately through space. Positively eerie and atmospheric at times.

The music is also rather good. The techno-ey soundtrack somehow fell in well to the atmosphere and gameplay. They should have hired a different voice actor for the character's grunts and death screams, though; it's clear it was this amateur's first voice acting job. Even without this positively horrendous vocal performance, I feel it would have worked better had the character remained silent. Better than having this B-actor make a fool of himself.

There is replay value in Fractured Soul in the form of leader boards and unlockable stages after the single-player campaign. The former is a nice touch, and so is the latter, though the stages I have been able to unlock are somehow even more difficult than the ones in the campaign. The game's expectations of me are entirely too unrealistic given the game's difficulty and par times for me to attempt to unlock further stages, though.

I ultimately can't recommend Fractured Soul. The gameplay has some shimmering moments of good, and though the graphics will blow you away for a 3DS downloadable title (because the bar is so low for 3DS Shop graphics in general and because Fractured Soul looks good without this comparison), Fractured Soul has a difficulty that borders on the masochistic. The biggest blow to the game is how much Nintendo thinks it's worth. Shame on them for charging such a ridiculous price for Fractured Soul. I've played many downloadable games - Mario vs. Donkey Kong for the DSiWare comes to mind - with great content, nice graphics and excellent gameplay for several dollars less. Fractured Soul is robbery, and Nintendo should really have thought twice before offering such a blasphemous price.

If you followed the title and aren't too hard on price, then Fractured Soul is a game which certainly came out reasonably well through its long and arduous development cycle, but it is certainly not better off because of it. If the game's difficulty had been toned down a bit, had offered a semblance of a story in the form of cutscenes or (professionally done!) expository in-game dialogue and had meatier physics, this game could indeed have gone down as a gem. As it stands, it is an excellent game only when compared to other games on the 3DS downloadable games service and is merely a slightly above-average game on its own.

Reviewer's Rating:   2.5 - Playable

Originally Posted: 09/24/12

Game Release: Fractured Soul (US, 09/13/12)

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